Swift Shines Brightest on Latest

Taylor Swift-1989-Big Machine-4.5 STARS

1989-cover
Courtesy 4AD

Taylor Swift’s transition into a bona fide pop artist has been years in the making, and her metamorphosis is finally complete. “1989” is the result, and it’s arguably Swift’s best record to date. Her collaboration with big-name producers Max Martin and Shellback on most of the songs on “1989” has given the album a formula for success, but at the same time Swift’s own unique style—playfully self-deprecating, wistful but not sappy—pokes through. Swift’s personality still oozes from every song, preventing the album from becoming vapid, pop fodder.

Although Swift has stated most prominently that her greatest influence while recording “1989” was music of the late ’80s, her inspirations on this album seem to come from everywhere. In fact, “1989” isn’t as much influenced by the music of the ’80s as much as it is by—as Swift herself put it in an interview—“the idea you could do what you want, be what you want.” And Swift indeed shows that she’s comfortable portraying the many different facets of herself on “1989.” “Wildest Dreams” evokes Lana Del Rey’s dreamy yet sad voice, and on “New Romantics” (from the deluxe edition), Swift channels her friend Lorde’s vocal production, most notably by layering her voice in octaves. “Style” opens with disco music, and “Blank Space,” a distinctive earworm, is lighthearted and catchy without becoming generic. “Bad Blood” has a hip-hop beat, while that of “I Know Places” was influenced by drum ’n’ bass. Swift’s versatility on this album is impressive and attests to her talent, which is only augmented by the power duo of Martin and Shellback.

Swift hasn’t just changed her sound on “1989”—she has matured as a person as well. Admittedly, she does still have a few of her hallmark love songs and post-breakup songs, and her jabs at ex-boyfriends can be just as direct: “Dear John,” a song from 2010’s “Speak Now,” calls out John Mayer, while “Style” on this album is a direct reference to Harry Styles. But after a couple of years of notoriety as a bad girlfriend, Swift has learned to recognize and make fun of her “long list of ex-lovers / [who will] tell you I'm insane,” as she sings on “Blank Space.” Her newfound maturity and lighthearted approach to criticism is best exemplified by the now-ubiquitous “Shake It Off”: she doesn’t mind that “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate.” Not that she can’t retaliate—“Bad Blood” is a thinly veiled diss track addressed to Katy Perry.

Swift’s new attitude isn’t just present when she’s cheerful—it washes over the darker songs on the album as well, changing pure lament to something more similar to nostalgia. The inner conflict in “This Love” is hopeful rather than hopeless; on the post-breakup song “Clean,” Swift sets aside self-pity in favor of a more optimistic response. Swift’s transformation stems from having two more years of wisdom under her belt, giving her more experience in producing music, writing songs, and living life. But Swift’s new style does add a bit more heft to most of her songs. Although her sound has gained a dimension of maturity, this could only come at the cost of upbeat tracks that are just plain fun. Besides “Shake It Off,” there just aren’t any songs like the hits from “Red”—“I Knew You Were Trouble,” “22,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

When most pop music has become about big-name collaborations and overprocessing, Taylor Swift has taken an alternate route. “1989”—right from the title—is all about her. Whereas “22” implied youth and carefree innocence, “1989” references a time in the past. This album is all about Taylor’s maturation both as a musician and a person. It’s a celebration of fearlessness, exploration, and, most importantly, growth. Swift seems comfortable where she is now, and the result is an effortlessly genuine album that shines unlike any other she’s released.

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