Monday, November 3, 2014

Album Review: Swift’s 1989—otherwise great, a formal and melodic hit-and-miss

Trying to be like the cool kids #TS1989

One week ago, Taylor Swift released her fifth studio album, 1989, and the album is projected to sell more than 1.3 million in the first week alone. The critic’s reviews have been overwhelmingly favorable: see one from Pretty Much Amazing (not a site known for gushing reviews) and two from the Guardian, here and here. I agree with critics that in this album Swift is again doing a great job of letting other people ride her emotions, though of course with the caveat that music is always fiction. The lyrics at very least are up to the standards of her previous albums.

But very few critics talk about the music of the album, besides the usual: it’s not country anymore (which most people already said about the last album, Red). They also take at face value Swift’s claim of 1980s electro-pop influence, which I think is not as present as advertised (more so in some songs, “Welcome to New York” and “Out of the Woods,” than in others). Ann Powers's review of the album does talk a little about the music, specifically talks about Swift’s stellar and unique vocal delivery and a little bit about production. She does not, however, talk about the most basic parts of songwriting: form and melody.

While Swift’s vocal delivery, lyrics, and production are still great, compared to her previous albums, I found many songs on 1989 musically lacking, especially melodically and formally. With a few welcome exceptions, the songs on 1989 have very small melodic ranges with too much rhythmic and melodic repetition. Also, the bridges (those melodic breaks near the end of the song that provides us a welcome musical departure, keeping the chorus fresh) are often either lazy versions of the chorus, or entirely absent. Here’s some specific examples:
  • While “Welcome to New York” uses more than just one note, both the chorus and the verse (especially) are pretty similar and focus on one note.
  • “Out of the Woods” has a two-note chorus (really mostly a one-note chorus), after a verse with a pretty narrow melodic range and lots of rhythmic repetition. The bridge is mostly a version of the chorus, which has already gotten old at that point. I keep waiting for the music to take off at least once, but it never happens.
  • “All You Had To Do Was Stay” has basically a three-note chorus, is very rhythmically repetitive, and uses the same bridge formula as “Out of the Woods”—continuing the chorus’s harmonic motion, dropping out a few instruments, and then adding a slightly altered chorus melody.
  • “Style” is pretty well constructed, with interesting production, but the song asks for a bridge that never materializes.
  • “Clean” is similar to “Style”—it stands out from the rest of the album (because of Imogen Heap’s trademark production), but the lack of a bridge for a musical break really hurts the song, especially as it’s the longest song on the album.
  • “How You Get the Girl” tries to vary the form up with two distinct parts in each the verse and the chorus. However, both verse sections use basically two notes, and the two chorus sections feature three notes and two notes, respectively. Once again, the bridge is just a modified chorus.
  • “Wildest Dreams” is the most like Taylor’s Fearless era, including some characteristic melodic turns. But once again, the bridge is just a modified chorus.
  • “This Love” has basically a two-note chorus, too, but at least the bridge has a new harmonic foundation.
  • The worst for forgettable, lazy songwriting is “I Wish You Would”, which uses a two-note melody with a basically three-note chorus AND the altered-chorus bridge formula. The tight production cannot rescue it’s lack of inventiveness.
I’m not saying that two- or three-note melodies are necessarily bad all the time. In fact, “I Know Places” starts with a three-note verse, but this choice works because 1) the verse has three distinct sections that evolve as the song progresses, and 2) the chorus opens the song up, with expansive, complex, and catchy melody. These narrow-ranging melodies can be used effectively. And chorus-based bridges can be musically effective, but using them  for almost every song on the album shows a lack of creativity. 

But lest you think I think the album is a total wash, here are some other highlights on the album:
  • “Blank Space” is one of the best, with provocative lyrics, an interesting and innovative production, and a bridge that does it’s job.
  • Though “Bad Blood” doesn’t have the best lyrics, Swift uses interesting melodies and plays around with song form, starting with a chorus and employing a pre-chorus. The bridge is a little more interesting than the other bridges on the album, though is still based on the chorus's harmony.
  • From a song-writing perspective, the best track (by far) is “Shake It Off”. There’s a somewhat harmonically ambiguous verse (varied throughout the song), followed by a pre-chorus build and a catchy chorus with a wide melodic range and that is easily varied and extended. I’m not sure about the rap section, but even if one thinks it doesn’t fit the rest of the song, at least it was unexpected and breaks up the chorus, serving as a bridge. And using the bass sax instead of electric bass was a masterful touch.
Unsurprisingly, the most complex songs melodically and formally ("Shake It Off" and "Blank Space") are the most popular on iTunes. In conclusion, here again are my three reasons why Taylor Swift is a good song writer from my Red review, and why 1989 did not quite live up to them:
  1. Melody: This time, the hooks are not always memorable.
  2. