Taylor Swift's '1989': What the Critics Are Saying

Goodbye, Nashville. Hello, New York City!
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Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift revealed her fifth studio album just before midnight of Oct. 27 — her fifth studio album, but also her first official foray into pop. The Big Machine Records release, 1989, features collaborations with Max Martin, Ryan Tedder, Jack Antonoff and Shellback, as well as the lead single "Shake It Off," already an unshakeable hit.

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Read what top critics are saying about 1989:

Billboard's Jem Aswad calls it "Swift's best work — a sophisticated pop tour de force that deserves to be as popular commercially as with Robyn-worshipping bloggers; an album that finds Swift meeting Katy and Miley and Pink on their home turf and staring them down." What's different? Besides instrumentation — "the mandolins and violins were left back in Nashville, and there might not be a single live drum on the album" — the lyrics "are more seasoned and subtle, less bubbly and bratty, than in the past" (despite the many references to ex-beau Harry Styles). Among the tracks, "Style" is a high note, as is "Clean" with Imogen Heap: "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."

Altogether, "a clean break with the core audience is a risky move for any artist: At worst, it's like ill-advised plastic surgery, a blandifying of the distinctive qualities and quirks that made the person interesting in the first place. But Swift avoided that fate entirely with this album, making her rare ability to write for multiple audiences and ages even more universal. With 1989, she expertly sets up the next chapter of what is now even more likely to be a very long career."

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The New York Times' Jon Caramanica writes that as a country artist, "she faced almost no direct competition there, and it’s a genre that embraces success, grudgingly if need be. ... From the inside looking out, even as the genre’s biggest star, she was always something of an underdog, multiplatinum albums and accolades be damned." Yet her definition of the genre isn't as close to hip-hop as her competitors': "Her idea of pop music harks back to a period — the mid-1980s — when pop was less overtly hybrid. That choice allows her to stake out popular turf without having to keep up with the latest microtrends, and without being accused of cultural appropriation. ... The era of pop she channels here was a collision of sleaze and romanticism, of the human and the digital. But there’s barely any loucheness in Swift’s voice. Her take on that sound is sandpapered flat and polished to a sheen."

Additionally, 1989 is "filled with upbeat, tense songs on which the singer stomps out much of whatever was left of her youthful innocence. The Taylor Swift of this album is savage, wry, and pointed. ... By making pop with almost no contemporary references, Swift is aiming somewhere even higher, a mode of timelessness that few true pop stars — aside from, say, Adele, who has a vocal gift that demands such an approach — even bother aspiring to. Everyone else striving to sound like now will have to shift gears once the now sound changes."

Time's Sam Lansky says, "Thematically, too, Swift breaks with the past, skirting victimhood and takedowns of maddening exes, critics and romantic competitors. Instead, there’s a newfound levity. Not only is Swift in on the joke; she also relishes it. ... Instead of pain, the songs about romance vibrate with fluttering lust or wistful nostalgia. ... As long as Swift writes autobiographically, her romantic affairs will be the subject of speculation, but it’s the expertly crafted sound of 1989 that marks her most impressive sleight of hand yet —shifting the focus away from her past and onto her music, which is as smart and confident as it’s ever been. Who are these songs about? When they sound this good, who cares?"

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Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield notes, "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."

USA Today's Elysa Gardner gives the album three-and-a-half stars out of four. The rollout for 1989 "has been as meticulous and as eagerly pored over as a presidential campaign, and its ascent on the pop charts is as certain as death and taxes — and likely anticipated with as much dread by some folks," she says, adding that "on 1989, she matches deceptively simple, irresistibly catchy melodies with lyrics that can seem by turns confessional and elusive, playful and aching."

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee

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