Leading up to the October 27 release of Taylor Swift’s latest album, 1989, the singer’s anticipated release was hyped up as a complete departure from her previous work. Unlike her older country albums, this was going to be a completely pop album and it would be her best and most mature effort yet.
Now, I adore Taylor Swift, but I was skeptical about this announcement and I’m sure a lot of other people were, too. For one, I didn’t entirely believe that Taylor Swift making pop music was a new phenomenon. After all, while Taylor did start as a country artist, her music has had crossover potential from the very beginning. Red, in particular, has always struck me as being more of a pop album than a country album anyway. Taylor Swift’s sound and brand are both very specific and tied to her as a person and I didn’t think that could change very much in the two years since the release of Red. While I was sure that the music on 1989 was going to be great, I was also sure that it wasn’t going to be anything that I hadn’t heard from Taylor before. The first single, “Shake It Off,” seemed to prove my assumptions true. It’s catchy and fun, but it isn’t all that different from “We Are Never Getting Back Together” or “I Knew You Were Trouble.”
This was, of course, until I heard “Out of the Woods” and, a few weeks later, “Blank Space.” They’re different not only from the rest of Taylor’s music, but also from everything else on the radio. It’s not Ariana Grande or Katy Perry-style pop, but something much cooler: the songs have a dreamier, nostalgic-yet-distinctly-modern quality to them that I like in general, but especially when paired with Taylor’s songwriting style. (It’s a quality that a lot of Fun.’s music has, which is appropriate, considering Jack Antonoff of Fun. and Bleachers collaborated on the album with her.) The lyrical content of the songs is the same as it ever was–about fairy tales and heartbreak and Taylor growing up–except it’s from the slightly more mature perspective of a 23 or 24-year-old. This, combined with the new style of the music, creates a unique sound that is still distinctly Taylor’s, but is slightly more sophisticated than her earlier albums.
This unique sound characterizes most of the album. The album is split pretty equally between backbeat-heavy, loud, catchy songs like “Welcome to New York” and “Shake It Off” and quieter, dreamier songs like “Clean” (co-written with Imogen Heap, whose influence on the album’s sound is pretty clear) and “This Love.” The different dynamics are a strength of the album, but this is also closely tied to what I thought was one of its weaknesses. I love the album, but it isn’t perfect: all of the loud songs are one after another in the first half of the album and all of the quiet songs are lumped together at the end. Plus, most of the loud, faster songs sound very similar to each other, as do most of the quieter, slower songs. I also wasn’t particularly a big fan of “I Know Places” or “New Romantics,” one of the bonus tracks on the deluxe version. They’re not outstanding lyrically and blend in with the rest of the album.
That being said, my favorite songs on the album are “Out of the Woods,” “Blank Space,” “Bad Blood,” “Wildest Dreams” and “Clean.” They’re all different not only from each other, but from the rest of Taylor’s music–and yet they all blend together seamlessly and fit in perfectly with the album and with the rest of Taylor’s catalogue. This is my favorite thing about the album: she’s breaking new ground in terms of her sound and her style, but at the heart of the music, Taylor is still Taylor and she’s doing exactly what she does best.
Take the video for “Blank Space.” On the one hand, it has some things in common with the video for “Teardrops on My Guitar,” such as pretty dresses, makeup and a conflicted relationship with a cute guy. On the other hand, while the “Teardrops” video is about an unrequited high school crush, the “Blank Space” video involves her running around a Lady Gaga-esque mansion in a murderous rage. The content is surprisingly naughty compared to what we’ve come to expect from her, but in subtle, deliberate ways and usually with an aside glance to the camera, it lets you know that Taylor knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s growing up and her sound and image are growing up with her.
Despite the difference from her older sound, there’s a definite trajectory to Taylor’s musical catalogue. All of my favorite songs by her, from “You Belong With Me” to “Never Grow Up” to “Out of the Woods,” maintain a kind of signature Taylor-ness, which is part of what I like about them in the first place–a childlike, romantic, fairytale view of the world that is equally balanced with the realism of the pains of heartbreak and growing up. Though the sound is a little different from album to album, the true core of it doesn’t change. It’s just grown and evolved over time.
Taylor’s evolution is fascinating for me to watch both personally and as an artist. On a personal level, Taylor is about five years older than me, making her a sort of pop-culture big sister. No matter what crisis I might find myself going through, there is a Taylor Swift song about it. But it’s also interesting from an artistic standpoint to see the differences in Taylor Swift’s music from age 17 to age 21 to age 24. Her debut was released when she was 17, and while it’s a good album in and of itself, it’s nowhere near as sophisticated or complex as her latest one. It’s been the same with all of her albums. They’re all very good, but it’s only when she releases a new one, and you have that context to go back and re-evaluate her old ones, that you can see how she’s grown and developed between them.
That being said, I think 1989 is the biggest leap she’s taken yet in her career. The gap between Red and 1989 is bigger than the gaps she’s taken between any of her other back-to-back albums, but it works. Taylor Swift took a lot of chances with this album, and the majority of them paid off. She’s stayed true to who she is and the kind of stories she tells best, while experimenting with a new sound that really suits her. Taylor has transitioned pretty seamlessly into adulthood and into her new sound, and if this is just the start of the next phase of her career, I’m beyond excited for what she has coming next.