Taylor Swift, 1989 (Big Machine)
☆ ☆ 1/2
Four years ago, Taylor Swift taunted her Mean critics with the promise, “Someday, I’ll be living in a big ol’ city.” Sure enough, she has moved from Nashville, which, last time we checked, was a “big ol’ city,” to a pricey pad in lower Manhattan.
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But the lavishly packaged 1989, named for Swift’s December 13, 1989 birthdate and for the musical inspiration of the era she sought for her fifth studio album, represents a more significant move for contemporary music’s most bankable star. She has shifted her allegiance wholly to pop and away from country music, a genre that could never contain an artist this talented and ambitious.
The move is made clear on the giddy opening track, Welcome to New York. Amid the thin, dinky synthesizers and artificial snare drum samples common to pop music of the late 1980s, Swift offers a rhapsody in cotton candy: “Everybody here was someone else before/And you can want who you want.”
What Swift has said she’s really wanted is freedom from dating and the media’s prying eyes. But since Swift made her best music as a diarist tell-nearly-all, by shifting to a more generic lyrical stance and formulaic pop sound, she has taken a step back in her development as a songwriter.
Writing radio-ready hooks comes naturally to Swift, and 1989 is full of them. From the atmospheric Style — all night scenes and desirous vocals — to the nagging ’80s-styled “Oh-Mickey-you’re-so-fine” rhythm track of Shake It Off with its contemporary, “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” squeaked vocal riff, Swift’s command of what propels a song to No.1 on iTunes is solid.
But she has never aimed at the charts with such inconsequential material. Rather than write lyrics to fill out a melodic line, Swift, and her ubiquitous co-songwriters Max Martin and Shellback, resort to the lazy modern style of stuttering placeholder syllables, “eh, eh, eh” or “uh, uh, uh,” on tracks like How You Get the Girl and I Know Places. Her vocals, never her strong suit, are cold, digitally processed and expressionless.
This regression into immature pop is particularly egregious given how far Swift had grown on her last album, Red, two years ago. Aside from creamy ballads like This Love and the sighing Wildest Dreams, the songs of 1989 all run the same tempos, so aural fatigue sets in quickly. Next time, Swift would be wise to develop the ideas she detailed on Red and move forward.
Download: This Love, Style, Blank Space.
Neil Diamond, Melody Road (Capitol)
☆ ☆ ☆
At 73, Neil Diamond is among the rarefied few songwriting legends — Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Elton John — who can still craft late-career work that echoes, and sometimes approaches, the classics of their youth.
Diamond, in all his Neil-ness here, works with producers Don Was (Bonnie Raitt) and Jackknife Lee (R.E.M.) to bring back the light strings, drums, catchy hooks and horn section that buoyed early ’70s albums like Moods and Serenade.
Most of the recently married Diamond’s new songs are about love and the joy that can come from songcraft. But some of Melody Road’s best moments are its most melancholic: (OOO) Do I Wanna Be Yours, written in minor keys so that it feels more like a measured consideration, and darker mood pieces like Nothing But a Heartache and Alone at the Ball.
“Melody from the heart, melody from the start/Telling me ‘Things will be OK,’/I think I just might stay on Melody Road,” Diamond sings in his strong baritone on the jaunty title track — a good plan.
Download: Nothing But a Heartache, Alone at the Ball, (OOO) Do I Wanna Be Yours.
Little Big Town, Pain Killer (Capitol Nashville)
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Pain Killer, Little Big Town’s sixth and most eclectic, boldest album yet, finds country’s finest vocal harmonizers at the peak of their powers, which means no one comes close. Want evidence? Cue the lovely Live Forever.
Pain Killer is raw — Kimberly Schlapman has never shredded at the mic the way she tears into Save Your Sin, and the foursome’s tempo-shifting Turn the Lights On is thrillingly unhinged. Provocative, too. Karen Fairchild is a revelation on Girl Crush, a ’50s-sounding ballad with a sexy twist.
The boys, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet, are no slouches, either. Their driving and melodic Faster Gun would be the toughest cut on the Eagles’ classic Desperado album, and now that Taylor Swift has thrown down in the pop camp, Little Big Town captures her country-pop sass on the opening Quit Breaking Up With Me, a surefire hit.
Download: Girl Crush, Live Forever, Faster Gun.
Yusuf/Cat Stevens, Tell ’Em I’m Gone (Sony Legacy)
☆ ☆ 1/2
The ’70s troubadour once named Cat Stevens teams with producer Rick Rubin for an earthy, bluesy R&B album — his ’60s roots, he writes in the liner notes. The recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s voice is richer and more confident than it was in his Oh Very Young heyday.
But only the folksy Cat and the Dog Trap recalls the melodic grace of his early ’70s acoustic classics. Though sincere, the edgier covers and originals here feel tedious.
Download: Cat and the Dog Trap.
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