Monday, October 27, 2014

album review: '1989' by taylor swift

It's hard as a critic for me to talk about Taylor Swift.

See, when she burst onto the scene in the late 2000s, I had conflicting feelings on her. On the one hand, I found her songwriting sloppy and lacking depth, I found her instrumental compositions to be a little uninspired, and she didn't exactly stun me with incredible vocals. On the other hand, she had a knack for solid hooks, a fair amount of charisma and personality, and her songs had a real sense of honest populism to them. They felt clumsy, but it was authentic and came from a place of reality for Taylor Swift and her legions of fans could identify with that. And with her album Speak Now, it seemed like she was going even further in that country-flavoured direction and her songwriting was slowly getting more refined.

And then something happened. Some have blamed her, some have blamed her label head Scott Borchetta for bringing on Max Martin and Shellback, but Red was a 180 from the depth and more mature songwriting of Speak Now, going for a flagrantly pop focus that mirrored the sell-out of her spiritual predecessor Avril Lavigne in starting in down-to-earth, detail-heavy, authentic songwriting and who had no idea how to age artistically. And I'll be blunt - I really did not like Red when I reviewed it on my blog two years ago and drew that exact same parallel. Looking back on it now... well, the album was transitional. It was partially filled with the country-flavoured songwriting I appreciated, but it was also very clear she was going to go in the pop diva direction - which on every level did not strike me as a good choice. Her greatest strengths in her songwriting was detail and relatability, and she was going to throw it out for songs that emphasized and reveled in a shallow worldview that flew in the face of any artistic growth or maturity? You don't get songs like 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together', 'The Lucky Ones', '22', and especially 'I Knew You Were Trouble' if you're maturing artistically.

But whatever, she's going for pop now - I can roll with that. But I did not know what to expect coming from her new album 1989, reportedly inspired by the pop music of that year. And having gone back to look at that year, 1989 was a terrible year for the pop charts, where the biggest artists were Chicago, Paula Abdul, Bette Midler, Milli Vanilli, Richard Marx, and plenty of others peddling easy-listening schlock. Now of course Taylor Swift is obviously saying she's drawing more of her influences from Madonna, who did have a good year in '89, but every female pop star pulls from Madonna and Taylor Swift always struck me as a lot closer to Debbie Gibson, who charted higher than Madonna that year anyway. That said, Taylor Swift said she was also drawing influence from Annie Lennox, who most people probably remember most from her work with the Eurythmics - which, okay, that's interesting. And when you start digging into the songwriters working with her, you get Max Martin and Shellback, but I also saw writing credits from Jack Antonoff, the guitarist of fun. and frontman of Bleachers, and Imogen Heap, two artists who dropped some of my favourite albums of this year. So I had to check out 1989 and I honestly hoped for the best - sure, I didn't like 'Shake It Off', but there had to be more here than that, right?

Well, there is - in a way. I'll give Taylor Swift this, she certainly put together an interesting record with 1989, especially for a critic who has spent considerable time reviewing pop music, because if we're looking for a record that manages to encapsulate nearly every trend in pop music this year, good and bad. I'd point at this album. But just because this album is interesting doesn't make it good, and while I do think this album is better than Red, it reflects a shocking loss of individual, unique flavour for Taylor Swift. That said, do we at least get some good pop songs out of it? Yeah, to some extent, but when you can trace the lineage of the songs so plainly to their inspirations or co-writers, it gets distracting.

I should explain, and the best place to start is with Taylor Swift herself. Now I'll give her this, she's trying, and she's always had a lot of presence and charisma to compensate for her smaller vocal range in comparison with some of her pop contemporaries. And one of her biggest strengths used to be playing that down-to-earth relatable young woman - she had a distinctive vocal presence and even inflection. And yet on 1989, you can tell there are multiple places where she's trying to emulate the vocal styles of other pop artists. 'Welcome To New York' has the strident high power and tightly layered multi-tracking of Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES, 'Blank Space', 'Style', 'I Know Places' and especially 'Wildest Dreams' feel like she's bringing more energy to Lana Del Rey's shameless appropriation of 60s pop stars, 'This Love' sounds like an Enya deep-cut, and 'Bad Blood' reminds me less of Taylor Swift than of Avril Lavigne, making the parallel between their careers damn close to perfect. And it gets even more stark when we take a look at songs like 'Out Of The Woods', 'I Wish You Would', and 'Clean', because you could swap her out for her co-songwriters Jack Antonoff and Imogen Heap, the latter who provides recognizable backing vocals on 'Clean', and a less-discerning listener couldn't tell the difference. That's always been an issue with Taylor Swift working with other artists - she drops into their molds without making them conform to hers, which only detracts from her personality. Now to be fair, if I'm stuck with picking between Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey appropriating vintage styles, I'll take Taylor Swift because at least she gives her songs some form of energy and she proves surprisingly good at playing sultry class, but when Swift tries to emulate Kesha's sing-talk cadence on 'Shake It Off', she's got nowhere near the presence and unfiltered edge to elevate the obnoxiousness into anything compelling.

