Happy 1989 Week; Taylor’s fifth album is finally out, and we’re all getting our hands on it, making first and second and third judgments about favorite songs, least favorite songs, and whether or not she’s singing “Starbucks lovers” on “Blank Space.” (She’s not, sadly.) But what do the critics think? Is this a “good” album? Is it her best? Her worst? Her most conservative (as our critic Lindsay Zoladz maintains)? Who and what does it sound like? What’s the general consensus on 1989? The reviews are in:
Taylor’s definitely growing up.
“There’s certainly a new maturity evident in the closing track ‘Clean’, which finds Swift washing that man right out of her hair in wracked images of torment and turmoil, drought and drowning, and something more besides: ‘When the butterflies turned to dust, they covered my entire room’ is surely the oddest line you’ll hear in pop for a long time.” —The Independent
“It’s hard for Ms. Swift to still sell naïveté; she’s too well-known and too good at her job. That’s likely at least part of the reason that the bonus edition of this album includes three voice memos recorded by Ms. Swift on her telephone that showcase bits of songs in their early stages. They’re there as gifts for obsessives, but also as boasts, flaunting her expertise and also her aw-shucks demeanor.” —New York Times
“’Clean’ is an aching, bittersweet team-up with esoteric British alt-popper Imogen Heap where Swift surrenders more to her collaborator than on any other song on the album. Its melody has more air and fewer syllables, and Heap’s influence is obvious in the warm electronic setting and the lyrics, heavy on metaphors of drowning and addiction, and lines like ‘You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore.’ Swift’s growing up, alright.” —Billboard
And 1989 really does sound like the ‘80s.
“Its sound is a lovingly done reboot of the kind of late 80s MTV pop-rock exemplified by Jane Wiedlin’s Rush Hour. It’s bold enough in its homage to take on one vintage sound thus far avoided by 80s revivalists – the booming, stadium-filling snare sound that all artists were legally obliged to use for the latter half of the decade makes a reappearance on ‘I Wish You Would’ – but not so slavish as to preclude everything else: ‘I Know Places’ is powered by drum’n’bass-influenced breakbeats; single ‘Shake It Off’ pitches a ‘My Sharona’-ish beat against blaring hip-hop synths; the alternately pulsing and drifting electronics of ‘Style’ and ‘Clean’ mark 1989 out as an album made in the wake of Random Access Memories and Cliff Martinez’s 2011 soundtrack to Drive.” —The Guardian
“Appropriately, for an album named after the year of Swift’s birth, the sound taps into a fad for the cheesy synths and sharp drum machines of the Eighties. There’s a wider range of dynamic contrast than you find on a lot of overproduced EDM hits but, none the less, the immediate impression is slick; candyfloss cheerleading, full of American fizz.” —The Telegraph
“The synths that define the album, and make it uniform, aren’t of a deep, rich, or modern kind. They’re nostalgically dinky, aping the thin and tinny sound of an outmoded brand of pop. Of course, for her youngest fans, this may sound new. But older listeners will immediately bring to mind records by Sheena Easton in the ‘80s or Kim Wilde, circa ‘Kids In America.’ No one could miss the antique reference of the album’s first single: ‘Shake It Off’ apes Toni Basil’s old cheerleading hit ‘Mickey.’” –New York Daily News
“While 1989 is Swift’s most distinctive disc, in many ways it’s also her least engaging, sublimating her signature strengths in a bid to recreate an era nobody is that interested in revisiting. At least, nobody who was there.” —Toronto Sun
… But also a little like Lana Del Rey?
“Surprisingly, the famous figure who gets the most elaborate attention is Lana Del Rey: Swift flat-out mimics her on ‘Wildest Dreams,’ flitting between a fluttery soprano and deadpan alto, flipping lyrics so Lana — ‘His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room’ — that it’s hard to tell if the song is homage or parody.” —Billboard
“She stumbles badly only once, sacrificing her strident individuality on ‘Wildest Dreams’, a cinematic torch song that comes across as a poor pastiche of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’. The tempo slows as the album progresses. There are fleeting glimpses of her country roots on the acoustic ‘How You Get The Girl,’ although there are crunchy electronics even here. I Know Places is an old-school power ballad with modern, electronic twists.” —The Daily Mail
But also like nothing at all.
“But too often on 1989 she’s trying to win at somebody else’s game, whittling her words down to generic love stuff over flowy synthesizers. That’s because pop, as a musical genre, is most precisely defined by what it isn’t: not country, not rock, and not rap. Swift isn’t any of those, but she isn’t 100 percent pop, either — she’s still too unique, too identifiably herself.” —EW
Claiming that 1989 is her first pop record is a little dubious.
“Here’s a nagging question I can’t shake: How is Swift’s previous album, 2012’s Red, not a pop record? Red is undeniably popular music, going quadruple platinum in an era when doing so is the equivalent of moving 10 million units in the ’90s. Those sales figures were matched by the broadness of Red’s musical scope. U2-size guitar anthems, sing-along mall ballads, shit-talking dance stompers, rough-and-tumble singer-songwriter introspection — that album had it all. The occasional token banjo lick aside, Red wasn’t really a country record any more than it was a rock record, a pop record, or any other kind of record. It was country because she said it was country, but in reality Red made Taylor Swift her own genre. 1989, in comparison, is deliberately much narrower, working and reworking a monochromatic template of mid-tempo synth-pop that gradually loses flavor over the course of 13 songs. Perhaps Swift rushed to publicly define 1989 because the album doesn’t define itself with nearly the clarity her previous work did.” — Grantland
But kudos for trying something different.
“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.” —Rolling Stone