It takes a truly gifted songwriter to make you feel nostalgic about something that has yet to occur in your life, to instill the exact same emotions in their listeners as they felt when they wrote the lyrics. On 1989, her fifth album and ‘first documented pop album’, Taylor Swift does this countless times, and in doing so, proves herself more than worthy of all the success she has achieved in the last seven years.
The fact that Taylor has taken this album as the opportunity to leave her country music roots behind her has been the talking point of this campaign, but ‘going pop’ clearly wasn’t as big a risk as it may have seemed when she first announced 1989. Many of the songs on this album fit seamlessly in the back catalogue of Swift singles, and the Red trifecta of ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’, ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and ‘22’ were an obvious indication of the sound that she would adopt on her next album.
Lyrically, Taylor’s music has always been divisive. Many critics and fans alike have found much to praise in her frank and emotive songwriting, while others have taken issue with her seeming insistence on painting herself as the victim when it comes to matters of love and friendship. 1989 sees Taylor’s lyricism mature considerably (‘Shake It Off’ notwithstanding), and that victim role, while not entirely absent, is much less ubiquitous.
Instead of using the three minutes of each song to talk about how awful her lover has been, songs like ‘Style’, ‘Blank Space’ and ‘I Wish You Would’ see Taylor embrace every single aspect of her relationships, even the darker parts. While her previous album cuts such as ‘All Too Well’ and ‘Last Kiss’ put her ability to turn heartbreak into cathartic ballads, it feels as though 1989 (and the person Taylor was when writing it) simply has no place for songs that dwell on past heartbreak.
Taylor has clearly moved on, both literally and lyrically. Opening track ‘Welcome To New York’ is a bubbly track (which becomes vaguely forgettable after listening to the rest of the album) and sees Taylor describe how her relocation from Nashville to NYC has given her a new outlook on every aspect of her life and her music. This new perspective on her music is evident not only in the eighties influenced pop sound, but in the general themes of the songs present. Tracks 2 – 4 (‘Blank Space’, ‘Style’ and ‘Out Of the Woods’) are not only the strongest offered, but are most obvious in detailing the manner in which Taylor has grown to approach love in her life; she is no longer happy or willing to wallow in the ruins of her relationships. Lyrics like ‘So it’s gonna be forever, or it’s gonna go down in flames’ and ‘I know exactly where this leads but I watch us go round and round each time’ are euphorically frantic, spoken from someone who is desperate to embrace the blissful aspects of a troubled love before the inevitable downfall. Taylor has never sounded as confident as when she’s singing about these potentially doomed affairs, and it’s clear by the fifth track that moving to New York has done wonders for not only her sound, but her outlook on love.
The ballads are present, of course, but once again they show a development in her sound, as the cliché of ‘wounded and weak Taylor Swift singing a torch song about an evil boyfriend’ is nowhere to be seen. Imogen Heap-assisted ‘Clean’ is the highlight of the slower tracks, and is the soundtrack to someone finally coming to their senses. It closes the standard edition of the album and seals it with the image of a person who has taken the worst parts of her life and used them as a chance to grow stronger. On 1989, there is no looming figure of the big bad celebrity ex-boyfriend most critics have been so concerned about with her previous albums. Instead, these ballads are about Taylor’s own growth and her own reactions to the end of relationships. ‘Gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean’ is the final lyric, a lyric that is both incredibly private and incredibly applicable to so many of her listeners. And this is precisely why she’s been a fixture in her fans lives for all these years, her ability to transition her own pain into music that will help them.
Not every song here shows the same maturity. ‘Shake It Off’ still sounds incredibly forced and full of cliché, saved only by the dorky and self-aware middle 8 shout out, while ‘How You Get The Girl’ is as twee as anything on her first two albums. Luckily, this is where the executive production of Max Martin saves the day, turning songs that should sound either incredibly alien coming from Taylor Swift or just incredibly irritating into bona-fide radio smashes waiting to happen. Taylor, Martin and collaborator Shellback make a truly astonishing team, and it is clear that combining the producers unrivalled ear for pop music with Taylor’s canny knack for melodies has created a new pop music supergroup. It’s difficult to mourn Taylor’s willingness to leave behind her Nashville roots when listening to 1989, as it becomes gradually more and more evident that what has made her great is not her country origins, but her skill as a songwriter and her relatability.
1989 is a lot of things. It is first and foremost an incredibly assured collection of wonderful pop songs. It is the soundtrack of a girl who is unwilling to be affected by the detractors in her life and who decides to embrace everything life has thrown at her. And it is undoubtedly the best pop album of 2014*.
*Unless Rihanna happens to unleash a phenomenal album in the next two months, of course.