When I started this site, I wouldn’t have considered reviewing a country-pop teenage starlet, but Taylor Swift has enjoyed a phenomenally successful career where she’s transcended genre boundaries. Named after James Taylor, even as she’s left the country genre, Swift has retained the confessional, story-telling narratives of country in her songwriting.
Swift’s first album, 2006’s Taylor Swift, was released at the age of 16, and my favourite track, ‘Our Song’ was written for her 9th grade school talent quest. However, I’m much more interested in the adult, pop oriented Taylor Swift, where her albums are more diverse – there are plenty of good songs on her early albums, but they’re too homogeneous to consistently interest me, even though Fearless in particular is very strong. But Red and 1989 are pop marvels, full of hooky, relatable songs.
If you want complex, challenging music, Swift’s probably not the artist for you – her speciality is straightforward, emotionally communicative songs. But she’s transitioned from teen prodigy to adult megastar more seamlessly than anyone else in the history of popular music. Swift is such a major celebrity and savvy businesswoman that it can overshadow her talents as a songwriter, but she deserves to be recognised as a very good pop writer.
Taylor Swift Album Reviews
Favourite Album: 1989
Overlooked Gem: Fearless
Taylor Swift started writing the songs for her debut at the age of twelve, and wrote most of the songs in her freshman year of high school. She collaborated with songwriter Liz Rose on many of these songs, although standout track, the closing ‘Our Song’, was written by Swift alone for her 9th grade talent quest. Swift’s main musical collaborator is producer Nathan Chapman – he’d worked with Swift on her demo tapes, and Taylor Swift was his first full length production. He gives the album a smooth veneer, when it would possibly benefit from a slightly rougher edge, but he certainly did a good enough job to help propel Swift on the road to mega-stardom.
Taylor Swift essentially has two styles – plaintive country-pop ballads like ‘Tim McGraw’ and ‘Teardrops On My Guitar’, and uptempo country fare like ‘Picture To Burn’ and ‘Our Song’. The more genuinely country the album sounds, the more effective it is – when Swift turns on the southern girl charm, is backed up by a banjo, and includes lyrics like about her mama, it’s most entertaining. But there are plenty of good tunes elsewhere – ‘Tim McGraw’ is a good example of Swift’s romantic, yet grounded in reality, lyricism, while ‘Mary’s Song (Oh My My)’ tells the story of Swift’s neighbours’ long marriage.
Apart from ‘Our Song’, I don’t feel like listening to Taylor Swift often, but there’s clearly a very talented 16 year old songwriter spreading her wings here.
Fearless is a strong sophomore effort from Swift, which presents her as more mature, and proves that her first album wasn’t a fluke. Fearless features more diverse arrangements, like the piano and strings of ‘You’re Not Sorry’, and tougher guitars on songs like ‘Change’. Fifty three minutes seems overlong for Swift’s straightforward songs, and Fearless could stand to lose a couple of tracks, although all of Swift’s songs here are sturdy, and the album ends with on a high note with the anthem ‘Çhange’.
The young Swift thrives on realistic teen experiences, and songs like ‘Fifteen’ work with their believable, autobiographical lyrics (“‘Cause when you’re fifteen/Somebody tells you they love you/You’re gonna believe them”). ‘Breathe’ is a gorgeous track, with its lilting melody underscored by strings, while the family reminiscences of ‘The Best Day’ are charming. I usually abhor key changes in between two choruses, but the change in ‘Love Story’ works, mainly because it’s accompanied by exuberant, previously unheard lyrics (“marry me Juliet/You’ll never have to be alone”).
The peak of the early, country-oriented Swift, Fearless is a remarkable record from an 18 year old writer.
Speak Now isn’t a significantly different record than Fearless – if anything it’s a shift towards pop music, and songs like ‘Enchanted’ and ‘Haunted’ contain very few country elements, instead layered with dramatic orchestration. Speak Now is the only album on which Swift wrote all the songs by herself – it feels like a bid for acceptance from rock oriented critics who prefer self-contained acts, but Swift stated that it was coincidental and that she had most of her good song ideas when her writing partners weren’t around. Swift doesn’t need a songwriting partner here as much as she needs an editor – the 14 songs here stretch out over 67 minutes, and it’s to the record’s detriment.
There’s also a more grownup perspective here, with Swift moving away from her America’s Sweetheart image, most notably on ‘Better Than Revenge’ where she opens with the words “now stand in the corner and think about what you did” and dismisses a female rival with the words “She’s better known for the things that she does/On the mattress.” Her love-life is fuelling more and more songs here, most notably the accusatory ‘Dear John’ – it’s clearly an important song for Swift, but it drags at almost seven minutes.
Tucked away in the over-length, there are plenty of great songs – ‘Back To December’ is beautiful with its pretty melody and strings, while the dramatic ‘Haunted’ is also effective. ‘The Story Of Us’ and ‘Mine’ are pacy, succinct pop songs – the latter’s “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter” might be the best line that Swift’s ever penned.
