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Junk Mail: Taylor Swift '1989' Album Review

by Carolyn Menyes   Oct 29, 2014 17:40 PM EDT

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Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Kyle Dowling and Caitlin Carter chat about Taylor Swift's new album 1989. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.

Kyle Dowling: Taylor Swift's 1989. So much hype... so much promise... so what happened? I'll admit that I've been a fan of Swift's past work. I always thought she had a very distinct sound, and I figured "Shake It Off" and "Welcome To New York" were just her trying something new... which is cool, too. Despite those, I really thought that this album would have some sort of Taylor Swift feel. Instead, I walked away feeling like I just listened to a Katy Perry record.

Outside of a couple of tunes that I enjoyed ("Out of the Woods" and "This Love") I can't say 1989 is the album I was hoping for. Which very much sucks because I was (surprisingly) rather excited for this record.

Thoughts?

Carolyn Menyes: Taylor Swift was definitely trying something new here, I mean, that's not something anybody can deny. Though Swift has been on toeing the line between country and pop for basically her entire career 1989 is the first time she's wholly rejecting country as a whole. So, other than "I Knew You Were Trouble" or a radio remix of "You Belong WIth Me," what would a full pop Taylor Swift album sound like?

And you're right, Kyle, the answer is Katy Perry (who I happen to like). The best things about Swift and the things that have made her so popular in the past is that she's put a lot of thought into her songwriting and the product has always been unique. 1989 is a solid pop work, I guess, but it isn't unique enough for Swift. I expect more from her.

Caitlin Carter: I agree with both of your points. It's almost as if she was doing a "pop case study" and trying out the styles of her favorite (or at least the most influential) pop stars that are putting out music right now. I heard Lana Del Rey on "Wildest Dream," Lorde on "New Romantics," HAIM on "Wish You Would," and definitely some Katy Perry and Demi Lovato in there. I think with this being her first all pop record, she hasn't quite found her signature sound yet. Hopefully by her next release, we'll get something that feels truly Taylor.

That said, these are all pretty well-written and accessible tunes. I enjoyed the album for what it was outside of the context of Swift singing the songs.

KD: I'd agree that it's a solid pop record. I guess I was just hoping for something a little more Taylor. I'm praying she doesn't become just another pop star. There are so many out there. At the same time, it's hard to fault her for trying something new.

CM: She will probably, until she gets older again. WOMP WOMP. I think the thing is, to your point Caitlin, TSwift was trying on a bunch of new styles for 1989 but she already had her own niche in pop music. I mean, she's sold something like 300 million records and had plenty of Billboard hits, so it's not like she wasn't already a pop star with her own distinct sound.

And I'm a critic, I can find fault in her for doing something new because she seems to have washed away all of the nuances that made her unique in trade for this '80s throwback record. It does sound a LOT like Perry's Prism, which is ironic because these two chicks hate each other -- Perry is rumored to have inspired "Bad Blood."

And, did we really need to go back to 1989? The '80s were pretty terrible for culture in general.

CC: If you were to tell me this was some new artist, I would think they put out a solid record. So I keep trying to view this album from that perspective. Nothing on it is terrible. I wasn't a huge fan of "Style," mostly because when I hear it I picture it in a clothing commercial (might've been because the whole Target thing). "How You Get The Girl" was also a little too cheesy for my taste. You guys want weigh in on the songs you weren't fans of, then we can start talking about what we did like?

KD: Sounds good! I found "Welcome To New York" cheesy as ever. It's probably my least favorite on the album. Carolyn actually has a pretty spot-on explanation of this song... something along the lines of it portrays New York as a bright, sunny place. (am I right on that, Carolyn?) Anyone who has been in NY for an hour realizes it's pretty much the opposite. Of course, if you're coming to New York City a millionaire, much as Swift did, perhaps it is always bright and sunny. I'll try making my millions and get back to you on that.

Also, I'd agree with your point about "How You Get The Girl," Caitlin.

CM: I could write about 1500 words on "Welcome to New York" and how much I hate it. Maybe that's why 1989 leaves such a sour taste in my mouth. I moved to New York at roughly the same time as Swift and had the exact opposite experience. The "village" is not that shiny and bright, it's pretty scummy. And apartment hunting sucks and so do landlords and roaches and the subway. These aren't things Swift has to deal with, so like, of course it's amazing. She could move anywhere and the sidewalks would be paved with glitter because she has like a gazillion dollars (accurate number, by the way).

ANYWAY... to end my rant. "Welcome to New York" is probably a low-light in Swift's entire career, so thankfully 1989 can only go uphill from there. Though songs like "All You Had to Do Was Stay" and "How You Get The Girl" are annoying, I can see their appeal for Swift's younger audience. I just expect more from Swift and more from a 25-year-old songwriter who's been doing this for, like, a decade. This album sounds like it was made for and by 12-year-olds.

