Sunday, October 26, 2014

"1989" Album Review (It's T-Swift-a-Palooza, Part Two)

When I reviewed Taylor Swift's Red, I explained that I was once called "Taylor Swift" by a guy that I liked and realized that he meant it as an insult, rather than a compliment. And over the years, I've thought a lot about Swift as an artist and a person. I even spent an entire blog post defending her. And what I've realized to be true about her and myself in the process is this: Taylor Swift is brave and vulnerable and a writer, which means that I feel such an emotional connection to her because I, too, am a writer. Writers feel things deeply. No, let me rephrase that: writers feel everything deeply. It's the way that we are wired. While other people look at a dark sky and see an approaching storm, we hear the sizzle of the lightning and smell the impending rain and feel this indescribable feeling of dread and exhilaration as the clouds move faster and faster overhead.

At one point in a 1989 bonus track, Swift expresses this notion, saying that she watched love unfold -- the kind of feelings she's spent "her whole life trying to put into words." It's a beautifully unguarded moment where I felt an intense connection to her because I've spent my entire life trying to do the same. I think that Swift knows there will always be things in life she cannot put into words, physically, but that won't ever stop her from trying to do so. In 1989, we see that clearly because every track on this album is a story and every track is wholly unguarded and raw in the most beautiful and honest way possible. When people tell stories about love, they often only tell the good parts. They talk about roses and first kisses and the sparks in peoples' eyes. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it's really only half of the story. The other half of love is the complicated, messy, vulnerable part. It's the fight that escalated over one word. It's the nights you question whether or not you made the right choice. It's the moment right before you call it quits or the days spent being jealous of someone else.

Swift is unafraid in 1989 to take risks, but the risks that she takes aren't those of releasing a solely pop album. If we're all being honest with ourselves, Red was a pop album that had a song ("Stay Stay Stay") that sounded country. No, Swift is getting older and her lyrics and tone are only changing because she is. When you're younger, you write in your diary; when you become 25 years old, you begin to write your memoir. And the reason I think that this album is her most compelling yet is because we -- as the audience -- are becoming more trusted by Swift. How do I know this? I know this because 1989 features the most raw, open, and vulnerable parts of her life. And you only share those parts with people you love and trust.

This album isn't perfect, but the point of it isn't to BE perfect. The point of it is to be real and relatable and inviting and compelling and yet still magical and hopeful and wonderful. The point of 1989 is to sound and feel like Taylor Swift at every single turn. And in that, it definitely succeeds. Below, I've discussed each track in-depth. See what my thoughts are and then comment on this post with some of your own, if you'd like.

#1 - Welcome to New York

It's a new soundtrack, I could dance to this beat forevermore

Taylor Swift literally welcomes us to her new album by welcoming us to New York City. It's no surprise to anyone who follows Swift that there is a song inspired by the city. New York seems to have... I hesitate to say "changed" her, but indeed it has changed her. The opening track is as lively and exciting as the city, upbeat both lyrically and stylistically. Red opened with a stadium-sized anthem, but 1989 opens with a CITY-sized one in the best way possible. The fact of the matter is that New York is full of possibilities and opportunities. You can literally step into a room and have your life changed. Swift knows that and "Welcome to New York" serves as that metaphorical door for the album: it's a song that props open a door for us. Swift steps aside and ushers us in. And we marvel at the colors in the room and the light and the shadows and we think "yes, this is what we have been waiting for."

So with open arms, Swift welcomes us back into her world. And with this opening track, in some ways, it's like we've never left at all.

