Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Two salient, if seemingly paradoxical points:
1. I adore Taylor Swift.
2. I despise contemporary country music.
As to the first point, I realize that's it's not...ahem..."normal" for a 38-year-old husband and father to have so much love for the musical stylings of a 24-year-old whose core demographic is teen girls. What can I say? Shame and I parted ways long ago. Her music fills me with joy. It makes about as much sense to fight that as it does to resist playing with a newborn puppy or to refuse to celebrate a walk-off home run.
Of course, the second point would seem to contradict the first. Swift has long been classified a country music star, with the Nashville-launched career to back it up. But the music industry's worst-kept secret is that her music has gotten steadily more poppy since her unremarkable debut album. Think of the songs that rocketed her into the stratosphere: "Love Story," "You Belong With Me," "Back to December," etc. Yeah, there's a banjo here or there, but those are pop/rock tunes.
How do I measure that? Well, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, et al. make me nauseous. I can't stand that nasal twang, the discordant jangle, or the lyrics that appeal to the absolute lowest American common denominator ("trucks," "boots," "jeans," "chicks," "beer," etc.).
Starting with Fearless and continuing with Speak Now, Swift gradually disassociated herself from the mainstream country rabble, even as she showed up to accept her CMA awards. Still, her country roots crept in around the edges or even came to the fore on occasional tunes such as "Mean." When done well, country music showcases the struggle and soul of the American heartland. Swift isn't Johnny Cash, but there is an authenticity to her music that makes her unique amongst her pop starlet peers. Say what you want about her, but she writes her own songs, and they're deeply personal. In fact, that's usually the most frequent criticism of her catalog: "Another song about an ex?"
She left almost any semblance of traditional country sound behind in her last album, Red. Its three biggest hits ("We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," "22," and "I Knew You Were Trouble") aren't country in the slightest. Thus, it made sense when she announced that 1989 would be her first completely pop album.
Is it ever. 1989 positively shimmers. There's not a single clunker contained within the album's 13 glossy tracks. It showcases the best production values money can buy. I'm not being hyperbolic when I write that literally every track is a potential hit single, although my money's on the insanely catchy "All You Had to Do Was Stay" to be the album's signature single, after the already colossal "Shake it Off." Other strong contenders are the sunny "How You Get the Girl" and the cheeky "Blank Space," where Swift asserts "I could make the bad guys good for a weekend."
Swift's critics will be surprised at the lack of breakup drama on 1989. She's apparently spent the last year-and-a-half enjoying the Big Apple and staying out of the tabloids by completely neglecting a love life. Indeed, she wallows knowingly in her public perception. On "Shake it Off" she acknowledges the haters: "I go on too many dates/But I can't make 'em stay/That's what people say." She's even more playful on "Blank Space" when she coos, "Got a long list of ex-lovers/They'll tell you I'm insane/Cause you know I love the players/And you love the game."
The departure from banjos and fiddles to the electronic sound of the album has its benefits. The vocal effects effectively hide that Swift isn't a world-class singer (that's perhaps putting it mildly) while utilizing her bouncy lilt on sweetly repetitive tracks like "Out of the Woods" Most thankfully of all, 1989 doesn't fall prey to the dubstep trend. I was worried after the success of dubstep-lite "I Knew You Were Trouble" that this new album would be full of "waiting for the drop," like so much of current Top-40 radio airplay. The fact that it doesn't succumb to the latest fad means it has a much better chance at timelessness.
However, there's a trade off to be made for this much sweet pop goodness. Swift has sold off a bit of her Taylor-ness to make a record this clean and pretty. For instance, my favorite tune on Red is the ballad "All Too Well." It's set to a lone piano and a soft guitar and features the devastating couplet "You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest." There's real pain in Swift's tortured wail.
There's simply nothing like that on 1989. The closest Swift comes is on "I Wish You Would" when she sings, "You always knew how to push my buttons/You give me everything and nothing." She should sound angry, but the smoothly pulsing synth robs the song of any real torment.
Additionally, there's a touch of anonymity to some of the tracks. For instance, the opener "Welcome to New York" could just as easily be a Katy Perry tune. Ditto for "Style" and "Bad Blood," which would sound more or less the same if sung by Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez.
1989 isn't a disappointment, but let's hope that Swift hasn't settled for being Queen of the Pop Princesses. I've come the realization that I prefer my Swift poppy with just a touch of country soul.
Now I just have to listen to it 50 more times to be sure.
Nolanometer Final Grade: B