What pop’s best friend Taylor Swift has to say with her fifth album 1989 (out today, ) is that, despite what some people may think, she can still keep a secret. Given how she is also a multi-Platinum album maker, seven-time Grammy winner and popular gossip blog subject, that may seem impossible. Whether she was singing "Tim McGraw" or "I Knew You Were Trouble," Swift has told us during arena tours that she wrote songs to express whatever she couldn’t say while face-to-face. When she was still a teenager, Swift wasn’t afraid to name names. And while she may be older and more mindful now, 1989 still has a song called "Style" (a title that, one would presume, references ex-boyfriend/One Direction member Harry Styles).
We thought we had Swift mostly figured out - the type of music she made, what inspires her the most, the album liner notes decoding process, even executive-producing 1989 with Top 40 wunderkind Max Martin. And though she vowed that one day she’d escape small-town living, we couldn’t have predicted that Taylor would channel Phil Collins, Annie Lennox, Like A Prayer-era Madonna and even some peers to show that finally, she’s relocated to the big city of her dreams. 1989 is bold and brazenly confident, and it makes previous forays into pop like "I Knew You Were Trouble" sound like child’s play in comparison.
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Swift’s key strengths, an ear for melody and an eye for writerly detail, are still at play here: "Out of the Woods" is an urgent sing-along that sounds like it belongs to The Lion King, though who else but Swift would think to time-stamp such a song ("Looking back at it now, last December, we were built to fall apart") or ground it with memories of scooting furniture around?
The Miami Vice-inspired highlight "Style" shows that, while pining for a guy with a pick-up truck has long been a thing of the past, Swift can still dream up a good fantasy ("You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye / and I got the red lip classic thing that you like") - never mind that it’s for a relationship doomed to fail. Swift has always been someone who feels things deeply, and 1989‘s best moments show that, while a lot about her has changed, that quality hasn’t.
What is different with 1989 is that pop star Swift, known for packing a novel’s worth of storytelling in a few concise verses, isn’t as interested in diving into specifics. "Out of the Woods" and "Style" are the exceptions, not the rule. Think back to lead single "Shake It Off," where she shifts into valley-girl mode to its most uncool effect yet: "Just think, while you’ve been getting down and out about the liars and dirty, dirty cheats of this world, you could have been getting down to this sick beat."
That’s what Swift is doing; she has built a fortress around her heart with titanic synth-pop songs - ironclad proof that more than ever, mainstream pop (ahem, Katy Perry) can’t stand in the way of her ambitions. (Well, almost: 1989‘s weakest song is "Wildest Dreams," where Swift attempts a shameless Lana Del Rey impression.) She sings broader takeaways about love and everything that gets in the way of that ("How You Get the Girl," "I Know Places") - the teachable moments from those dates over maple lattes.
1989 may be the first album that hints at the notion of Swift being a songwriter for someone else, like Sia or Max Martin himself. On one hand, that aspect can actually feel like a downside to the LP. After all, Swift’s fans listen to her to feel as if she’s confiding in them. Then again, 1989 is also one hell of a way for her to demand some space.
Idolator Score: 3.5/5
- Christina Lee
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