We’re spending the month of December looking back at some of the great new releases that we missed out on reviewing earlier this year. This is The Rest of 2014.
Let’s face it: this has been a weird fucking year for culture in general. The most successful movie of the year was about one of the most head-scratching comics of the century. Community steadfastly refused to die; so did The Big Bang Theory. If you’re a comedy fan, you watched your heroes die from depression or transgression. Outside of entertainment, it was a shitty year to believe in justice or peace, or that you could safely e-mail about Ghostbusters reboots without hackers getting into your mail.
In this bizarre climate, is it much of a stretch to imagine that Taylor Swift made the biggest and the best pure pop album of 2014? Well, yes and no. Since breaking out of Nashville at the age of seventeen in 2006, it’s been pretty apparent that her heart never truly belonged to Music Row. In 2008, she did a CMT Crossroads special with pop-metal masterminds Def Leppard; her last album, 2012’s Red, featured singles co-written with Top 40 wizards Max Martin and Shellback and an eyebrow-raising flirtation with EDM.
But 1989, Swift’s fifth studio release and “first documented official pop album,” is pretty shocking in how it married the rules of contemporary hit radio with her intensely personal, take-no-prisoners songwriting style. It’s not just an aesthetic change, with album art showcasing the 25-year-old’s chopped-off locks and cosmopolitan downtown New York fashion chic. This time, Swift traded in her acoustic guitar for chilly synths and foreboding rhythmic patterns, and setting her lyrics to arresting hooks from Martin and Shellback, Imogen Heap, Jack Antonoff of Steel Train/fun./Bleachers, and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder.
The result is, not unlike some of the best works from around the year of Taylor’s birth (think Michael Jackson’s Bad or George Michael’s Faith), an album that is both ambitiously universal and a singular artistic statement only she could have made. You’ve doubtlessly already heard chart-topping singles “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” (the latter a far stronger example of what the album offers), but 1989 has deep roots: plenty of tracks that could be singles, like the simmering grooves of “Out of the Woods” and “Style”; intoxicating slow-burn james (“This Love,” “I Know Places,” “Wildest Dreams”) and fist-in-the-air cuts from “I Wish You Would” to charmingly gawky opener “Welcome To New York.”
Swift’s certainly never sounded quite like she does on 1989. Here, she tries to expand her admittedly thin voice, keeping her ordinary presets (“gawky” and “upbeat”) and experimenting with “sassy” and “sultry.” It’s particularly amazing how much she succeeds with the latter; it’s not saying much in this country, but 1989 finds Taylor taking her first stabs at addressing sexuality like an adult. It’s certainly up for debate if “Style,” with its strutting chorus (“You got that long hair, slicked back, white T-shirt/And I got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt”) is truly adult, but it’s surely an improvement for someone who unironically wrote a song called “Today Was A Fairytale.” And the airy textures of “This Love” and “Wildest Dreams” (“He’s so tall and handsome as hell/He’s so bad but he does it so well”) are actually pretty titillating in their own right, particularly in an era in which Katy Perry or Lady Gaga almost revel in bludgeoning you in the face with their metaphors.
With Swift allowing her songwriting partners to do the heavy lifting as tunes go, she’s able to deliver some of her best lyrics yet. They are, as usual, both deeply personal and maniacally relatable, which is acutely cognizant of The Way We Live Now: tired and wired, with a Twitter feed full of content that seems almost too earnest while revealing less than you’d think. At least 40 percent of these songs probably deal with that guy from that boy band who kind of looks like Michael Hutchence if you squint hard enough (and the time he crashed a car or something), but they’re malleable enough that her breakups, her hangups, her trivial shit that she can’t quite shake can all be yours too. That’s far from a criticism; that’s what makes this record (and all her others) work so well, and why more than a million people rushed out to buy this album in a store like doing so was still in style.
Pundits can (and will) spend whole paragraphs on what 1989 truly means: her transition away from country to pop, how well she can sing these tunes live, the merits of her taking her catalog away from Spotify, and so on. Those will all mean something when the ultimate narrative of this album is published in the history books, but for now, 1989 is not just a hell of a pop album, but a hell of an album in general.
1989 is available online and at your local record store.