As Taylor Swift promised, 1989 severs whatever vestiges of her country roots remained on 2012’s Red, replacing acoustic guitars and pedal steel with multi-layered synthscapes, drum machines, and densely packed vocal tracking. Swift, of course, got her start writing astutely observed country ballads, and the best songs on the new album bolster her trademark knack for lyric-crafting with maximalist, blown-out pop production courtesy of main collaborators Max Martin and Shellback. 1989’s standout tracks retain the narrative detail and clever metaphor-building that distinguished Swift’s early country songs, even amid the diversions wrought by the aggressive studio production on display throughout.
Co-written by fun.’s Jack Antonoff, “Out of the Woods” is a rousing triumph of a love song, modulating its instrumentation and vocal dynamics with a flexibility that seems almost shocking given how many recorded tracks it braids together. The song would be notable for its head-turning hook and intricate yet polished production alone, but Swift’s lyrics lend it a specificity that many mainstream pop offerings lack: “Your necklace hanging from my neck the night we couldn’t quite forget/When we decided to move the furniture so we could dance/Baby, like we stood a chance.” Antonoff also assists on “I Wish You Would,” an homage to ’80s excess shaped around a snappy snare beat and synths that build and accelerate with each chorus, climaxing in a well-handled explosion of percussion and layered vocals evocative of Haim’s contemporary take on vintage radio pop.
Swift’s propensity to fall for—and get dumped by—flighty, noncommittal men (or boys) has served as pulpy fodder for the vast majority of her songs, but the trope is beginning to feel worn out, and songs like “All You Had to Do Was Stay” sound like repetitive diary entries that have been churned through the Swedish pop-hit-making factory. The first verse of “Wildest Dreams” ends with a familiar Swiftian observation: “He’s so tall and handsome as hell/He’s so bad, but he does it so well/I can see the end as it begins.” Swift’s breathier-than-usual falsetto runs complement lyrics about being swept away by infatuation, but the bridge finds her shifting into a laconic delivery style that sounds like a misguided impersonation of Lana Del Rey.
Moments like this make it clear that Swift is still in the process of finding her own voice as a pop artist. “I Know Places,” co-written and produced by Ryan Tedder, rides the current vogue for reggae swagger and trap-influenced snare beats before launching into a soaring, Pat Benatar-esque chorus. It’s an effortless fusion that, like much of 1989, displays Swift’s willingness to venture outside her comfort zone without much of a safety net (aside from some ample Auto-Tune, of course), and test out an array of sonic experiments that feel both retro and of the moment.