A master of implication and innuendo, Taylor Swift is known for choosing her words carefully. So when the singer described her new record as her first "official pop album," you had to wonder what exactly the phrase meant.
"Pop," of course, was no surprise. How else to categorize the work of a global superstar who long ago outgrew her cozy Nashville roots? But "official," with its vague suggestion of the establishment, felt troubling. Swift's flair for disruption – the ease with which she's shaken up so much country-music orthodoxy – has made her one of the most vital cultural figures of the last decade. She hasn't sought approval; she's granted it.
Now, though, it's clear her description was as precise as usual: "1989" is a deeply catchy, sleekly-produced pop record with the slightly juiceless quality of an authorized biography, a would-be tell-all bleached of the detailed insight she's trained us to expect from her.
That doesn't mean it's not effective. Swift, the militarized police force of American pop stars, moves the needle by fiat. But this album, the singer's fifth, represents a novelty: the first time she's playing by someone else's rules.
The game isn't new to her. Though she's said she titled the album in a nod to the "limitless" spirit of late-'80s pop, "1989" – also the year Swift was born – pulls from the same state-of-the-art sound palette as the biggest hits from her last album, 2012's "Red."
Her principal collaborator was Max Martin, the Swedish studio wizard behind Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble" and "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," and here they deliver shiny textures and up-tempo grooves with nary a banjo in sight. (Other producers and songwriters featured on the project include Martin's partner Shellback; Ryan Tedder; Jack Antonoff of the band fun.; and Nathan Chapman, who oversaw the bulk of Swift's first four records.)
Yet where Swift's earlier forays into pop retained her signature – pulsing synths overlaid with talky teenage vérité -- these songs sound far less distinctive. "Bad Blood," about a backstabbing ex-friend rumored to be Katy Perry, rides a stomping beat similar to the one in Perry's "Roar" (which Martin also co-produced). "Wildest Dreams" channels the woozy drama of Lana Del Rey, down to the breathy way Swift characterizes a guy who's "bad, but he does it so well."
And with its bouncy electronic groove and ready-made break-up lyric ("I've been picking up the pieces of the mess you made"), "All You Had to Do Was Stay" is easy to imagine on a record by Kelly Clarkson or Pink or Demi Lovato, something no reasonable listener could've said of any previous Swift song. Nor could that listener have accused her of writing a tune as dumb as "Welcome to New York," the self-styled anthem in which she celebrates her recent move to the Big Apple with a series of empty slogans.
"Welcome to New York" is just one of the songs on "1989" that might've benefited from the razored specificity of Swift's previous work. "This love is good / This love is bad," she muses in "This Love," while "How You Get the Girl" sketches a couple's reunion with language that's somehow clunky and bland at the same time: "I want you for worse or for better / I would wait forever and ever." Good enough for Carrie Underwood, maybe, but not for Swift, who once filled the nearly-7-minute-long "Dear John" with exacting references to what appeared to be her short-lived relationship with John Mayer.
Anyone who's witnessed the unforgiving tabloid scrutiny under which Swift lives can understand her desire to move beyond the perceived kiss-and-tell thing – especially given the "sexist" double standard (as she recently described it) that enables men to write about their exes without fear of seeming indiscreet.
But on "1989" her liberation from that caricature often leads to music that feels circumscribed in a different fashion: high-level pop-by-numbers expertly designed not to offend or titillate.
Exceptions crop up. Set over a minimal hip-hop beat, "Blank Space" is a thrillingly vicious riff on Swift's reputation as a man-eater, a topic she also addresses in the album's jumpy lead single, "Shake It Off." "Got a long list of ex-lovers / They'll tell you I'm insane," she sings, her voice surging with newfound power, "But I've got a blank space, baby / And I'll write your name."
"Style" is even better, a sensual funk-pop track that may or may not allude to the highest-profile of her ex-boyfriends, Harry Styles of One Direction. Here she's singing about romance, even sex – "Midnight / You come and pick me up, no headlights" -- with a sense of grown-up emotion she's never fully embraced before.
And then there are the two songs she made with Antonoff, a pair of head-rush synth-pop jams that come closest to re-creating the late-'80s vibe Swift was evidently after. In "Out of the Woods" she repeats the song's title over and over, capturing the hopeful insistence of young love; "I Wish You Would" summons a similar longing over digital snare cracks all but borrowed from Go West's "King of Wishful Thinking."
It's worth noting that Swift didn't actually experience the era she's emulating: She was all of 2 months old when "King of Wishful Thinking" came out. In a way, though, her believability in these songs – how vividly she inserts herself into that imagined mind-space – is the small triumph of "1989."
She's reminding us (and maybe telling herself) that great pop needn't be about sticking to one's reality. But it needs to have some real life.
2 stars out of 4