#2 - Blank Space

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

Stylistically, the verses of "Blank Space" are staccato, which is actually pretty genius (the pen click in the chorus is an added stroke of genius on Swift's part) when you listen to the lyrics and title. If 1989 differs from any of Swift's albums of the past, it differs because the tracks on this album aren't shy and they aren't guarded and they're not neat and tidy, wrapped up in big perfect bows. They're somehow more honest than ever, which is both refreshing and also startling in the best way possible. But what 1989 really reflects is Swift's commitment to vulnerability, no matter whether or not that vulnerability is pretty. "Blank Space" is a track that focuses not on a love interest of Swift's, but primarily on herself. In past tracks that have discussed themes of reckless abandon, there has always been an emphasis on the relationship itself being treacherous (see: "Treacherous"). But "Blank Space" fills in the -- pardon the pun -- blank spaces of the relationship and we find that they're filled with Swift and HER imperfections.

Imperfections are wonderful in poetry (and that's what Swift's songs are, really: they're poems that invite us into the deepest crevices of her mind, heart, and soul) and they're wonderful here because they shed light on Swift not as a songwriter but as a young woman, daring herself and her love to fall into love. Whether or not that love is right, wrong, doomed, or dysfunctional is up to them to discover. "Blank Space," though, is such a great track because it invites us into the recklessness of love and the un-prettiness of it, which is so rare to find in an artist these days, where everyone either sings about love being beautiful and perfect, or love being fleeting. No one ever really sings about the love that is crazy and wrong and messy and exhilarating.

Well, no one until now.

#3 - Style

'cause we never go out of style

"Style" is the "Today Was a Fairytale" of this album, in my opinion. It's a catchy little track about the timelessness of a couple, even in their imperfections. Swift sings about the couple's Hollywood-esque style and that timeless classic image of each other seems to be the very foundation of their relationship. "Style" is like... it's like the part of the romantic comedy where the couple drives through California hills in a red convertible with the top down and just smiles at each other. It's the woman wearing cat-eye sunglasses with a bright scarf around her neck blowing in the wind and the man wearing a smile as he looks at the road and then back at her. Swift, as an artist, should aim for timeless songs that feel like they could be a part of any decade and with "Style," she hits that mark.

#4 - Out of the Woods

But the monsters turned out to be just trees

I think that, of all the tracks on 1989, "Out of the Woods" remains a contender for my favorite. It's not just catchy, but it's also dark. And, from a woman whose songs are usually light and airy, like summer, listening to the haunting and compelling lyrics of this track was refreshing. Taylor Swift isn't afraid, in this song, to talk about what makes love scary. A lot of people talk about what makes love beautiful and happy; a lot of people talk about what makes love upsetting. But few people talk about what makes love downright terrifying and few do it better than Swift does in "Out of the Woods." It's a track that literally repeats the question: "Are we out of the woods yet?" What happens when you're in a relationship that seems like one trial after another? One heartbreak after another? One hurdle after another? You begin to question the complexity of relationships and love and you begin to question yourself. But when you emerge from the darkness of the woods (woods are so wonderful to use as symbols because of the layers to the metaphor), the light is dazzling and blinding that you forget about the darkness you faced in the first place.

"Out of the Woods" is musically such a STELLAR song and I honestly and truly love everything about it.

#5 - All You Had to Do Was Stay

All I know is that you drove us off the road

The message of "All You Had to Do Was Stay" is pretty self-explanatory. In it, Swift sings about a love who pushed her away and then changed his mind once it was too late. The chorus repeats the same message over and over -- all she ever wanted was for him to stay and if he had stayed, rather than push her aside and take her for granted, things might have ended differently between them. What is admirable is the strength that is exhibited in "All You Had to Do Was Say," when Swift notes that he was all she ever wanted, "but not like this." It takes a strong person to be in love with someone and then reject them once they've re-entered your life because you know they're toxic and your future pain is not worth the momentary happiness. This is a track that focuses on self-love and preservation over comfort and familiarity. It's also a song that provides a clear and distinct message: the choice to leave or to stay is often easier than we give ourselves credit for but it is also a decision that comes with consequences (for better or for worse).