Granted, it's not like the production or instrumentation helps her much, most of which succumbs to the exact same problems that have plagued pop and indie rock this year: percussion-heavy, any vestige of a melody either shoved to the back or only carried by Swift's voice, and swollen with reverb. Now that's not saying there aren't some moments that are interesting: the synth line on 'Welcome To New York' only enhances the CHVRCHES comparison, which isn't a bad thing;  'Blank Space' sounds strikingly like 'Chandelier' by Sia except with a muted acoustic chorus, 'Style' has a tight disco guitar line that feels lifted straight from La Roux's most recent record Trouble In Paradise, 'Bad Blood's instrumental feels like someone trying to blend Avril Lavigne's recent material with Lorde's sparse instrumentation and it kind of works, and 'Wildest Dreams' wouldn't have sounded out of place among the better tracks from Lana Del Rey's Born To Die. And that's the problem - even the instrumentals I liked on songs like 'Out Of The Woods', 'I Wish You Would', and 'Clean' sound exactly like deep cuts and b-sides from the bombastic power of Bleachers' Strange Desire and Imogen Heap's muted beauty in Sparks - in other words, I'm having a hard time finding the unique Taylor Swift instrumentals on this Taylor Swift album! The closest you get are the guitar-driven 'All You Had To Do Is Stay', 'How You Get The Girl', and 'This Love', but that's because they're the only songs that have any real instrumental warmth to them. That's one of the problems with drowning so much of this album in stiff drum machines and de-emphasizing the melody lines and throwing as much heavier vocal production as you do, you get such a chilly inorganic product that doesn't flatter Taylor Swift's warmer vocal tones at all. The closest she gets to making it work beautifully is on 'Clean', but that thanks to the masterful work of Imogen Heap running production and not Max Martin or Ryan Tedder or Shellback.

Now at this point, we're up to songwriting and some of you are waiting for me to drop the hammer down. And I'll be blunt: there are songs that don't really work here from a songwriting standpoint. 'Shake It Off' is the sort of anti-hater song that is one of the blandest, most unconvincing tracks Taylor has ever written, with the breakdown only emphasizing how flagrantly phony it is. And sure, fans of that song point to the video and say 'that's the point', but when you get lyrics like 'haters gonna hate' and 'I never miss a beat / I'm lightning on my feet' and that entire bridge, it's impossible not to see the song as not written by committee trying to emulate authenticity that isn't there. Thankfully, that's not the issue with most of this album, which is full of the clumsy metaphors and lyrics that have always proven exasperating for me with Taylor Swift, from repeated syllables and words to fill up space to bargain-bin symbolism - I mean, on 'This Love', the most intimate song of the album, the chorus has lyrics like 'This love is good, this love is bad' to describe a complicated relationship? You couldn't have tried harder than that?

But let's dig deeper - is she trying to say something this record? Well, the liner notes seem to imply a narrative, chronicling her move to New York and the ill-fated relationship that fizzled out along the way. And to Taylor Swift's credit, going for straightforward autobiography isn't a bad choice, as it allows her to be a little more nuanced in her framing and highlight how the relationship's failings fall on both sides. Sure, the guy is a cheater and proves to be incredibly unreliable, but Taylor Swift on songs like 'Blank Space' and 'Style' show that she might be just as bad. It's very telling that on the very first song, she establishes her thoughts on love: 'Like any great love, it keeps you guessing / like any real love it's ever-changing / like any true love it drives you crazy' - in other words, to her the drama defines the love in relationships and she's embraced her role in contributing to it. Coupled with the heavy dose of vintage 'American Sweetheart' imagery, Taylor Swift has completely stepped away from the relatable 'girl next door' image, which allows the framing to focus more on her story alone. And this is both good and bad - on the one hand, while some of the songs might appear to glamorize drama-overloaded relationships, the songwriting does have enough self-awareness to show how much of this is her failure to get over this guy and instead keep taking him back. More importantly, unlike Lana Del Rey's similar material, the album shows Taylor Swift taking a more assertive role, showing some self-awareness in admitting her culpability and how she's making bad decisions for the wrong reasons, and by the end of the album, the relationship ends and she moves on with her life! And while this album might be the least directly relatable album Taylor Swift has ever released, it does give her fans a net positive theme and does display self-awareness and relatable rationales for her decisions, even when they turn for the worse.

So in the end... look, I know that a whole bunch of you are going to say, 'You're the country critic on YouTube, you don't like it because it's not Speak Now Part II' - and that's not the case at all. If Taylor Swift wants to make pop music, I'm okay with that - I've got Lucy Hale who is filling Taylor's role in pop country better than she ever could. I just wish that Taylor had actually created a unique identity in pop music instead of emulating a half dozen other artists. Now to her credit, she does a surprisingly good job imitating some of these acts - I'd take Taylor Swift appropriating vintage pop over Lana Del Rey's bad melodrama, and the fact she's working with Imogen Heap and Jack Antonoff shows she has good taste in pop, and with her songwriting getting better, it shows she is beginning to mature as an artist. But with 1989, she's not quite there yet. For me, this album is a 6/10 and a recommendation - it's still good, given her influences, but until she does a little more to break free of them, Taylor Swift hasn't quite gotten there yet. Still, if you're curious - eh, it's worth a look.

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