I’ll admit it: this album kind of converted me into a Taylor Swift fain. Sure, it’s not like I didn’t know her, and I did like some of her stuff already. “Mean” and “Never Grow Up” come to mind, and “Love Story was catchy until it got overplayed beyond recognition. But before 1989, I doubt I would have said “Oh yeah, I like Taylor Swift.” How effective did the album convert me, you ask? Well, I didn’t go back and immerse myself in her entire catalog, but I did buy the album the week it came out. The Target-exclusive deluxe edition. For the record, my nearest Target is about half an hour away. I even have the album on vinyl (it was a gift, if that makes you judge me any less).
I’m aware this review is very late, but I’ve been wanting to write it for a while now. And with 1989 having just (a few weeks ago is still “just,” right?) won the Grammy for Album of the Year, I can safely say this post is still relevant.
As I start the breakdown I should probably warn you that we’re starting with an unpopular opinion. Please don’t hate me.
- “Welcome to New York” — In a move that I’m sure hardcore New Yorkers such as typoattack will never forgive me for (this on top of posting this review to begin with), I actually really like this song. I’ve seen a lot of talk about how it’s too idealistic and naïve. But, first off, do you want a song about rude cabbies, dirty streets, and rats in the subway? Also, the same people who say things like this love Sinatra’s perennial “Theme From New York, New York,” which is just as idealized. Seriously, the songs have the same exact message. And before you complain that Swift is a New York transplant ad not a “real New Yorker,” let me remind you that Ol’ Blue Eyes is from New Jersey. Are we really more prepared to accept him as a symbol of New York pride? I’m not arguing that Swift should replace him, of course, but can we at least acknowledge the rampant hypocrisy? And I, for one, think making her a Tourism Ambassador was a brilliant move. She’s one of the most popular celebrities out there today. You want people to come drop money in your city, you use what you’ve got to promote it. Taylor Swift is one of the biggest draws a city could possibly have these days. No one said she was the consummate New Yorker; she’s just the face we want driving tourism and thus pumping money into local business while naïve visitors hope and pray for an unlikely celebrity sighting and impromptu sidewalk photo shoot.
- “Blank Space” — I had to give Swift a lot of credit when I read her inspiration for this song. Namely, she wrote it in response to all the criticism she gets regarding her relationships and the fact that she writes about them. Which I think she’s treated very unfairly about. First off, I don’t really think she was in an inordinately large number of relationships (but she’s a woman, so of course any number is going to be treated as high), and writing about them is a healthy way to cope. All artists draw on their experiences. That’s how you get worthwhile art. Anyway, she said something to the effect that the song was written on the premise that she actually was the man-eating harpy she’s often portrayed as, and like “Mean,” I think it’s a great response. Though I’m sure it went over the heads of the people it was aimed at. Satire often does. Either way it’s one of the strongest tracks on the album.
- “Style” — I’m not a particularly big fan of this one. I love the guitar riff, for sure. But the song doesn’t really resonate with me. It feels like it’s about a very shallow, materialistic relationship. It’s catchy and poppy, but it’s not me, I guess.
- “Out of the Woods” — I don’t have any particular problems with this one, expect for the fact that chorus is so repetitive. On the other hand, it makes me think of The Wizard of Oz, which I kind of like for some reason (the association, that is, everyone likes the movie). It’s an association predicated on one line and has literally nothing to do with the song, but there have it. Swift displays her vocal range quite nicely here.
- “All You Had To Do Was Stay” — This song is criminally underrated, in my opinion. I think it deserved the single treatment far more than “Style” or “Wildest Dreams.” It’s catchy and has strong lyrics that a great deal of people can relate to. In short, it’s a pretty damn solid pop song. I don’t know why it wasn’t pushed more, it’s perfect for radio.
- “Shake It Off” — In all honestly, I think this is the only track I’d actually heard prior to buying the album. Hands down my favorite track, no matter how many times I’ve heard it. I’m really not sure how a pop song could get better than this. Well, ok, it’s tied with “Uptown Funk!” for my favorite modern pop song. But that’s the only thing that comes close. I think “Shake if Off” is the perfect example of the post-country Taylor Swift. She’s all about big hooks, and she’s spent a lot of time learning to not only roll with the punches but take them in good humor. Gone is the shell-shocked young girl who was cut short by Kanye. Here we see the new Taylor Swift — strong, confident in who she is, and not afraid to dish it right back. I, for one, welcomed our new pop overlord (overlady?) as soon as I heard this track.
