When Taylor Swift decides to do something, the girl really knows how to overdo it. So on her fifth album, when she indulges her crush on Eighties synth-pop, she goes full blast, spending most of the album trying to turn herself into the Pet Shop Boys. 1989 is a drastic departure – only a couple of tracks feature her trademark tear-stained guitar. But she’s still Taylor Swift, which means she’s dreaming bigger and oversharing louder than anyone else in the game. And she still has way too many feelings for the kind of dudes who probably can’t even spell “feelings.”
Swift has already written enough great songs for two or three careers. Red, from 2012, was her Purple Rain, a sprawling I-am-the-cosmos epic with disco banjos and piano ballads and dubstep drops. But as every Eighties pop star knew, you don’t follow one epic with another – instead, you surprise everybody with a quick-change experiment. So rather than trying to duplicate the wide reach of Red, she focuses on one aspect of her sound for a whole album – a very Prince thing to do.
Max Martin produced seven of these 13 songs, and his beats provide the Saturday-night-whatever soundtrack as Swift sings about the single life in the big old city she always dreamed about. In “Welcome to New York,” she finds herself in a place where “you can want who you want/Boys and boys, and girls and girls.” She hits cruise mode on the floor in “Blank Space” (“I can make the bad guys good for the weekend”) and the hilariously titled “Style,” where she swoons, “You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye.”
The best moments come toward the end, when Swift shakes up the concept. “How You Get the Girl” mixes up the best of her old and new tricks, as she strums an acoustic guitar aggressively over Martin’s expert disco surge. “This Love” brings back her most simpatico producer, Nathan Chapman, for the kind of tune that they were just starting to call a “power ballad” in 1989. (The precise equivalent would be Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There for You.”) On the killer finale, “Clean,” English singer Imogen Heap adds ethereal backup sighs to Swift’s electro melancholy (“You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore”).
If there’s nothing as grandiose as “All Too Well” or “Dear John” or “Enchanted,” that’s because there wasn’t meant to be. 1989 sets the record for fewest adjectives (and lowest romantic body count) on a Swift album. Most of the songs hover above the three-minute mark, which is a challenge for Tay – she’s always been a songwriter who can spend five minutes singing about a freaking scarf and still make every line hit like a haymaker. But if you’re into math, note that the three best songs here – “How You Get the Girl,” “This Love,” “Clean” – are the three that crash past four minutes. This is still an artist who likes to let it rip. Deeply weird, feverishly emotional, wildly enthusiastic, 1989 sounds exactly like Taylor Swift, even when it sounds like nothing she’s ever tried before. And yes, she takes it to extremes. Are you surprised? This is Taylor Swift, remember? Extremes are where she starts out.