Album: 1989 (Big Machine)
Singer: Taylor Swift
Price: Rs 250 (iTunes)
Rating: **** 1/2
That Taylor Swift would one day abandon country has long been clear. 1989 (Big Machine), though, her fifth album and the first that doesn’t at all bother with country, manages to find a new foe.
Full of expertly constructed, slightly neutered songs about heartbreak, 1989 doesn’t announce itself as oppositional. But there is an implicit enemy on this breezily effective album: the rest of mainstream pop, which 1989 has almost nothing in common with. Her idea of pop music harks back to a period — the mid-1980s — when pop was less overtly hybrid.
The album, named for the year she was born, is executive produced by Swift and Max Martin, and most of the songs are written with Martin and his fellow Swede Shellback. Both men have helped shape the last decade of pop but what’s notable here is their restraint.
1989 is largely filled with upbeat, tense songs on which the singer stomps out much of whatever was left of her youthful innocence. The Taylor Swift of this album is savage, wry, and pointed. The high mark is Style, which recalls something from the original Miami Vice soundtrack, all warm synths and damp vocals.
Swift has often sung in a talky manner, emphasising intimacy over power and nuance, but in 1989 she uses her voice — processed more than ever — in different ways than before: the coy confidence of how she shifts gears leading up to the bridge in Shake it off, slithering out the line, “But I keep cruising”, immediately changing the song from gum-snapping glee to powerful release.
Her most pronounced vocal tweak is on Wildest dreams, a sweaty and dark tale of dangerous love. In the verses, Swift sings drowsily, as if seducing or just waking up: “I said ‘No one has to know what we do’/ His hands are in my hair/ His clothes are in my room.” Then, at the bridge, she skips up an octave, sputtering out bleats of ecstasy, before retreating back under the covers.
Swift’s songwriting isn’t as microdetailed as it has been, instead approaching heartbreak with a wider lens, as on This love. But don’t be distracted by for whom the belle trolls; she trolls with glee, and that’s what matters. Take the clever Blank space, a metanarrative about Swift’s reputation as a dating disaster. This is Swift at her peak. It’s funny and knowing, and serves to assert both her power and her primness. By contrast, the songs where she sounds the least jaded — How you get the girl, and Welcome to New York — are among the least effective.
There are a few songs in which production dominates: the two songs written and produced with Jack Antonoff (of fun and Bleachers). Out of the woods and I wish you would, which burst with erupting drums, moody synths and sizzling guitars; and Bad blood, which has booming drums reminiscent of the Billy Squier ones often sampled in hip-hop.
By making pop with almost no contemporary references, Swift is aiming somewhere even higher. She’s waging, and winning, a new war, one she’d never admit to fighting.