For as enjoyable as Taylor Swift’s “1989” is, it isn’t a classic. In fact, the argument could be made that given the credentials of those who made it, it should have been better. Still, it won Album of the Year over an actual classic (Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”). That’s massive.
This isn’t about the album’s legacy, though. It’s about taking one last dive into one of the most popular albums in recent memory before we look forward to Nov. 10.
One note before I get to the tiers: I haven’t read anything suggesting this, but I’d be surprised if Sara Bareilles’ “The Blessed Unrest” wasn’t a big influence on this album. From subject matter (New York!!!!) to the feel and production of quite a few of the songs, the influence seems very strong. If you haven’t listened to that album, listen to songs like “1000 Times,” “Islands” and “Eden.” You’ll get it.
It’s a pop song acting like a rap song. Between the beat (that snare sounds straight out of Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire”) and a lead vocal with only light reverb, Blank Space gets in your face in ways perhaps no other Taylor Swift song does. Max Martin and Shellback never run out of tricks.
Speaking of which, what is the song’s secret weapon? Is it the snare? It’s gotta be the snare, right? WRONG. It’s the acoustic guitar that comes in halfway through the first chorus. Blows the whole song wide open.
Bareilles-watch: The building harmonies in the bridge. Very “Eden.”
“I Know Places”
“How You Get the Girl”
“Style” has been discussed to no end, so let’s talk about “I Know Places,” which is the second-best song on this album and my favorite. It’s brilliant.
If you listen to just the chorus by itself, it’s unremarkable. It’s dime-a-dozen Taylor Swift; sounds like someone picked up a guitar and played an easy progression, which it is (C, G, Dm, F).
Yet everything leading up to that plain Jane chorus serves to make the listener beg for that simple shit, and it’s way more clever than it sounds. The song is in the key of C Major, but a C Major isn’t played until the start of the chorus. Instead, a very dark-sounding progression starting on a minor chord (A Minor) repeats from the intro through the pre-chorus. Without the tonic chord (the first chord of the key, which in this case is the aforementioned C Major) being played, the listener spends the entire song leading up to the chorus out of sorts; not grounded. This is a trick that’s also used in Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.”
So when that chorus hits, it’s everything your brain has spent the entire song wishing it could hear. It’s so refreshing that it feels like a key change, but it isn’t.
Having lesser parts of a song is not always a bad thing. “I Knew You Were Trouble” basically punts on the verse because the verse doesn’t need to be good. It just needs to beat you over the head with the tonic to set up the shift to the relative minor at the beginning of the chorus. “I Know Places” punts on the chorus, but builds around it to make the chorus the best part. God, what a cool song.
“I Wish You Would”
And we’ve reached the Bareilles part of the album (or to be fair, the “anyone but Taylor” part of the album). “Wildest Dreams” tries to be Lana Del Rey, while “This Love” and “Clean” try to be Bareilles. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just that none of these are great as Taylor Swift songs.
There is one song in this group that tries to be Taylor Swift, and it’s vintage Taylor Swift.
“I Wish You Would” marks the exact amount of involvement Jack Antonoff should have with top-40 artists. This is a song that would have fit on any of her previous four albums dating back to 2008’s “Fearless,” but Antonoff made it suit the times with the big drums and half-time chorus. Good form, Jack! I’m gonna complain about you soon though.
GOOD ENOUGH (2)
“Welcome to New York”
“All You Had to Do Was Stay”
“What is ‘Welcome to New York’ doing here?” you ask. “That song sucks!”
It actually doesn’t suck. It is outstandingly unlikable — I don’t like it, you don’t like it — but it doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s probably in the top handful of vocal tracks on the entire album. The dissonance in the harmonies is great — again, very Bareilles — and the synth line is really fun. It’s just the horrible lyrics that ruin everything. This song could have given people dance fever. Instead, it gave them douche chills.
NOT VERY GOOD (1)
“Out of the Woods”
They say that a good song can be played on just a piano and it will still sound good. I don’t always agree with that, but at any rate, Out of the Woods would not pass that test.
Antonoff has very strong powers. I just think that he gets caught up in them and — perhaps accidentally — ends up using them for evil.
“Out of the Woods” is a great example. It’s noisy, it’s big, the drums are huge. There’s a lot to like. But he overdoes it. There’s this terribly annoying something doing arpeggios in the second half of the verse — it’s either guitar, piano or harpsichord; it doesn’t come out too clearly — that just sounds awful. And not awful as in “different,” but awful as in “this does not belong.” I think a lot of people would catch that and get rid of it. Antonoff might not know where to stop.
Every drop of this song (get it) is unimaginable. Verse: unimaginable. Pre-chorus: unimaginable: Chorus: uncomfortably lame. Bridge: Unimaginative. There is no redeeming quality about this song. I stayed up nights wondering who let this be on the album over the far superior “New Romantics.”
Well, it turned out there were designs on making it a single, perhaps to help spark this new era of female pop singer beefs. To everyone involved’s credit, the radio version with Kendrick Lamar is vastly superior to the album cut, and it’s not because Kendrick is anything special on the track; as usual with his pop features, he isn’t.
The reason that the song was salvaged was because it was just turned into a bad rap song with Swift on the hook. The pre-chorus is salvaged by adding claps that should have been there all along, but “Bad Blood” was so awful to begin with that adding the greatest rapper alive to it made it merely pretty good.
WORSE THAN BAD (1)
“Shake it Off”
Honestly, “Shake it Off” should wear the “worse than bad” label as a badge of honor, because I’m quite sure everyone who made it knew they were doing. This was an exercise in seeing how bad of a song could be a hit, and there’s nobody better to conduct that experiment than Max Martin and Shellback.
Musically, the song is like a Miranda Sings video. It sounds like someone heard some parts of songs they liked and then tried to regurgitate them in the most cringe-worthy way possible. The verse is the worst possible interpretation of the “Single Ladies” verse. The chorus is a smorgasbord of corny white rhymes, but not in a Beastie Boys/Kesha way. In a “Taylor Swift is doing this and is over 50 percent serious” way. The corniness of the chorus proves to be the tip of the iceberg by the time you make it to the breakdown.
So what happens when you combine all of that garbage? Top of the charts. Dance floor sweat-machine. Concert-closer. The first time we all heard “Shake it Off,” we were all appalled by how bad it was and how much we liked it. The song is a miracle. A really bad, completely unquittable miracle.