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Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Many New Voices Of Taylor Swift

A generation has grown up with Swift, loving her as an accessible everygirl who understood 15 and 22 and every awkward growth spurt in between like no one since the age of The Shirelles. Most of these fans don't sweat the details of how she creates songs they claim as their own. Yet her transition from teen star to self-actualized young adult powerhouse has been mostly a musical one. Swift's well-paced movement away from country-based balladry to more complex, electronically oriented, often beat-driven, productions shows that she is an artist (call her a craftsperson if that other word makes you uncomfortable) eager to challenge herself. That's the overwhelming message of her new album, 1989 — not that she's a grown-up now, or more interested in sex, or sick of Nashville, or in love with New York. 1989 is about Taylor Swift experimenting with new sonic approaches. And most of all, it's about her finding a new voice — actually, several new voices, which she assumes like new characters while always remaining herself.

The flexibility and tonal range of Swift's reedy alto, expanded through canny use of 21st-century pop technology, is what makes 1989 a pleasurable listen. This isn't because she and her top-gun producers (Max Martin and Shellback, Ryan Tedder, Jack Antonoff, and on one lovely late-album cut, Imogen Heap) are processing her vocals to sound bigger, or conventionally better. If Auto-Tune is in use here, it's well-camouflaged by more other, more interesting vocal treatments — the blending of her high note with a ringing, compressed backing track on the chorus of "All You Had To Do Was Stay"; the clipped verses on "Blank Space" clicking with the beat like a gearshift; the beautifully wavelike swells of her multi-tracked vocals on "This Love." Having played with this kind of cyborgian production on the singles from her previous album, Red, Swift goes fully prosthetic here, in ways that make her singing more emotionally rich, not less. So he is a brief review on 1989.


1. “Welcome to New York”

By now most fans will be familiar with this synth-pop NYC anthem, co-written with Ryan Tedder, though they might not realize that it makes more sense as the album’s opener. In that context, the song is less about Swift’s real-life change of address and more about her move into full-on pop. Perhaps that’s why the central metaphor the song uses for the city is a sonic one: She says she came “searching for a sound she hadn’t heard before” and found “a new soundtrack” and a new beat she can “dance to … forevermore.” It’s as much a welcome to her new sound (for forevermore!) as it is about the city.

2. “Blank Space”


“Welcome to New York” may be wide-eyed and innocent, but the acid “Blank Space” is anything but. Those who don’t listen closely might miss the irony, but the song finds Swift—over a hip-hop-influenced drum machine beat recorded with Max Martin and Shellback—sending up her own reputation as a naive heartbreaker, a “nightmare dressed like a daydream.” “I’ve got a long list of ex-lovers,” she warns, plus “a blank space baby/ And I’ll write your name.”

3. “Style”


Another song that isn’t quite what it first appears, “Style” is ostensibly about timeless fashions. “You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye,” Swift sings, “And I got that red lip classic thing you like.” But, slowly and subtly, it reveals itself to be something slightly more sinister: a song about a relationship that goes round and round but is never quite healthy. “When we come crashing down we come back every time,” continues the chorus, “We never go out of style.” The arrangement matches the noir-ish feel perfectly, with Nile Rodgers-y funky guitar and a chugging synth riff that would fit right in on the Drive soundtrack.

4. “Out of the Woods”


Those who pre-ordered 1989 have already heard this chanting, synth-heavy ballad, written with Jack Antonoff of Bleachers and Fun, but it’s another that makes even more sense in the context of the album. If “Style” is about being stuck in a vicious cycle with (apparently) Harry Styles, then “Out of the Woods” is about breaking out of it.

5. “All You Had to Do Was Stay”


Completing what plays like a three-song cycle that begins with “Style” and “Out of the Woods,” “All You Had to Do Was Stay” sees the man who was unwilling to commit (Swift has implied that this one, too, is about Styles) come crawling back to her. He may “want it back,” but—as Swift sings with a nearly audible wagging finger—“It’s just too late.” While perhaps not as memorable as the other two songs, the track gets points for attitude.

6. “Shake It Off”


If you haven’t heard this haters-gonna-hate earworm yet, you’ve been on Mars. Welcome back! Here are our posts about its video and what made it a No. 1 hit. (Side note: Does its “players gonna play” line take on extra resonance after the previous three tracks? Maybe.)