#6 - Shake It Off

I'm dancing on my own,
I make the moves up as I go
And that's what they don't know, mhmm

If you ever happen to run into me on a Saturday morning at 7:30 AM, there's a very good chance that I'm running and there's also a very good chance that I'm listening to "Shake It Off." I love this song. I've loved this song since the moment it began playing on top 40 radio and I love it still. It's fun, comparable to past singles like "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" or "22." It's a seemingly lighthearted dance anthem, but the lyrics are also pretty great, because they're indicative of a young woman who grew up in the industry, wrote songs about "Mean" critics and then realized that no matter how hard she tried, people would still find faults with her.

I think that the most painful thing about people who judge Taylor Swift is that they rarely judge her for her music and instead fixate on her love life. Even fans are guilty of this, scanning album liners to try and decipher which track is about which ex-lover. Some days I think about how I would react, if I was Swift. How would I be able to get up in the morning, knowing that for every adoring fan there was also a scorning critic? Swift knows what people say about her and she knows how they judge her and she's aware that they dismiss her work -- her ART -- in favor of a discussion about who she's dating. So she explains, in this song, what she does to cope: she shakes it off. She has to, or else she would likely never leave the house in the morning. And "Shake It Off" is such a great anthem, not just a dance one, that encourages each of us to shake off the negative reviews, the passive-aggressive e-mails, the snarky text messages, and the eye-rolling passersby. It's easier said than done, but I'm glad Swift said it.

#7 - I Wish You Would

I wish you knew that I'd never forget you as long as I live

Taylor Swift has such a frenzied, electric energy throughout 1989. And I'm not sure if it's because a vast majority of the tracks are now classified as "pop" or because a majority of them are synthesized but... I kind of love it. It's a new sound, but it's not a NEW sound -- you can still hear Swift in every corner of the song and you don't have to listen hard to find her voice because it's never lost, even when stylistically a song like "I Wish You Would" pops up. This is a track who, after my third listen, still interests me because of how fast and frantic it is. Now, that's not necessarily a negative thing, for a track to sound fast or rushed or hurried when it's supposed to feel that way. And I think "I Wish You Would" is meant to feel dizzying because of the subject matter. It's about a sort of nostalgia that peppers a lot of the songs on 1989 -- these quick bursts of longing and want for a relationship that has been lost.

While "I Wish You Would" isn't my favorite track on the album, it reminds me of some of my favorite days of music (my high school ones) when I would pore over Vanessa Carlton's Harmonium. This song contains the same kind of longing and energy that Carlton's introduced me to in my youth -- that desire for one more moment and one last conversation.

#8 - Bad Blood

Band-Aids don't fix bullet holes

I knew it from the opening that "Bad Blood" was destined to become my go-to car song -- you know, the one that you blare while you drive with your windows down throughout your town (earning weird looks from people in the process). It's comparable in theme and tone to Swift's prior angry/jaded/revenge songs (think "Better Than Revenge" and actually, it sounds very Demi Lovato-esque so think that, too) but "Bad Blood" isn't petty. It's a song filled with rawness and anger, but also vulnerability and pain. All of the tracks on 1989 have something in common and it's that they are utterly Taylor Swift. Even though the album is her first foray into solely pop, it doesn't FEEL any different. In fact, 1989 is perhaps the most Taylor Swift of all Taylor Swift's albums. She's open and vulnerable and that must be incredibly terrifying to be in the music industry, where people judge you for writing songs about ex-lovers and try to compartmentalize your work constantly, slapping a label onto both it and you.

So "Bad Blood" isn't your typical revenge song. It's more than that: it's a song about the abuse of trust, the pain of losing a person you thought you knew, and also the sting that comes with recalling happy memories of that person and realizing -- through your new, non-rose-colored glasses -- that you were wrong. It's pain that drives 1989, but the good kind of pain that doesn't break you apart but forges you like fire does, making you stronger and wiser.

