This is it. This is the moment that 2014 has been waiting for. By comparison to last year’s deluge of comeback albums from huge artists (Beyoncé, Daft Punk, Katy Perry, Gaga, Britney, Justin, Kanye and Eminem to name just a handful), this year has been a veritable desert. Instead, 2014 has mostly been the year of the debut. Until now. Unless Rihanna Beyoncé’s an album, this is the best we’re going to get. That’s no bad thing.
This is also the moment that Swift herself has been waiting for. 2012’s ‘Red’ was the album that saw her rise from country star to popstar, but ‘1989’ is her real pop breakthrough. As she said herself at the reveal of lead single Shake It Off a couple of months back, the album has stemmed from “not wanting but needing to write a new style of music”. The result is not only her best album, but probably the best pop album of the year.
That “new style” is in fact late 80s pop, hence the album title (also her year of birth). Yet the 80s have been mined for years now by pop musicians – all epic synth waves, bleeps and bloops and processed beats. Is Swift simply playing catch up?
Oh no, this is no pastiche. She’s far too savvy for that. ‘1989’ is a consolidation of all the best pop music from the past few years mixed with that unique Swift sound. Listening to the album, there are shades of everyone from Katy Perry to CHVRCHES, Haim, Lorde and Twin Shadow amongst others. The intro of opener Welcome To New York immediately establishes the glittery synthy sound; the sparse production of Blank Space wouldn’t sound out of place on Lorde’s ‘Pure Heroine’; Style features plenty of soaring guitar solos amidst pulsing synth bass that brings to mind Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer; and the widescreen feel of Out of the Woods is Swift’s twist on CHVRCHES style electro pop. And that’s just the first four tracks. Later, ballads like This Love and Clean slow the tempo, fusing country guitars with evocative, nocturnal moods (the layered vocals of the former are an especially beautiful moment).
As if Swift herself wasn’t a competent songwriter, one look at the credits is enough to get pop fans excited: Max Martin, Shellback, Ryan Tedder and even Imogen Heap all assisted with writing and producing ‘1989’. That’s the dream team right there, the first two especially ensuring the album has that polished Scandi quality that’s pretty much integral to all modern pop music of note.
Amongst all of this, though, ‘1989’ is still very much a Taylor Swift album – indeed it’s a natural extension of her biggest hits from ‘Red’. The deluxe version of the album includes some voice memos that give insight into her songwriting process. Strip back the production to just piano and/or guitar and this is the same Swift that fans know and love. The lyrics remain as honest, truthful and candid as ever, ensuring this is an album with heart and soul rather than just another cold electronic 80s knock-off. Shake It Off is the only major exception with its jokey lyrics (“this sick beat”, “hella good hair”), but even Swift allows herself a pure pop moment of joy.
In fact, lyrics are at the heart of Swift’s style. She simply has an uncanny ability to capture youthful love in all its forms. Here, her lyrics certainly have greater maturity and melancholy than before, but she’s now a woman of 24 rather than a love-struck teenager. Known for writing about her ex-lovers, Blank Space is perhaps her most self-referential with its chorus lyric “got a long list of ex-lovers / they’ll tell you I’m insane / but I got a blank space baby / and I’ll write your name”. New Romantics ends the deluxe version with a title that transcends both the 80s genre and Swift's own propensity for romance. Elsewhere, the lyrics have an urgent cinematic quality (Out of the Woods for instance) and are filled with poetic imagery (Wildest Dreams - “say you’ll remember me standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset”, or Bad Blood – “band-aids don’t fix bullet holes”). Mostly, Swift proves herself to be a master storyteller through her lyrics. That’s something that comes from her country heritage; now it’s simply applied to an electronic pop aesthetic.
In that respect, ‘1989’ is an evolution, not a revolution. It’s also the pinnacle of 00s pop, taking all the clichés of 80s music that have influenced current trends and smacking a big Swift stamp across it all to rise above the competition. It’s clear, then, that she’s the biggest popstar of 2014. And with good reason.
* Out of the Woods
* This Love
Listen: '1989' is available now.