Taylor Swift has released an album every other fall since 2006.
This is impressive because 1: Swift is like, a year older than I am, and it’s an act of divinity if I keep the same workout routine for two weeks, and 2: her career is devoid of artistic misfires or commercial slumps; she can not only outperform you critically, but outsell you in her sleep. And now, she’s consciously pushing all that forward. Since the minute it was announced, Swift has called 1989 her “first documented, official pop album”. We’ll get to what that means eventually, but, more prominently, 1989 is Swift’s first “I’m Trying” album. Red covered more ground, and Fearless and Speak Now might have longer run times, but 1989 is a more singular capital-A Album made with the intent of taking over the mainstream by knocking down the front door. Forget trying to upset the status quo, Swift wants to be the status quo.
I know that 1989 is an “I’m Trying” album because it’s also subtly a concept album. In hindsight, it’s a little remarkable that it took imagery-and-narrative-songwriter-extraordinaire Taylor Swift five go-arounds to do a concept album, but hey, nothing says “I’m Trying” like telling a story. And, while failed romance isn’t new territory in the Swiftian canon, there’s an arc to 1989 her other albums lack. “Welcome to New York” is mediocre as a song/ad for the city, but as the opener sets a backdrop for the rest of the album (it also, you could argue, establishes 1989 as Swift’s version of the Berlin Trilogy). “Blank Space” and “Style” detail the passionate start of a relationship, even if Swift knows it’s a bad idea going in. The rest of the album sees the couple fall apart like a ten dollar dress (“All You Had to Do Was Stay”), plead and try to make up (“Wildest Dreams” and “How You Get the Girl”), before ultimately deciding that shit just isn’t worth it on closer “Clean”. Swift’s done big, rousing closing songs before, but part of what makes the conceptual difference is that “Clean” is a definitive end to an arc that started with “Blank Space” (additionally, 1989 has that “We’re trying to be dark and it isn’t working” lull near the end that plagues most concept albums). If you want to explore the “1989 as a concept record” angle more fully, Tom Breihan writing for Stereogum expands on it here in a piece that’s equal parts brilliant and overkill
No “I’m Trying” album is complete without bringing in someone next level, and when you’re Taylor Swift, next level means next fucking level. 1989‘s production credits reads like an All-Star list of pop producers: Max Martin, Shellback, and Ryan Tedder lead a team of pop-veterans; Swfit’s buddy/Bleachers frontman/fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff has two credits, and Imogen Heap (your guess is as good as mine) and longtime collaborator Nathan Chapman turn in a song each. On one hand, this is a smart move, because most everyone here has pretty proven results, but on the other, this is probably the most conservative group of hitmakers you could assemble.
Now we’re getting to “first official, documented pop album” territory. Swift’s always been a pop artist; even when they were slathered in fiddles an’ lap steels, her hits stuck because they were catchy, not because they were phenomenal examples of the country genre (tellingly, the country music institution only gave then-teenage Swift attention once she started printing money for them).
The crucial difference is that 1989 has beat machines instead of drums, guitars used for texture only, and synths just about everywhere. But, similar to Red, Swift doesn’t really let the new setup change how she writes; these are still Taylor Swift songs. “Out of the Woods” as produced by Jack Antonoff sounds like festival hipster pop akin CHVRCHES, but with its dramatic bridge, massive scope, and intensely personal lyrics, it could easily pass as an “All Too Well” style ballad on another Swift album, and the venom spitting “Bad Blood” is basically “Mean” if it sold its banjo and bought a turntable.
Does it work, though? Swift and her collaborators want to take over the radio with a sleek throwback record, not a contemporary playlist of bangerz. In light of that, the hooks on 1989 (for the most part) aim deep as opposed to fast; the full, mind-invading catchiness of these mid-tempo synthpop tracks doesn’t kick in until a few listens. It makes sense: play the long game to stage a coup, but it also means that 1989 can read as a bit flat or boring on the first few listens. But, it doesn’t register as boring the same way that Prism did, because even if “Style” or “I Wish You Would” don’t grapple your ears into submission right away, there’s enough substance to keep you coming back.
This happens more frequently in the album’s first half, where in addition to highlights “Out of the Woods” and “I Wish You Would”, you’ve also got the sun-kissed “Style” and mercilessly catchy “Shake It Off”. “Blank Space” stumbles a bit, but gets saved by a minimal beat, while “All You Had To Do Was Stay” is a tolerable album cut. The top half has sturdier pop songs, but can feel kind of uniform. From “Bad Blood” onward, 1989 is a little more off the rails, but brings back diminished returns; atmospheric electro-ballad “This Love” and Imogen Heap backed “Clean” are the only clear cut “good” songs. The rest plays out more as “interesting but forgetful”. “Bad Blood”‘s smooth instrumentation doesn’t mesh with the shade thrown in the lyrics, although the chant chorus is a perfect fit (also, get ready to see “Still got the scars in my back from your knives” in passive-aggressive Facebook statuses). Twitchy media paranoia on “I Know Places” is more interesting as a thinkpiece on Swift’s state of mind than as a listen, while “How You Get the Girl” is an utterly shameless lobotomized retread of “boys and girls” pop that made her in the first place. “Wildest Dreams”, all romantic cooing and rosy cheeks, is such a Born to Die/Paradise Lana Del Rey pastiche that I’m surprised she isn’t a credited writer.
“Wildest Dreams” is as good a time as any to examine the peculiar way Swift writes intimacy on 1989. She’s a grownass woman with a portion of her fanbase that’s aged as she has, while she’s simultaneously portrayed as the ultimate good girl with lots of teen and younger fans who still seek out her more chaste material. The challenge presented to her is how to write an album that appeals to both, not to mention one that’s ostensibly about a physical fling that went bad. “Blank Slate” and “Style” show how she balances the two throughout; there’s the self-aware, jaded cynicism (“Got a long list of ex-lovers that’ll tell you I’m insane”) that tries not to get attached, but the heat-of-the-moment greatness that sounds romantic if you toss it in a big enough chorus (“You’ve got that James Dean daydream look in your eye/And I got that red lip classic thing that you like”). Swift still at least writes like she believes in this stuff; we’re not at “Fuck and Run” level yet. She handles the sexier recounts by getting as vague and surface level as possible: there’s no bodies touching, just tight little skirts and red lipstick. It lends some of the material a more staged feeling, in contrast to emotional pleas scattered throughout. It doesn’t feel fully organic, one of the worst things you can say about a Taylor Swift record.
Bringing it all home, 1989‘s weakness is that for how much of an “I’m Trying” album it is conceptually, that ambition doesn’t always translate to the material. Outside of “Hey Mickey” redux “Shake It Off”, the tempo never picks up; nothing here goes for the throat. In my music library, the album naturally plays into Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob, and that album’s opener “Closer” is exactly the kind of raved up new wave jam that’s missing here. Not that it’s an entirely bum trip: “Out of the Woods”, “Style” and “I Wish You Would” are all keepers, and there’s a strong sense of melody throughout. Swift has yet to make a bad record, but there’s something cloying about 1989 that holds it back from the takeover it wants to be. Three out of five stars.
tl;dr (but actually): Taylor Swift tries hard in concept, not hard enough in practice, 3/5.