Taylor Swift’s last album Red was, among other things, her tribute to Joni Mitchell. The cover image – Swift looking moodily down, her face framed by long blonde hair – echoed the cover of Mitchell’s Blue. Swift paid tribute to (and identified with) the “60s queen” in her song “The Lucky One” (“It was a few years later I showed up here/and they still tell the legend of how you disappeared”). In many ways it was a good fit. Both artists map the romantic experience of an emerging generation – the Woodstock kids waking cold sober in the early 70s and the millennial denizens of Instagram. Both have written a string of songs about their famous boyfriends; both employ lyrical detail in a way that permits us to identify (or at least to speculate about) the men they write about. (Swift takes this much further than Mitchell ever did, actively encouraging gossip with the codes she includes in her printed lyrics.) Both have faced putdowns about their romantic adventures: in 1971 Rolling Stone published a diagram of Mitchell’s lovers, naming her “Old Lady of the Year”. Though she came up in Nashville, Swift has always been closer to the singer-songwriter model that Mitchell helped pioneer than to traditional country music. Their approach to songwriting (although Mitchell increasingly moved away from this) is earnestly autobiographical: there is little gap between their public personas and their voices in song.
If Red was Swift’s Blue, then 1989 is her Court and Spark. Both are conscious pop moves: Mitchell was rewarded with a #2 album and 1989 is set to sell a million copies in its first week in an era when big sales are increasingly rare. But where Mitchell makes concessions to pop, front-loading the album with a couple of catchy three-minute singles (“Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris”), 1989 represents a thorough renovation of Swift’s approach. Regardless of how prominent fiddles were in the arrangements, Swift’s songs have always registered as words (and melodies) first – this is one of the qualities that mark her out as a classic singer-songwriter. 1989 turns that on its head. The words are actually its weak point.
Swift’s famous narrative compression (“Remember when you hit the brakes too soon/Twenty stitches in a hospital room”) is still in evidence, but for the most part the telling details – which have always been Swift’s great strength as a writer – are absent, replaced by pop generalities. When Swift celebrates a lover’s “James Dean/daydream look in your eye” it’s lazy and impersonal: couldn’t she have found a more surprising (and more contemporary) touchstone? There’s a similar received quality to the car imagery that crops up in a number of songs (“He said, “Let’s get out of this town”/Drive out of the city”): the rebel ride was already a cliché when Bruce Springsteen resurrected it for Born to Run in 1975. There’s also a new self-regarding strain that seems derived from Lana Del Rey: Swift strikes poses in her own mind’s eye (“Say you’ll remember me/standing in a nice dress/staring at the sunset”), but lacks the melancholy undertow that can make Del Rey so compelling. “Clean” drowns in a flood of mixed metaphors. “Shake It Off” is certainly an expert bit of persona management – it seems designed to counter Tina Fey’s gibe at the Golden Globes – but Swift has a number of peers equally adept at crafting identities for the media. I miss the writer who can nail a situation with a few choice details.
It’s a shame because the arrangements she has crafted with her collaborators are so forceful and catchy. The bright hook and the louring synths that set in under the chorus of “Welcome to New York” express much better than the trite lyrics (“Like any great love it keeps you guessing”) the way a big city can both dazzle and overwhelm you. “Blank Space” apes the spaciousness of Lorde’s Pure Heroine, vocal harmonies layered over a spare beat. (The generational tropes in the lyrics – “’cause we’re young and we’re reckless” – and the way the song is conceived as an invitation also suggests Lorde’s influence.) The cool funk – the guitar subdued as if heard at a distance – of “Style” suggests an interesting state of dissociation. “Out of the Woods” is the album’s one unqualified triumph – the one time Swift’s lyrics rise to the occasion – the big ominous beat under the verses giving way to a slamming chorus that is more rhythmic than melodic. All the way through there are striking details – the cute vocal effect on “stay” in “All You Had to Do Is Stay”; the piano figure that opens “I Know Places”. The album has its own distinct, coherent sound: an 80s sheen with something darker nagging undeneath. But it rarely connects as her best songs do: Swift has left things so general and open, to reach the largest possible audience, that the album feels rather empty and impersonal.
It begs the question of whether going pop necessarily involve a dilution of self. For Joni Mitchell, pop was only a moment – her albums following Court and Spark saw her forging an idiosyncratic (and much less commercial) hybrid of folk and jazz. In the case of Dolly Parton – the first country music star to set her mind on pop conquest – it did. It’s impossible not to admire her guts and autonomy in breaking with Porter Wagoner, but it’s also hard to deny that (with a few great exceptions) going pop coincided with the end of her run as one of the great American songwriters. (I love the kitsch of her pop period as well – one of my favourite memories is singing “Islands in the Stream” with a bus full of Parton fans on the way back from her gig in the Hunter Valley – but like that song, most of it was the work of other writers.) But Swift was never as invested in country as Parton: a closer analogue is probably Shania Twain, another Nashville arriviste who was fulfilled in going pop. If it’s a sound Swift persists with, I hope she finds a way to make music that employs her full gifts: then we might have another album to equal Fearless or Red.