It's all about expectations for me. I mean, I expect this sort of throwaway pop from Katy Perry or maybe a newcomer, but this is Taylor Swift. I mean, we literally know she can release nothing and it will top the charts, but does that mean she had to do it?

CC: What's interesting is that she says this is the album that's she's most proud of, but it also seems like the least personal. I think that's essentially what made TSwift TSwift -- the fact that her albums were almost biographical. '1989' is very accessible and I'm sure she's poured her experience into them, but it doesn't feel like each song was her story. But getting to what we did actually like...

I was definitely a fan of "New Romantic," "Wildest Dreams," and "Out of the Woods." I thought that "Clean" really felt like Swift, although it wasn't my favorite.

CM: Artists will always say their new album is their favorite -- it's a part of the schtick. She probably believes it though.

KD: I heard in an interview that "Clean" was her favorite track. She said that if anyone were to take anything away from this record it would be that song. I'd agree with Caitlin - it felt very much like the Taylor Swift of the past to me. It's not my favorite, but it's up there. "This Love" is up there for me as well. That track hit me as a very genuine song. But without a doubt, hands down, my favorite track is "Out of the Woods." I really love that song. It was the track that made me excited for this album. Great production!

CM: "Out of the Woods" is the best takeaway from this album. The marriage of Swift and Jack Antonoff (of Bleachers and fun. fame) was really a great thing for music. His production hand is really heavy on it, but I love Bleachers, so I embrace "Out of the Woods." From what I've gathered from message boards and Twitter though, it is NOT a favorite of Swift's fans. But, that doesn't matter so much to me.

And "Clean" is pretty solid. I do love the personal nature of it, even if the melody itself is pretty forgettable. I like it when Swift actually connects to a piece of music.

As for a NEW song I can talk about, even though "Welcome to New York" opened up 1989 with a stinker, the album recovered pretty quickly with "Blank Space." That song really marries modern pop with a throwback sound, and the melody in the verse is so insanely catchy I can't help but want to listen to it about 100 times in a row.

KD: Here's a thought to that. Why do you feel that Swift's fans have not been onboard with "Out of the Woods" but they're okay with "Welcome To New York?"

CM: Even though Swift has a legion of fans of all ages, I think her general demographic skews incredibly young. So, you know, such a youthful track will resonate with them. Some critic on Twitter, who I wish I could recall to cite them properly, wrote that "Welcome to New York" was from the perspective of a New Jersey teen on her first school trip to Times Square. So, those tweens who idolize New York and are maybe to naive to understand that not everyone CAN make it here (or wants to) will find and love the hope in this song. As for "Out of the Woods," I think it's just too "alternative" for a Swift fan. Though for us, who I think I can say all come from a rock fan background, it's still incredibly glossy pop.

To continue, my biggest fault with "Welcome to New York" and 1989 as a whole is the lazy songwriting. Man, Taylor Swift used to be so specific and intricate in her lyricism and that is just missing. "Shake It Off?" Lyrically youthful and vague.

"Welcome to New York?" Same. "Bad Blood," "How You Get The Girl," "Style"... none of them have any signature of who Swift even is at this point. I can't see how anybody can truly, deeply connect with this album. Ya know?

CC: I think that's probably an accurate assessment of "Out of the Woods" vs "Welcome to New York," Carolyn

FINAL THOUGHTS:

CC: I know this album is going to sell like crazy. It would honestly be cool to see 1989 turned into a covers album with other pop artists (i.e. Lorde, Lana, etc.) trying their take on the songs. But overall, it didn't feel like Taylor. The subject matter was too generic, for the most part. Though well constructed, they lack the depth that Taylor brought to past releases. What's great for Swift though, is that it doesn't matter what any of us critics think about the album, she'll easily go to No. 1.

CM: Swift is going to debut with the No. 2 album of 2014, so sales are no worry for Swift. Do I think she purposefully went bad or generic? Heck no, I think she honestly, truly believes in 1989. Unlike Speak Now or even 2012's Red, this album just will not hold up in the future. It's too now, too generic, too vague and disconnected. I miss the real Swift in a Taylor Swift album. Chalk it up to high expectations, but we all know she's better than this. 

KD: I was über excited for this record. Unfortunately, my expectations were not met. Despite a few gems such as "Out of the Woods," "This Love" and "Blank Space" I really can't say I enjoyed the rest. I appreciate that she's trying something different, but it didn't work for me. I pray she's not becoming like the rest of the pop stars in the world. It'd be a sad, sad story!  

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