The initial ‘buzz’ for this album was largely that it was going to represent Swift finishing the progression she had started in her previous album’s three big hits and finally selling out to generic formula-pop. And while, as a longtime dedicated fan, I couldn’t bring myself to write her off in advance, I will admit that even I had my worries, mostly due to its unfortunate lead single, a piece of calculated, soulless pop formula called “Shake It Off”. It was admittedly a better song than, say, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”…taken on its own it wasn’t terrible…but it sounded less like Taylor Swift than anything else she had done up to that point.
But the negative buzz mostly turned into wild anticipation once Swift released her second song from the album, “Out of the Woods”. This wasn’t the Taylor Swift sound that we were accustomed to, certainly, but it wasn’t anyone’s idea of a sellout either. This was a totally new sound, not just for Swift but for anyone else, too, influenced heavily by Eighties Synth-Pop yet somehow sounding nothing like it.
Moreover, this is actually a fully realized Concept Album in the tradition of the Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall…the kind that resemble cast albums for musicals that were never staged. The closest model in Musical Theater would probably be Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, as both are narrative song cycles delineating with almost brutal honesty a failed relationship from the songwriter’s actual life.
The album functions as a clearly narrated mini-musical in which Swift’s character and an unnamed guy meet, fall in love, break up, reconcile and then finally separate for good. The guy in question is pretty strongly implied to represent former One Direction member Harry Styles, although to what degree the story told here resembles the circumstances of their real-life relationship is hard to say and, frankly, none of our business. However, it is worth noting that Swift is harder on herself here than on any of her previous songs besides “Back To December”, placing at least as much of the blame for the couple’s dysfunctional relationship on herself as on the other party, which is part of why I compare this album to The Last Five Years…like Jason Robert Brown, she does not flinch from portraying her own faults with brutal honesty.
Between its daring new sound and its ambitious narrative concept, this album took considerable courage to release, and despite the pronouncements from critics who never bothered to listen to the whole album or just suffer from tin ears, it is the farthest thing from a sellout move. Yes, she made significant use of co-authors on this album, mostly longtime Katy Perry collaborators Max Martin and Shellback, but the thing is, Max Martin and Shellback usually make catchy but fairly generic music unless they’re working with a talented and distinctive songwriter (compare their work with early-career Katy Perry to their collaborations with Pink). Other songwriters on this album like Jack Antonoff and Ryan Tedder have more legit credentials, but Martin and Shellback could never have written something like “Style”, “Bad Blood” or even “Blank Space” if Swift wasn’t contributing heavily to the songwriting process.
Most of the album has a new and exciting musical sound, but the lyrics, for all their greater ambition as story-telling, are the same honest, sensitive odes to love and heartbreak she founded her career on. Even “Shake It Off” (which I strongly suspect was merely a bargaining chip, a guaranteed Number One hit in case the rest of this extremely daring and unconventional album hadn’t turned out to be the smash success it did) still works better in the context of the album’s narrative than it did as a standalone single. Its seemingly inane lyrics actually help to fill out the character’s mindset and philosophy when combined with the other songs, and its context suggests that its defiant indifference may have been intended as the posturing cover for insecurity that everyone accused it of being when it came out as a single…after all, one song later she’s pouring out her regret at letting this guy go in “I Wish You Would”.
Granted, a couple of the other songs, like “All You Had To Do Was Stay” or “How You Get the Girl”, do sound like fairly conventional Max Martin sugar-pop, albeit with significantly smarter lyrics (the latter is particularly interesting, presenting one of Swift’s typical romantic narratives as a kind of how-to manual). But the album opens with the latest of the great New York anthems, “Welcome To New York”, which perfectly captures the experience of coming to the city and feeling like you’ve come home for the first time (a feeling I know well).
“Out of the Woods”, “Wildest Dreams” and “This Love” are ravishing, with “Out of the Woods” in particular being almost bizarrely beautiful. The album’s biggest hit, “Blank Space”, has a lyric that offers a biting satire of Swift’s perceived public persona among her detractors (you know, the image of a clinging maneater who actually wants her relationships to fail so she can use them as songwriting material), presented as her kidding-on-the-square warning introduction to a new lover. “Style” is irresistible, a danceable ballad infused with a kind of strange, bittersweet ecstasy, with a lyric that serves as an ode to a dysfunctional but oddly rewarding relationship. “Bad Blood” was heavily watered-down on its single version, but on the album it ranks as Swift’s most ferocious expression of anger to date, a song that, whether you love it or hate it, undeniably rouses passions in its listeners. “I Know Places” is apparently supposed to be a metaphor about the media, but it actually sounds even more suitable to the tone of The Hunger Games than Swift’s actual contributions to the soundtrack. And the sweeping ballad “Clean” makes for a suitably epic album closer, providing a bittersweet conclusion to the album’s story arc (as Swift puts it in a plot summary for the album, “She lost him but found herself, and somehow that was everything”).
Also of note are the three bonus tracks that were included on an exclusive version of the CD and later released as promotional singles on Itunes. Bonus tracks on ‘deluxe editions’ of pop albums can be the apparent result of having recorded too many wonderful songs to fit on the standard edition, or they can be obviously hastily-written filler to cash in on the rerelease market. But Swift has a history of doing good work on her bonus tracks…indeed, some of her all-time classics, like “Untouchable” and “Ours”, were only released on deluxe editions. And these three tracks continue that trend…”Wonderland”, with its surprisingly literate Carrollian imagery, the softly rhapsodic beauty “You Are In Love”, and “New Romantics”, which has conceptual similarities to her earlier hit, “22”, but with vastly superior music and lyrics. Indeed, it appears the only reason they were cut is that, like most Broadway cut songs, they interfered with the flow and dramatic arc on the album proper.
This was Swift’s best album up to this point, even better than her previous masterpiece Speak Now, and now that she’s pulled off this near-impossible self-reinvention associated with the likes of David Bowie and Bob Dylan, I feel more assured than ever that history will remember her as one of the very greatest popular musicians of our time.