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.
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