It needs some editing, but there are plenty of great songs on Speak Now. Some of the best material is the least country-oriented, and it’s not surprising that Swift moved towards pop on her next record.
Swift had been edging towards pop music throughout her first three records, but Red is the first album where she’s primarily a pop artist. Before Red, I was mostly aware of Swift due to the incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, when Kanye West stormed the stage during her acceptance speech; after Red she was an inescapable pop mega-star, with songs like ’22’, ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’. Taylor collaborated with Swedish hit-maker Max Martin on those three hits, but also used her Taylor Swift-era team of Liz Rose and Nathan Chapman for the fan favourite ‘All Too Well’. There are still country elements, like the gentle closer ‘Begin Again’, while the record starts with the relatively urgent ‘State of Grace’.
Swift covers a lot of bases over the sixteen tracks of Red, but turns in an impressive number of great pop songs. The two duets, with Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, are among the disc’s weaker tracks, but most of the songs are very strong. There’s enough going on in ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ to elevate it above a made to order hit – Swift’s lyrics are witty (“You would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”) and the post chorus hook of “You go talk to your friends…” gives the song an extra element to set it apart from a simple verse/chorus structure. There are a ton of great album tracks – highlights include the brooding ‘Treacherous’, the slight but tuneful ‘Stay Stay Stay’, and ‘Starlight’, a tale of the courtship of Ethel and Bobby Kennedy. But my favourite is the title track, built around a pretty country riff, before launching into a soaring chorus with Swift’s string of colour similes and metaphors (“Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met/But loving him was red”).
Red was incredibly successful, and it’s so full of great tunes that it’s difficult to decry its commercial accomplishments.
Red was a pop album, but it was still largely guitar based, providing continuity from Swift’s earlier country records. 1989 is a pop album that’s based on the pop music from Swift’s year of birth – Swift has listed her influences for the records as Phil Collins, Annie Lennox, and Like A Virgin-era Madonna. The record’s slathered in synths and drum machines, but with improvements in technology and more nuanced sound, I prefer the sound of 1989 to the pop music from the 1980s. Max Martin and Shellback are much more involved than on the previous record, with Martin credited as executive producer and receiving writing credits on half of the tracks. A new collaborator is Jack Antonoff, from Bleachers, who worked with Swift on three tracks, including contributing the backing track for ‘Out of the Woods’.
Despite all the changes in style, Swift’s melodic sense and lyrics are intact. If anything her lyrics are sharper than before, especially when she’s poking fun at her public persona; on ‘Shake It Off’ she sings “I go on too many dates/But I can’t make them stay”, while on ‘Blank Space’ she states “‘Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”. The album states its new sound immediately with the stark ‘Welcome to New York’, little more than a simple synth line and drum machine behind Swift’s vocal. The hits are generally front-loaded towards the start of the record, but 1989 has so many songs that sound like potential hits that it doesn’t even matter – seven singles were released, but album tracks like ‘All You Had To Do Was Stay’, and ‘I Wish You Would’ would also have served as singles. My favourite of the hits is the pulsing ‘Style’, where the meter of the words in the chorus showcases Swift’s lyric writing skills; “You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye /And I got that red lip, classic thing that you like.” Deluxe versions of the album include three extra tracks, and they’re all strong – the pretty ‘You Are In Love’ and the urgent, hooky ‘New Romantics’ are among the album’s best songs.
1989 is so jam-packed with memorable, well-written songs, that it should be remembered as one of the best pure pop albums of all time.
Taylor Swift’s reputation endured a tough time between in the years between 1989 and Reputation – she was engaged in a Twitter feud with Kanye West, where she was painted as the villain. Accordingly, Reputation has the feeling of Swift hunkered down in her bunker, with song titles like ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ and ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, while the cover image is a reproduction of a tabloid newspaper. At least she has a companion in her bunker – Swift’s romantic life is less volatile than usual, as lyrics like “My reputation’s never been worse/So you must like me for me” and “I want to be your end game” indicate.
This time around, Swift seems more interested in self-expression than she is in making an album of catchy pop songs – ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ was a pointed choice as a first single, with its line “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now…she’s dead.” The record’s often interesting, but it’s as much an insight into Swift’s inner workings as it is a pop record. As on 1989, Swift’s main collaborators are Jack Antonoff and Max Martin and Shellback, but it’s an altogether darker and more personal record.
Despite the darker, more personal songs, Swift’s pop sense is still intact in places on Reputation. The most successful pop songs are the driving 1980s pop of ‘Getaway Car’ and the more tender ‘Dancing With Our Hands Tied’. Reputation arguably captures a wider range of moods than any other Taylor Swift album, largely shedding her America’s Sweetheart persona – she’s vindictive on ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, sexy on ‘Dress’, wistful on ‘Delicate’, soulful on ‘Don’t Blame Me’, and flirty on ‘Gorgeous’.
Reputation is a muddled record after the streamlined pop of 1989, but it’s not without its charms. It will certainly appeal to dedicated Swift fans, with more insight into her personality than most of her records.
Ten Favourite Taylor Swift Songs
Welcome To New York
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together