Taylor Swift may be one of the last remaining pop artists on the planet to be able to sell a million albums in one week in the United States. The record industry has been hemorrhaging since the early aughts, but Swift has been adaptable, to say the least. She's a hustler, keeping her spirits and sounds current with the room temperature.
She started in 2006 with country-core self-titled set, then worked her ass off through the gazillion-selling “Fearless,” the Grammys on “Speak Now,” the massive crossover of hits like “I Knew You Were Trouble” and novelty “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” off of “Red.”
The 24-year-old is firmly pop now for “1989,” which will breed more certifiable radio staples than just “Shake It Off.” “Blank Space” is apparently primed to be the official second single and it is an experiment to say the least (read the track-by-track below). “Welcome to New York” has legs because, well, New York City odes; “This Love” needs to make it's way to Adult Top 40, a la Sam Smith's “Stay With Me,” and roost.
The common strings that runs through “1989” is Swift's image consciousness; shocks of lush synths; and the blight of the speak-sing. For the latter, there are scads of bridges and pre-choruses on which Swift resorts to little raps or conversational asides, where more literate vocal gymnasts like Ariana Grande, Sia, Jessie J and Beyonce would suss out as prettier fills.
But Swift is deft in other ways. She combined with heavy-hitting (and -handed) songwriters like Max Martin, Ryan Tedder and Jack Antonoff to make her very adult and pop-centered metamorphosis complete. Break-ups and flirtations still dominate the subject matter, but now they're bigger, and take more chances, burning away the memories of Swift as a barefoot-girl-with-guitar.
Below is a closer look at the effort, frame by frame. All those chances she takes? Don't always work. “1989” isn't a great album, but it's a good one, with lots of promise and further proof that Swift and her team figured out how to be the zeitgeist just by closely following it.
“Welcome to New York”: Will survive for eternity because of every TV talk show, morning show, awards show, and New York-based sports event. With generalities like how New York is “like any great love, it keeps you guessing,” you're like “Whatever Taylor Swift, you've lived in a $22 million loft for all of five minutes.” Cloying, grandiose, simple. Grade: B-
“Blank Space”: If this song were a human person, you would back away from him/her, slowly, even though you're tempted to ask him/her out. Swift puts on a pouty baby coo that would have Lana Del Rey flipping her hair, a batsh*t minxy, crazy-eyed ticking time bomb that would send Miley into a tongue flicking rampage. Lines like “Boys only want love if it's torture” or “You look like my next mistake” are the kind that will have mommies cringing at their daughters miming it in the car.
Lyrically, this is precisely the kind of song Swift would abhor in her current state of anti-tabloidian Zen, a boiling pot of modern pop starlet pitfalls. So I got to conspiratorially thinking, stick with me here: while “Bad Blood” is rumored to be the Katy Perry subtweet of “1989,” I think catty lines like “Nightmare dressed like a daydream,” the jealousy, “cherry lips,” and the conversion of bad boys to good ones on the weekend align this song as more of a put-down to the “California Gurls” singer. It's a dressed-up barb. A nasty one, if you think about it. Grade: B
“Style”: I completely forget that I'm even listening to A Song until that “slick” chorus kicks with a tight little skirt, and then you're doing twirls and big hand motions at yourself in the mirror. This is truly out of 1989. Grade: Mmmm
“Out of the Woods”: Is damned near perfect. I moved the furniture so we could dance. Grade: A+
“All You Had to Do Was Stay”: This isn't a Taylor Swift song, it's a Max Martin mid-tempo single, a moody kiss-off crammed into adolescent trappings, some cheerleader “heys,” tinkling sky-scraped keyboards… make a mold, push this out the door. Grade: B
“Shake It Off”: This is the kind of single where you start calling Swift by just her first name. She allows her Honest To Gawd personality into this one, has a lot of fun vocally and lets that charming, catchy choral phrase twirl around some flavorful new elements, like skronking horns, some live drums, the '50s hand-claps. The speak-sing of “this. sick. beat.” and a misdiagnosed “hella” tarnishes this otherwise delightful tune. Grade: A-
“I Wish You Would”: The tempo's too fast for Swift's performance, too dense for her quips, too '90s, too too. And the “it's-all-good” makes me want to set this whole jumbly problem track on FIRE. D+
“Bad Blood”: Leave it to Taylor Swift to turn the word “cut” into three-syllables. Salting the wound, back stabbing, band-aids fixing bullet-holes… METAPHOR. WE GET IT. Mix her uncharacteristically bratty tone with the weakest beat and the softest cliches, this labor clunks to the finish line. Grade: C-
“Wildest Dreams”: Taylor Swift's surely extensive dress collection makes another curtsy in this image-conscious rom-com, with lots of production color and bass like a heart beat. It sounds like an Instagram that's been toyed with too much, but the “tangled up with you all night” line? Yum, give this a hard house remix, stat. Grade: B
“How You Get the Girl”: I literally listened to the album four times before I even noticed this song was on here. I forget it almost instantly. It sounds like a buffer episode of “Gilmore Girls,” in timeliness and tone and activity. Grade: C
“This Love”: The doubled vocals really emphasize Swift's little vocal tics, layered over top fluid, sumptuous harmonies and sonic arches galore, raising the hair on your arms. This song makes me want to tenderly place sentimental, rememberancy things inside a velvet-lined jewelry box; or shut the door to rooms filled with furniture covered in sheets; or drink a bottle of fernet and DM garbage to my exes. Grade: A-
“I Know Places”: …Is two different songs. She's barely confident enough for the high notes, especially on the bridge — it's kind astounding that's the take they went with. Tedder really wanted this one to work. It could have benefited from dropping it down a key, stripping some of the octave doubles. But, God, does Ryan Tedder love a singing round as a finale. And, here, and so do I. This flirts with being “street,” which is as street as this set gets.
PSA: The phrase “I know places…” will get you face-mased if you're a dude. Grade: B-
“Clean”: John Hughes is that you? Imogen Heap, in songwriter mode, helped tell this tale about addiction, risk, wanting, not having, safety and daring. There's some beautifully intereting textural pings and pops in the rhythm section and a thumbbox dipping beneath some warped bass notes. Grade: B+