7. “I Wish You Would”


The most striking thing about this song initially is that it’s the first to actually place the emphasis on guitars. Written to go over a Fine Young Cannibals-sampling track assembled by Jack Antonoff (the original version, at least, borrowed a snare from “She Drives Me Crazy”), the song builds and builds—sliding into half time on the chorus—as it finds the singer wishing a lover would run back.

8. “Bad Blood”

Written about a professional feud with another artist who “basically tried to sabotage [Swift’s] entire arena tour,”. Needless to say, the song is wounded and angry (“Band aids don’t fix bullet holes/ You say sorry just for show”). The equally hard-hitting beat (which reminded me, of all things, of “Grindin’”) is going to rattle trunks.

9. “Wildest Dreams”


It’s hard to imagine that this song, which finds Swift quivering and whispering and reinventing herself as a sort of summer-dress-wearing femme fatale, wasn’t inspired by Lana Del Rey. The sultry lyrics describe a surreptitious, doomed affair that the singer enters under only one condition: “Say you’ll see me again,” she sings, “even if it’s just in your wildest dreams.” Swift’s own distinct songwriting voice gets a little lost, but she does a convincing Del Rey impression.

10. “How You Get the Girl”


Though it follows immediately after the very sedate “Wildest Dreams,” “How You Get the Girl” is perhaps the most chipper song on the album. Built over strumming acoustic guitars, it’s also the one that sounds the most like Red. (Or her older material, though—with the now inevitable bleeps and bloops—that’s more of a stretch.) Addressed to a hesitant, unsure lover, the titular method for getting the girl is (spoiler alert!) actually quite old-fashioned: Profess that you’ll love her “For worse or for better … forever and ever.”

11. “This Love”


The slowest, haziest song on the album, “This Love” opens with a wash of synths seemingly meant to evoke waves on the ocean shore. These ocean currents provide the song’s central metaphor, which is about hoping that, if you let it go, love will come back to you just like the tide.

12. “I Know Places”


A song about trying to carry on a love affair while the vultures (the media, presumably) are circling, “I Know Places” has eerie, sinister verses that burst into triumphant, major-key euphoria on the chorus. (“I know places we won’t be found,” Swift assures her lover.) The hunting metaphor gets a little mixed. (“They are the hunters/ we are the foxes” doesn’t completely jibe with “They’ll be chasing their tails trying to track us down.”) But with its manipulated vocals, martial drums, and references to the flashing lights of photographers, the song (which was made with Ryan Tedder) achieves the mood it aims for.

13. “Clean”


Employing another water metaphor, “Clean” finds Swift after a breakup drowning in the stuff (tears, presumably), until she is “finally clean” and ready to move on. Written and recorded with Imogen Heap, the sad but ultimately hopeful song is in the vein of similarly-themed Swift album closers like “Begin Again.”

Bonus tracks


“Wonderland”


Filled with allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, this bonus track finds two lovers tumbling down the rabbit hole to a place “where life was never worse or never better.” The boy’s flashing green eyes allude to the Cheshire Cat’s, while the music brings to mind, above all, the songs Sia has written for Rihanna, complete with their usual repetitions of “ey ey.”

“You Are in Love”


Lena Dunham (whose boyfriend is Swift collaborator Antonoff) has already called this her “someday wedding song,” and it’s not hard to see why. Over warm synths, the song attempts to express the inexpressibility of love (“You can hear it in the silence … You can see it with the lights out”). The killer moment comes when the music drops out, and Swift delivers one of those images that feels both very particular and very universal: “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.”

“New Romantics”*


Is the title of this song meant to evoke the wave of late ’70s and early ’80s bands collectively called the New Romantics? It seems likely. At the very least, the sound resembles the new wave music that inspired them, and Swift’s lyrics sound unusually goth: “Heartbreak is the national anthem,” goes the chorus, “We sing it proudly.” It’s an appropriate end to an album that seems destined to soundtrack heartbreaks across the country.

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Live to love and love to live. The motto that I held on my entire life. Just a regular guy who loves what I am passionate in life. A song writer and producer. Living life on the move. From Malaysia to The States, New Zealand to Singapore. With the companion of great people in life. In and out from the music industry. Taking everything one step at a time. 
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