#9 - Wildest Dreams

Say you'll remember me, standing in a nice dress
staring at the sunset, red lips and rosy cheeks

I love the lyrics and musicality of "Wildest Dreams" because it's like a fire: burning and constant and self-destructive. Taylor Swift has sung before about knowing the dangers of a relationship ("Treacherous") but I love that "Wildest Dreams" focuses on her decision to pursue a relationship in which she can see the end before the beginning. She knows this love will break her heart and burn her down, but she can't help but keep falling and following him. What is so poignant, then, is that this song doesn't stop there. It would be one thing to sing about a relationship and heart that is doomed, but it is another to spend a track requesting her love remember her a certain way. All that she wants, once the relationship burns down and she's staring at the wreckage, is to know that he will remember her in a nice dress with red lips -- that she will MEAN something to him. And it's so tragic and painful and yet hauntingly beautiful, this song and request, because she wants to believe she is more than a conquest or challenge. She wants to be remembered

But most importantly, she just doesn't want him to forget any of it. And because of that, "Wildest Dreams" is so utterly good.

#10 - How You Get the Girl

I want you for worse or for better
I would wait forever and ever

I really love Taylor Swift songs where she addresses and unnamed "you" (which happens with some frequency in this new album) because it forges a new layer of connectivity to her tracks. And "How You Get the Girl" is probably one of the most FUN tracks on her new album that employs this tactic. Swift sings about how a guy had and then lost a girl, culminating in the chorus in which the man expresses his feelings for the woman. "How You Get the Girl" is the kind of song that has a bounce to it, which is perfect because it's a song that deserves a bounce -- the subject matter isn't dramatic or depressing and the bounce highlights rather well the up and down nature of the relationship between this unnamed couple. Honestly, this is one of the most lively and fun tracks on 1989, in my opinion.

#11 - This Love

These hands had to let it go free
And this love came back to me

"This Love" is a sweet, slow ballad and it wouldn't be a Taylor Swift album without one of these. The song is so calming and beautiful (there is a lot of water and woodland imagery in 1989 so pay careful attention to these symbols because they are always important) that it literally mirrors an ocean. In a way, it reminds me slightly of an Enya track because of the ebb and flow, like a tide. The whole song is a turn on the cliched phrase "if you love something, set it free; if it comes back, it's meant to be" (and she, once again, manages to turn a cliche into a unique image). You can hear the echoes in Swift's voice throughout the song and the tenderness and gentleness in "This Love" is so evident. There's no darkness here -- just light and life and clarity. And that, coupled with the mellow lyrics, makes us as listeners feel the same sense of calm that we do on the shoreline of a beach during a cloudless day.

#12 - I Know Places

They are the hunters, we are the foxes
And we run

I think that "I Know Places" is one of my favorite tracks on 1989 and I think that I pinpointed why: it is very reminiscent of "Haunted," a track that I absolutely loved. "I Know Places" is the kind of haunting that Taylor Swift is so well-known for. It's a catchy track but one that pinpoints the frantic nature of relationships and the desire to just run sometimes and never look back. That's really what Swift has excelled at in recent years. She's managed to write lyrics and compose songs with desperate, haunting imagery and sounds. They're the kinds of songs that resonate with people, too, because we latch onto them and want to run into the night. It's why "Out of the Woods" is such a stellar song and it's why "I Know Places" feels like the song you should be running through those woods to. There's love in the song, but there's a sizzling, electric energy that fills you with a frantic buzz once it's ended.

And I love that.

