Taylor Swift - 1989
It's wholly satisfying, and oh so predictable, that, at some point in the coming weeks and months, when the naysayers perform an abrupt volte-face and announce their begrudging acceptance of an artist they've dismissed for nearly a decade, their slimy patronage will have been triggered by a work so staggeringly commercial it nigh on mugs the market place. Taylor Swift goes pop.
Submit. Here's a concept that looks cynicism dead in the eye until it slinks away. Would you credit it, y'all? That fourteen year old who upped sticks to Nashville to hone a prodigious (and oft-forgotten, conveniently) gift for composition (third album Speak Now features just one name on the song writing credits) hunkers down against a backdrop of beats and bleeps and crafts the coolest, smartest pop album of 2014. With the aid of Swedish production behemoth Max Martin and OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder, she reacts to the absurdly broad sweep of 2012's Red with an acutely narrowed focus. Sharpened to a dazzling, silvery gleam, 1989 fulfils absolutely the polar requisites of those who whack full lock on the artistic steering wheel: it feels startlingly new whilst at the same time sounding like nothing but the original artist.
Opener 'Welcome to New York' will only add grist to the mill of those who find Taylor Swift insufferably peppy. "The lights are so bright but they never blind me" is all wide-eyed wonder, an arms-aloft analogue whirl. That whole "I'm gonna be a part of it" resolve accounts for a mighty chunk of the popular music canon. But Swift is sharper than that, the punchline ("Everybody here was someone else before") revealing a harder-edged take on bright lights, big city musing.
'Blank Space' is little more than robo-snare and Swift's voice upfront and processed, until it reveals a knowing, weathered eye. "You look like my next mistake…I'm dying to see how this one ends," she muses. That mocking of her heart-on-sleeve diarising of every failed relationship and every dimwit dalliance always seemed beyond cruel. We want our artists to invite us into their homes, or else we'll just barge our way in anyway, right? But if they’re just that bit too unbruised, too apple pie all American, we're suspicious to the point of distrusting. Our prejudices astound. Do we go with, say, Sharon Van Etten's Are We There (one of the year's most féted confessionals, and itself a notable sonic detour) because we prefer our song writers just that bit more bloody in the middle? Scuffed up, still, but righteous. There's little empathy, you suspect (outside of the clued-up youth who adore her), for Taylor Swift because secretly we think she should be thankful for what she's got. Little heart got all broken again? Yeah, girl, well you'll get over it. Rich, blonde, connected. A bit too self-assured? With 'Blank Space' – and much of 1989 displays similar, self-deprecating candour – Swift sets the scene for her most mature work to date. And if all that sounds too earnest by half, check out the cyber-shimmy of YouTube sensation and lead track 'Shake It Off' where "I go on too many dates" is followed by a barely there giggle (and the line "But I can’t make 'em stay", if sour punchlines are your thing.)
Some of the much-reported change in direction is more nuanced than the headlines would have you believe. Ostensibly, something like 'All You Had To Do Was Stay' is no different from 'All Too Well' (the almost unbearably graphic ballad from Red) but it swaps the Springsteen-esque narrative for a slick reduction of verse and (mega)hook. Stylistically, Swift has spoken of her desire to emulate the 80s US chart pop she loves. 'I Wish You Would', a breathless re-imagining of Jane Wiedlin's Rush Hour and Pat Benatar's Tropico (oh, come on!), nails it. You can almost see the video now – those early MTV staples of lovers kissing in blue light on a balcony overlooking a west coast beach, curtains swishing in the night breeze. 1989 is very uncool. 1989 is very cool.
It's also very weird - despite the fact that, by design, it's never anything less than effective. Bad Blood's simple beats are pared down to little more than a playground chant but they frame its 'you-done-me-wrong-boy' lyrics ("Still got the scars on my back from your knife.") It's not all super smart, rest assured. 'Wildest Dreams' is a bit too soapy; too 'Show Me Heaven' amidst 1989's more acidic asides. 'How You Get The Girl' switches viewpoint ("And then you say, I want you for ever and ever") and its processed guitars feel like an intrusion and a backward step. 'This Love' ("losing grip, this sinking ship") the worst kind of simpering balladry. But, the odd slip aside, the whole enterprise feels like playful, artful striving.
'Wonderland' waves a red rag with its referencing of Rhianna a bit too readily ("Eh eh eh!") but anyone not busy swooning beneath its skyscraper chorus needs a slap, frankly. On 'Clean', where Swift sings "You’re all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear any more", you think, that's a bit over-written. Then you think, yes, more of this, please. By the time 'New Romantics' hits the red zone with the line "Heartbreak is the new national anthem" - and you’re reminded of that other current smarter-than-the-snipers American female artist who's perhaps too smart, too beautiful and too ultimately uncaring to defrost the vultures' hearts - all bets are off. Taylor Swift conceived 1989 while touring Red, a stadium-filling circus that featured nightly special guests and a mountain of staging. It's as startling a change of musical direction as any mainstream artist has dared undertake in recent years. Those who prefer their heroine in more comfortably trad mode may have to wait a while for her to hunker over an acoustic guitar with Ed fucking Sheeran. But the question that 1989 poses with eloquence, conviction and wit is: why on earth would you want to?