ALBUM REVIEW – “1989” by Taylor Swift

“If any person has sung or composed against another a person a song such as was causing slander or insult to another, he shall be clubbed to death” – The Twelve Tables, Table VII

Taylor Swift would not have lasted long in Ancient Rome.

As notorious for penning songs airing the dirty laundry of her relationships as she is for bridging the gap between country and pop, the 24 year old is one of the highest profile young women on the planet. That she’s more often thought of in terms of her private life than professional career (even if her lyrical content does blur the lines between them, every pop idol does it with not nearly as messy results) does a disservice to one of the biggest musical phenomena of our times – she is after all the first artist to top the Billboard charts for six weeks with three successive albums since the Beatles, and alongside Adele the woman with the highest total weeks at #1 in the same chart. In other words, Taylor Swift the musician is by no fault of her own far too often eclipsed by Taylor Swift the celebrity. The troubled transitional feeling of 2012 monster seller Red, with its brace of chart-smashing singles about the troubles of falling in love, certainly didn’t help, but it was a necessary step for Swift away from her lightweight country roots and toward pumping synth-driven pop. 1989 is the logical destination.

Where its predecessor felt torn between what was and what could be, her latest album is far more comfortable and assured sounding. As its title suggests, nods to the 80s are frequent, though more often than not sound second hand in nature – ‘Bad Blood’ would do Charli XCX proud with its preppy hook and percussive stomp, and ‘Out of the Woods’ is just a Scottish accent shy of a Chvrches track. Swift’s vocals are uniformly strong, and fit the crisp electro soundscapes they’re layered over like a glove. The choruses of tracks like ‘All You Had to Do Was Stay’ and ‘How You Get the Girl’ benefit from the energy she pushes into them, and for the most part her singing is the best part of the songs.

The disappointing thing is just how flat the whole thing is on balance. The ubiquitous sass of ‘Shake It Off’ made it (god-awful bridge aside) of the summer’s most memorable tunes, but that perkiness is so absent elsewhere it stands out like a sore thumb here. The mid-tempo stylings of ‘Style’, ‘Wildest Dreams’ and ‘Clean’ are perfectly pleasant, but about as exciting as the John Cena/Randy Orton match from this year’s Royal Rumble, i.e. not at all. That Swift’s lyrics still quite frequently come off as amateurish doesn’t help at all, a problem compounded by her bizarrely monotone delivery on inconsequential opener ‘Welcome to New York’. At its most lethargic on the pretty but overproduced and torpid ballad ‘This Love’, this is an album with too little variation and spirit to ever really get going.

It’s never bad, but it very rarely gets distinctly very good. ‘Out of the Woods’ is the pick of the low-key numbers, and ‘How You Get the Girl’ just about succeeds despite a particularly annoying synth sound; the most surprising success is remarkably dark little gem ‘I Know Places’, which with its military drums and foreboding pianos recalls the serious side of Hollywood Undead of all things. But for the most part 1989 is a perfectly nice album with little replay value and no clear emotional crescendo, and simply rattles along peaceably. The full-blooded pop tracks from Red may have been very annoying at times, but they were never anything less than engaging and were both far catchier and more full of life than this next stage in the T-Swift evolution.

The queen of country pop has thus completed her metamorphosis into ultra-contemporary trend-definer, and given the world another reason to stop talking about her boyfriends and start looking more closely at her music. Because 1989 is really quite alright, and few will take offence to its nostalgic leanings and pristine, polished tunes. Much, much better pop albums have been released this year that won’t receive nearly as much attention, but as long as people are listening to songs of any description and not reading gossip columns then this can be counted as a victory.

Rating: 6 / 10

Michael Bird

‘Shake It Off’

T Swift

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