Taylor Swift Gets Clean, Hits Reset on New Album ‘1989’
The Nashville ex-pat washes herself in the depths of '80s pop on her least-personal album to date
It takes all of about two measures to begin to get a sense of how much of a departure 1989 is for Taylor Swift. You might have read Taylor’s quotes about her fifth LP being her “first pop album” and rolled your eyes at her pretending she hasn’t predominantly been a pop artist for at least a couple of albums now, and you’d have been thoroughly justified to do so. But she’s never been pop like this — 808 handclaps, twinkling synth staccatos, pulsing low-end. This isn’t just pop like you hear on the radio in 2014, this is pop like the Human League imagined its future to be three decades ago. You don’t need to get to the chorus of “Welcome to New York” to know that we’re definitely not in Nashville anymore, and unlikely to return anytime soon.
Taylor has approached the marketing campaign of 1989 like an artist desperate to shed her current public perception. At face value, that seems more than a little bit odd, as said perception is one that most pop aspirants would sell their souls to have. Swift’s last album, 2012’s Red, sold 1.2 million copies in its first week, spawned a number-one single on the Hot 100 (her first), made countless year-end lists, and kept Taylor as the top-of-the-list headliner for just about every major musical event of its year-long promotional cycle. Taylor Swift isn’t just the gold standard for pop success right now — amidst crumbling album sales that might end with her moving more copies of 1989 in its first week than any other 2014 LP has all year, she practically IS the music industry, or at least an unhealthily large percentage of it.
But despite Red’s commercial performance, the album seemed to catch her at an awkward transitional point in her career. Musically, the album was overstuffed and uneven; a whopping 16 tracks that shuttled between modern Top 40 flirtations (“I Knew You Were Trouble,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”), twee folk-pop (“Stay Stay Stay,” “Everything Has Changed”), singer-songwriter confessionals (“All Too Well,” “I Almost Do”) and even an album-closing olive branch to country radio (“Begin Again”). It could be transecndent, like the soaring “State of Grace,” or almost unbearably mawkish, like the Gary Ligthbody (of Snow Patrol) duet “The Last Time.” It wasn’t quite schizophrenic, but it was definitely confusing.
More importantly, though, Red also saw a Taylor torn between embracing adulthood and holding on to her status as the cooler and wiser (but only slightly older) big sister to her young teen fanbase. The implied sensuality of “Treacherous” (“I’ll do anything you say / If you say it with your hands”) meshed uncomfortably with the sleepover sing-along chorus to “Back Together,” and though Swift might have shouted about feeling her titular age in “22,” the actual song and video felt a good half-decade younger — especially when compared to Miley Cyrus’ contemporaneous, much more dangerous “We Can’t Stop.” Throw in her heavily scrutinized real-life relationships with the underage Harry Styles of One Direction and the actually-still-in-high-school Conor Kennedy, and it was hard not to get the sense that despite being past college age, she hadn’t quite gotten being a teenager out of her system yet.
With all that in mind, it’s a little easier to see why Taylor Swift might have sought some kind of clarity in the nostalgic escape of 1989. The lip service paid to the “limitless possibilities” of ’80s pop when discussing the album’s inspiration turns out to have been something of a misdirection, since the framing device actually serves Taylor best by giving her a sense of focus badly missing on Red. The album is never cartoonish in its nostalgia for an era the singer was barely alive for, but the density of the production, the rush of the drums and many of the lyrical hooks, and the general sense of breathless intimacy does give the album a distinctly ’80s feeling, even if its sonic callbacks are rarely as explicit as the opening to “New York.” (After the listening party where I first heard 1989, an older reporter told me that the album reminded her of listening to Debbie Gibson albums in her room when she was growing up, which is probably the review Taylor would most want to read of this album.)
That’s not to say that the album necessarily feels out of time, however. The most impressive thing about 1989 is probably how Taylor is able to maintain the ’80s pop veneer for virtually the whole album — only the breezy-but-slight acoustic romp “How You Get the Girl” and the red-herring lead single “Shake It Off” are holdouts — while also showing the clear influences of such modern hitmakers as Lorde (“Blank Space,” subtly anthemic like all of the best Pure Heroine tracks), Sia (bonus track “Wonderland,” which even features Taylor seemingly attempting the Aussie’s unique vocal inflection on the chorus), and Jack Antonoff of fun. and Bleachers (“Out of the Woods,” co-written and produced by Antonoff and just as transfixingly manic as “I Wanna Get Better”). It wouldn’t fit in next to any of Taylor’s old stuff on the radio, but it’ll fit in fine just the same.
The real shift for Swift on 1989 isn’t musical, though. No, the most profound effect of Taylor making her Period Album isn’t in her embracing the ’80s, but in her losing herself somewhat in period production. The emphasis put on the soundscapes for these songs — unprecedented for the singer/songwriter — results in her lyrics occasionally getting buried under the synth swooshes, but for the first time in a long time, the majority of Taylor’s lyrics don’t really demand your attention anyway.
