– 🕓 5 min read


I've been working on my next book review for a few days now, but I'm finding that when I try to work on it, words don't come quickly or easily to me. So, what the hell—might as well try something different. Music is immensely important to me. I've got a fairly large collection spanning over a thousand artists in dozens of different genres; I spent two years working in a record store (back when those still existed) and I consider music crucial to my ability to handle difficult emotions, be productive, and maintain sanity.

However, I've always been reluctant to write about it, because I'm basically musically illiterate. I don't play any instruments; I can't tell a C from an F; I can barely pick out the individual instruments in a song; I don't even know the right terminology to use when discussing what makes music good or not. I hope that eventually I'll be able to take some music lessons and correct this to some extent, because I also believe that you can't fully appreciate something you don't understand. But for now, I remain ignorant of the intricacies of musical composition. Thus, I'm not going to be so presumptuous as to call this a review, but... well, keep reading and you'll see what I'm on about.

I go through periods of obsession with musical artists where I'll discover someone new and become absolutely, completely captivated by them, usually buying several if not all of their records and listening to them over and over again until I've thoroughly "worn out" every single song. Then, if I'm lucky, I find someone new to become obsessed with, and the cycle begins anew.

Last month it was Lana Del Rey: her albums Born to Die and Paradise are absolutely phenomenal, and she herself is just an incredibly talented artist. One thing I find particularly interesting about Lana is how her sound—her voice, in particular—seems to evoke the 1950s; according to Wikipedia, "her music has been noted for its cinematic sound and its references to various aspects of pop culture, particularly that of 1950s and '60s Americana." But Del Rey's music doesn't sound dated—lyrically, she manages to capture a timeless quality while also epitomizing modernity and the hollowness of American decadence. It's a combination unlike anything else I have ever heard, and I still find it almost intoxicating.

Del Rey has announced a fourth album, Honeymoon, which is billed as being more like Born to Die and Paradise than her third album, Ultraviolence, which I have to admit that I didn't care for as much. Naturally, I'm really looking forward to that. Enough about Lana, though. This month, I'm hooked on Taylor Swift's latest album, 1989.

Taylor Swift - 1989 album cover
Copyright 2014 Big Machine Records. Used under Fair Use.

Of course, I didn't just now discover Taylor Swift; you'd have to be living under a rock to be unaware of her. Eight years after her debut, she's one of the most successful musical artists of all time, and with good reason. But while I've always had some respect for her music, I didn't actively listen to it or consider myself a fan of hers, because country—which her first three albums were firmly rooted in— is the one genre that I just can't get into (with very few exceptions). But 1989 is purely a pop album; it's her "first documented official pop album." And it's really, really damn good. Actually, "good" doesn't really cover it. 1989 is sublime.

Taylor Swift was born in 1989 (and, incidentally, so was I), but what the title is really meant to communicate is the album's musical influences: 1989 is Swift and her co-producer's homage to sounds of the 1980s—especially 80s synthpop. To borrow a quote from Rolling Stone (via Wikipedia), Swift said of the album:

It [the 1980s] was a very experimental time in pop music ... People realized songs didn't have to be this standard drums-guitar-bass-whatever. We can make a song with synths and a drum pad. We can do group vocals the entire song. We can do so many different things. And I think what you saw happening with music was also happening in our culture, where people were just wearing whatever crazy colors they wanted to, because why not? There just seemed to be this energy about endless opportunities, endless possibilities, endless ways you could live your life. And so with this record, I thought, "There are no rules to this. I don't need to use the same musicians I've used, or the same band, or the same producers, or the same formula. I can make whatever record I want."

1989 is spectacularly successful at evoking this sound and mood, and it's also a testament to Swift's versatility. (I feel compelled to note here that the ninth track, "Wildest Dreams," reminds me a bit of Lana Del Rey.) It's fascinating and instructive to go back and contrast any of the songs on 1989 with Swift's older work. Besides the new musical style, lyrically, her writing has matured a great deal; it retains her trademark themes of love and heartbreak, but on a more refined, introspective and abstract level, and is therefore much more relatable. (I guess this is unsurprising given that Swift was only 16 when her first album was released.) And yet, as different as her new record is, the fundamentals of her style remain intact; it's clear that she's had the capacity to "make whatever record [she wanted]" from the very beginning.

The most remarkable thing about 1989, I think, is that there's not a single bad or even mediocre track on it. There are highs and lows, of course, but the lows are still very good in their own right. It's very rare to find an album that is so consistently excellent from start to finish.

I look forward to seeing which direction Taylor Swift's next album takes. It seems clear that she will only continue to get better with time.

[Addendum, March 2nd, 2015] Vox has a great analysis of both the musical content and the cinematography of one of the singles from 1989, "Style," which I've included below. This kind of analysis fascinates me, since as I mentioned above, I'm not really capable of doing it myself.

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