- “I Wish You Would” — Lyrically the antithesis of “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” this one is driven by a catchy (but repetitive) guitar rhythm. I suppose the only issue I could raise is that tone of the song doesn’t really match the content of the lyrics. It’s a song of longing and regret, but it’s musically an upbeat pop track more suited for a love song or something. But the dissonance between lyric and music doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
- “Bad Blood” — There’s a reason this was remixed with Kendrick Lamar, namely that it already feels like a hip-hop track. it’s not a bad track, but it certainly stands out from the rest of the album. It just feels very different stylistically. If it weren’t so catchy, and if I didn’t like the lyrics in the bridge so much, I might not like the song. If you know me, you know I’m not really big on rap or hip-hop. I’m certainly not a fan of the Kendrick Lamar version. But this one? I can get behind this one.
- “Wildest Dreams” — As far as the album proper goes, this is one of my least favorite songs, if not my very least favorite. It doesn’t stand out lyrically, and Swift’s vocals are just too breathy for my taste. Like I alluded to before, I don’t really know why this one was given the single treatment. I guess it’s a track the hews closer to her roots in some ways, but still, I think there are better tracks they could have released. Speaking of better tracks that could have been released…
- “How You Get the Girl” — I love this one. Sure it may be kind of cliché but I don’t even care. It’s catchy as hell, and I love playing it on guitar. The chord progression is crazy easy but the strumming pattern is what makes the song. Any guitar players reading this, consider giving this one a try. Here’s a link to the chords I use.
- “This Love” — This is another one where I’m not the biggest fan of the vocals, though at least they aren’t so damn breathy. And the guitar work is beautiful, though it’s a bit overwhelmed by the rest of the instrumentation, sadly. It’s not the best song, but it’s not the worst. It’s a decent, middle-of-the-road track. Hey, not everything can be a smash hit, but there’s nothing wrong with being average.
- “I Know Places” — This one is pretty eerie — which it was intended to be, so good job there. I can’t help but picture some sort of supernatural teen romance, with the lovers running through a dark forest chased by hunters with lanterns and dogs. I have no idea why such a detailed image comes to mind. I mean, sure, she mentions hunters. But that’s a seriously detailed image. Do with that what you will.
- “Clean” — This is the last track on the standard version of the album. And I don’t think there’s any other track that could have closed the album — this one just works. It’s not amazingly strong, lyrically, but the message is powerful nonetheless. I particularly like the metaphor of an old relationship as an addiction. Overall I think it’s an image of a decidedly healthy experience getting over a relationship.
And now, the bonus tracks:
- “Wonderland” — I’m surprised they haven’t dropped this one as a single. It seems like a pretty natural choice. There’s huge potential for a music video here, and aside from being a catchy song, Alice in Wonderland is still a hugely popular property. This song would sell like mad. If Swift could partner with Disney for the video, they would probably make all of the money.
- “You Are In Love” — My least favorite of the bonus tracks. It’s another slow track with breathlessly song lyrics full of clichés. It’s not particularly catchy or interesting. It’s fine to listen to, but I don’t think it could ever really become one of my favorites. It’s just not good to enough, to my taste.
- “New Romantics” — This is another one that doesn’t quite fit stylistically with the rest of the album. Even with how much Swift changed her focus for 1989, this doesn’t really feel like a Taylor Swift song. That said, I do like it, though for some reason I find it kind of forgettable. But I think I can kind of chalk that up to the fact that, like I said, it doesn’t really feel like a Taylor Swift song.
Finally, the deluxe version of the album contains three “voice memos” — short clips with intro narration recorded during the process of writing the album. They’re pretty interesting insights into the genesis of these songs.
- “I Know Places” — A rough piano version of the song that’s somehow, impossibly, more unsettling than the finished version. The piano melody is incredibly haunting. If you’ve got a good ear you and still hear this melody as the foundation of the final cut.
- “I Wish You Would” — This one really just sounds like a demo. It’s rough, but it’s not very far off from the final version.
- “Blank Space” — Yes. A million times yes. You have no idea how much I want an unplugged version of the song done in this style. It’s pretty obviously an early demo — she doesn’t even have lyrics for most of the verse yet. She does have the “click” in the chorus, though, which is a pretty unique part of the song, and it’s cool to see that it was already in the cards early on.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: I love this album, without any shame. I don’t care who judges me for it. it’s fun and catchy and despite the few issues I have with some of the tracks, it’s basically as good as a pop album can get. It’s certainly one of the best out there right now, as far as I’m concerned. Now all that remains is to see if Swift is going to top it. I know I’m excited to see what’s coming next. As for me, coming up next week you’ll get to see what I think about the Ryan Adams version of the album.
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