Swift has always separated herself from her pop peers with her uncanny ability to write and perform a lyric that pierces through the morass of Top 40 overplay and still hits hard after dozens of listens. There’s a unique specificity to her songwriting that smacks of personal experience, that leaves you wanting to know the story behind everything in her words — even gifting you a couple of hints to help better guide you there. On 1989, however, such clues are few and far between, and most of the songs have a vagueness to their storytelling that makes not only their subjects ambiguous, but even the person singing about them. To put it succinctly: This is the least Taylor Swift album of Taylor Swift’s career.
For instance, take “Bad Blood,” a song that Taylor teased in a Rolling Stone interview to be about a fellow pop star — surmised by most to be fellow John Mayer ex, Katy Perry — who “did something so horrible…I was like, ‘Oh, we’re just straight-up enemies.'” Most fans would be licking their chops in anticipation of the seamy details in the song to follow, but “Blood” is disappointingly bland. Not only does she not explicitly name Perry or anyone else, but there are precious few of Taylor’s trademark particulars to provide any kind of direction as to the subject, and in fact, the whole thing is couched with “baby” and “mad love” references that make the song sound more about a romantic relationship than a broken friendship. For a woman who once claimed to do nothing better than revenge, and who once called Mayer out in the very title of her most excoriating break-up song, it’s stunningly inoffensive.
Much of 1989 follows this general path, eschewing the gory details of Swift’s recent relationships — a couplet about an automobile crash and “20 stitches in a hospital room” from “Woods” is the only obviously direct reference to Styles, and you’d still need the previoulsy mentioned RS interview to decode that — in favor of the more generalized approach of songs like “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” a fantastically catchy end-of-relationship lament which could be about Styles but could also be inspired by just about anyone else at any time. Taylor’s narratives are still compelling, but they lack the rawness that once made them singular, and a good deal of the urgency as well — the most crackling Taylor gets on 1989 is on the hiding-from-the-paparazzi ode “I Know Places,” hardly her most visceral subject matter.
Although it’s hard not to miss the fire-breathing Taylor Swift of “All Too Well” and “Dear John’ — hell, even of “I Knew You Were Trouble” — it’s understandable why she’s so conspicuously absent here. While “Shake It Off” is misreprentative of the album both in its skronky neo-soul swing (which sounds as jarring landing smack in the middle of this album as you’d expect it to be) and its ripped-from-the-tabloids lyrical protestations, it does go pretty far to explain why she doesn’t give the liars or the dirty, dirty cheats that much exposure on 1989. Taylor has said that her whirlwind lovelife has been mostly put on pause recently, and her doing so — her talking about her doing so, certainly — seems to be largely about not giving the press or her critics any more ammunition than necessary. With 1989, Taylor really is trying to shake off those haters and players, realizing that she has more fun dancing on her own anyway.
It’s also the adult thing to do. While Taylor continues to blanch at explicit content in her lyrics — she probably cares too much about her younger fans to ever even risk a Parental Advisory sticker, which is why lyrics that start off as provocatively as “Lights are off, he’s taking off his…” still end with the anti-climactic “coat” — there is a sort of maturity on display in the stateliness of 1989, further reflected in the growth of Taylor’s objects of affection: She’s gone from admiring high-school dreamboats and loser indie snobs to taking note of the “new money, suit and tie” (“Blank Page”) and appreciating it when he “keeps the picture of you in his office downtown” (bonus track “You R in Love”). Even “Welcome to New York,” as much as it displaces Taylor musically and geographically, is just as much about her entering the next stage of life: The girl from Speak Now’s “Never Grow Up” dropped off by her parents in the big city, has finally learned to ditch her night-light and embrace the “new soundtrack” of actually stepping out into the world.
As much of a statement of intent as “New York” is for 1989, the record’s definitive song is probably its closer and arguable highlight, “Clean.” Co-written and produced by British songstress Imogen Heap, the song tells of Taylor attempting to wash herself of a bad relationship — set up like a rehab stint, referring to herself as “ten months sober” — and celebrating the ultimate realization, “I think I am finally clean.” The song is unusually moderate for a Taylor ballad, never really swelling from its steady tempo, medium volume, or lovely music-box melody. It feels like Taylor at peace, and while the lyrics would have you believe it’s about a single relationship, it sounds more like she’s more coming to terms with who she is and where she’s at in her career and her life. (Even the album’s liner notes, summarizing the supposed man-woman drama of the whole LP, seem to confirm this, reading: “She Lost Him But She Found Herself And Somehow That Was Everything.”)
What Swift really accomplishes with 1989 is to totally shake the Etch-a-Sketch on her career to this point. The album closes the book on Taylor’s first 25 years, officially saying goodbye to the country scene that birthed her, to the unfiltered teenage love-and-heartache songs that made her a star, and to the TMZ dramas that made her equally omnipresent outside of the pop charts. Whether she goes further back in time from here or decides to walk unafraid into the future is up to her (and we’ll likely find out another two years from now), but Taylor can rest easy knowing that she has afforded herself the luxury to make her moves up as she goes.