The UK’s number one album, installed at the summit on the Sunday just gone after selling over a million copies worldwide inside a week, is a collection of disappointments. I’m sorry, but there it is. Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ is a constant tease, forever flirting with excellence but smashing hopes that just one song might emerge as singularly brilliant against the cruel rocks of pop inevitability at every opportunity.
Let’s take the penultimate ‘I Know Places’ as an example of what I’m talking about. The song begins with spooked-pale keys and martial percussion for approaching android armies – for a good 48 seconds it feels as if it’s going to peak with a chorus like a hammer blow, a perceptions-skewing masterstroke that categorically confirms Swift’s transformation from diverting pop star with a few strong singles to her name into a bona-fide album artist of depth and previously unexpressed creativity.
Instead, when the chorus comes it just drips: Swift ups the pitch, tips her head back and her eyes gloss over. As do ours. All punch, gone, and however much she talks of hunters and foxes any drama that might have been evaporates instantly.
Elsewhere, ‘1989’ – titled because, apparently, she’s been taking compositional cues from music released in the year of her birth – leans on other artists and arrangements that feel familiar, but never carries through with the threat of manifesting a song strong enough to surpass the sum of its parts. It does mark a turning point for its maker, her first outright pop record, any obvious country roots abandoned. And her easy star quality, her endearing personality in publicity appearances, does ensure ‘1989’ avoids the harshest criticism – she’s been through a lot, the poor dear, so let’s not pile on any more misery.
But, parking its maker’s likeability to one side to focus exclusively on the music for five minutes – well, for 13 tracks, running to a C90-maxing 48 minutes (c’mon, if it’s ’80s-vibed, you need to play this in a Walkman, right?) – ‘1989’ never delivers on numerous promises. ‘Style’ is post-Drive electro-pop for its pre-chorus first 50 seconds, and even maintains a certain tension in its bridge, but collapses into a bubblegum approximation of what CHVRCHES do to a greater quality. ‘I Wish You Would’ opens like Swift’s drafted The Edge into the studio to do what he does with effects pedals, before spilling teenage romance regrets all over the track; and ‘Wildest Dreams’ is a shameless Lana Del Rey homage. Let that sink in for a second: a Lana Del Rey homage.
Swift’s vocals are triumphant, soaring, wild throughout – she is a fantastic singer, and ‘1989’ does showcase her ability to attack a track of any style and claim it as her own, even if the ultimate results feel like a compromise had to be found to make the final cut. There are moments that try the patience – ‘Welcome To New York’ is pure tourist-board bombast, from an artist born in Pennsylvania, and it’s easy to appreciate how someone like city-native rapper El-P felt a bit cheesed off by it, while ‘Bad Blood’ is a litany of diary-page break-up clichés set to directionless thumps and fuzzes.
Pop moves fast. No artist wants to be caught behind the times. With ‘1989’, despite her retrospective inspirations, Swift’s realised a smorgasbord of contemporary pop cuts that, at turns, can compete with anything by Katy, by Lana, by Britney, by Charlie. There’s no Iggy-confronting rap track, although the potent sass of ‘Shake It Off’ (video below) is up there alongside ‘Fancy’ as one of 2014’s most energising/irritating (delete as you see fit) earworms. Throughout, this couldn’t sound more now, which presents a very real problem, encapsulated by that first-paragraph reference to its persistent teasing: it never reaches further, beyond the easy get-out, the expected breakdown, the tried-and-tested formulas. Sure, it mixes pop’s constituents in a way that’s not been heard before, but this muddled cocktail rarely satisfies like sugar-rushed reports elsewhere have suggested.
Taylor Swift has grown into a tremendous pop artist, a superstar whose very presence on a chat show or appearance at an awards ceremony can put a smile on the face of the most cynical. She is mainstream entertainment gold. But ‘1989’ is not a tremendous pop album, its ambition commendable but its execution boldly flawed. It has moments of magic, passages that gleam so perfectly. But then it stalls. And it splutters. And it parks itself, enticing first impressions undermined by an unreliable core, as Just Another Pop Record. Which isn’t a problem, per se, because some of the best albums of this set’s immediate ilk are inconsistent, naïve, only intermittently inspired. But don’t be fooled: this is not the brave new dawn you might have been promised.
Words: Mike Diver
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(*Add an extra mark for her glowing personality, if it makes you feel better.)