Album Review: Taylor Swift – 1989


I’d intended to go in one direction when I began writing this, that being to just do a straight up review of the record.  As it is I’ve ended up going in quite another, taking detours with Billy Bragg, the AMAs, the Spotify row, Bob Harris’ ‘My Nashville’ documentary, and Taylor.

‘1989’ is a high-profile operation in a turf war on a global scale.  This is Big Machine’s latest statement of intent. This is Taylor Swift moving herself on from ‘Red’, crowding in on acreage previously contested by the likes of Lana del Rey, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus.  In fact some songs can be read as explicit track-for-track assaults, such as ‘Blank Space’ which inhabits similar sonic territory to Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ and ‘I Know Places’ which is a (lame) attempt to do a Lana del Rey.

Of course in taking on all these other hugely successful artists, Swift isn’t just saying I can do what you can; she’s saying that she can do it better, or at least in a more marketable way.  So she’s more wholesome than Miley, as dark as Lana but less open to accusations of being a pre-fab, as creative as Lady Gaga but with more focus, as BIG POP as Katy Perry but more nuanced and subtle too.

Whether she needed to do all of this is not the point really – she was already able to lay a good claim to being the biggest artist in the world, but whether it’s her desire, or that of Big Machine, it should come as no surprise that pre-eminence wants to become dominance.  The sums at stake are bewildering.

Of course, we should be asking ourselves whether or not we believe some of the inevitable bullshit that we can smell.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist – Taylor is undoubtedly an artist with considerable capabilities who proved herself in the hotly competitive world of country music. She’s no puppet. But I also don’t buy that this is fundamentally about creativity, freedom and art in the way that she and Scott Borchetta would have it.

The recent decision to remove all material from Spotify, and the debate about whether or not this is linked to maximising the sale price of Big Machine, or about getting into bed with Google instead, shows just how much this is about money, fuckloads of it.

I do understand that someone with the ambition and talent that Taylor Swift clearly has wouldn’t want to feel imprisoned by what can be a narrow(-minded) audience (market) in country circles. And although there’s heaps to be made through that scene, all the biggest artists from there also went on to make it somewhere else.

What you can smell, however, are the money people.

Sidebar; what I was going to write was ‘money men’.  That might strictly speaking be accurate – it might well be that all the suits behind this are men. But I don’t know that. I was being lazy. But it illustrates a point: maybe the only reason that I’m writing this is because Taylor Swift is a woman, and there’s an underlying assumption that she can’t be doing all of this on her own. The same is maybe true about a lot of the commentary around Miley Cyrus’ video for ‘Wrecking Ball’. You don’t see so many people wondering whether or not Robin Thicke came up with ‘Blurred Lines’ and his new material as the result of shadowy manipulations in boardrooms or a sexually predatory svengali…

While we mull that over, back to the money.  Watching the recent BBC doco ‘Bob Harris: My Nashville’ I saw some early Swift, y’know, back when she was pure country, sang with a twang and made videos that featured her clearly styled by someone else and featuring haybales.  It’s quite the transformation to now, and I wonder how much the person involved would themselves want so radically to disassociate themselves from their past.

I can believe such transformations of people like Bowie or Madonna, artists who have delighted in denying any sense of normality, who have seemed utterly detached from a genuine personality in the limelight.  Taylor Swift, by contrast, is someone whose brand is built in large part on being a regular person, despite celebrity. So although I am sure that Taylor Swift is enjoying experimenting with new styles, and new writers, and singing a wider repertoire, moving into some pretty standard pop territory isn’t much of a push for artistic freedom and experimentation. It’s a change in direction for sure, but not by that many degrees from the last album.

And the music ?

I’m a big fan of ‘Shake It Off’ but then who isn’t ?  I hadn’t even heard it until that news anchor posted a video of him warming up to it. Since then I’ve been enjoying it on a daily basis. It’s classic feelgood, ‘fuck you’ stuff with excellent use of “mmm mmm” and a video that just goes to show how much she’s nudging others aside (with a winning smile) and taking their action. The only bum note is the bizarre spoken-word section that seems utterly out of place and fake. Maybe edit it out next time..

I can’t stand ‘I Know Places’ (as mentioned above), and I’m not much a fan of the uninteresting lyrics and tunes of ‘Out Of The Woods’ and ‘Style’. I like the bombastic ‘Bad Blood’, the knowing self send-up and believably self-destructive serial dater of ‘Blank Space’, and I enjoy ‘All You Had To Do Was Stay’ most of the time. Much of the rest of it is fine and enjoyable enough for passing a commute with.

But my other favourites are ‘How You Get The Girl’, ‘Clean’ and ‘Welcome To New York’.  The former has a sweet, shifting verse before upping the tempo twice through the chorus, managing to sound highly danceable but also tenderly bittersweet at the same time. I also found it a credible, honest depiction of how heartbreak, and calculated, ultimately unhealthy reunion, can happen.

‘Welcome To New York’ is a great way to start the album: disco handclaps, drums and synths gradually launching us into a combination of treated and unadulterated vocals that emphasise the alienation and naked excitement of a new town. The second verse in particular resonates, including in its casual nod to sexual and emotional freedom:

“When we first dropped our bags on apartment floors
Took our broken hearts, put them in a draw
Everybody here was someone else before
And you can watch who you want
Boys and boys, and girls and girls”

Finally there’s ‘Clean’ the closing track. It’s sparse but, unlike earlier number ‘This Love’, it has much more weight. The multi-tracking of the vocals, and the often stark contrast between them, which develops as the song progresses, creates a haunting and coherent evocation of suffocating sadness and eventual release.

I guess the thing that I’m most surprised by, given my usual predilections, is that this album has stuck with me for weeks now. I’m still enjoying it, listening to it all the way through with few skips, and I can’t see any reason to put it down. It’ll probably feature in my ‘records of the year’ list. 7.5/10

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