#13 - Clean

The rain came pouring down
When I was drowning, that's when I could finally breathe

I love how Taylor Swift opened and closed Red (kicking the album off with "State of Grace" which was such a wide, opening, stadium-sized anthem and closing, literally cyclically with "Begin Again"). Red was so beautiful to me because it proved that as an artist and a person, Swift is constantly starting over: in relationships, in daily life, etc. So the fact that 1989 starts with a welcome and ends with cleansing is perhaps the most symbolic way she could bookend her latest work of art. And "Clean" is such a good track, not because thematically it is revolutionary (it's about cleansing yourself from a relationship) but because of how universal it is. I've said it many times, but it begs repeating: Swift is a revolutionary artist -- yes, an artist -- because she takes experiences that are so unique and personal and turns them into relatable anecdotes. She doesn't make me feel as if I've lived her life, because that's easy for a songwriter to do. No, somehow Swift taps into exactly what makes each of us human and uses her experiences to write from that place. So when she sings about dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light, I don't just see that image... I FEEL it.

And that's what "Clean" does so well, too: you feel washed in emotions and memories that aren't yours but ARE at the same time. And stylistically, "Clean" does sound like it has raindrops peppering the background while Swift sings about finally being drowned and cleansed from her relationship. It's a beautiful note that she ends on, quietly singing: "I think I am finally clean." If that isn't symbolic and cyclical and poignant and gut-wrenching in honesty and vulnerability, then I don't know what is.

Bonus tracks:

#14 - Wonderland

And in the end, in wonderland, we both went mad

The opening of "Wonderland" is really impressive in terms of the control in Taylor Swift's voice. She's rarely sounded better than she does at the beginning of the song, and I love that "Wonderland" has so much control in Swift's voice and musically (and lyrically) is contrasted with chaos. It's a good kind of chaos, really -- the frantic kind that is very much of a parallel to Alice in Wonderland. The song depicts a relationship that is exactly like Wonderland: fascinating, maddening, alluring, and exciting. We've all had relationships like this, really. We've had the kind that Swift has sung about on "Red" -- the kind that are destined to end poorly but make you feel alive. "Wonderland" is similar to other tracks on 1989, thematically, which is why I suspect it ended up as a bonus track instead of one on the main album. Nevertheless, I love the frantic energy that Swift put into the lyrics and melody of this song. I really and truly do.

#15 - You Are In Love

One night, he wakes
Strange look on his face
Pauses, then says: "You're my best friend"
And you knew what it was
He is in love

In what is in the running for my favorite song, lyrically, on the 1989 album, Taylor Swift sings about another couple's relationship (Jake Antonoff and Lena Dunham) and creates the most beautiful Polaroid images of it to share with us. That's really what the staccato verses serve as, if I'm being honest: they serve as these little mementos to define a relationship by -- seemingly insignificant moments that are just resonating with love and joy. Isn't that what relationships are, after all? Isn't that what LIFE is? Life and love are both series of snapshots, series of things that seem unimportant but when strewn together are really the most amazing tapestry imaginable. "You Are In Love" is utterly lovely because it's a progression of a relationship that doesn't culminate with a demise or with a fizzle. It's not even a song that describes the wild ups and downs of a relationship, either. It is a song that is demonstrative of true love: it is simple and yet somehow so utterly poignant because of that.

You know why that is? Why "You Are In Love" is so beautiful and enrapturing to me? Because it is tangible and elusive at the same time -- because, just like everyday love, it is real.

#16 - New Romance

'cause baby, I could build a castle
out of all the bricks they threw at me

"Heartbreak is the national anthem; we sing it proudly," Swift sings on the concluding bonus track titled "New Romance." (As a sidenote, the above lyrics may be some of my favorite from 1989). This bonus track is a really energetic dance anthem. Honestly, this is a song that encapsulates my college years -- it's a track I wish I would have been able to blast as we drove through West Palm, daring the world to come at us with whatever it had in store. "New Romance" is really about embracing everything about love and heartbreak as long as the people you need most in life are also by your side. Heartbreak is horrible to endure unless you have friends beside you who pick you back up and remind you that heartbreak is an anthem and it's something that reminds us that we are human and have feelings and emotions. I love "New Romance" because it takes us careening off into the night with Swift beside us as we embrace whatever love, pain, and joy the world has to throw at us.

And there's not a better way to end one chapter of your life and embrace another than on that note.


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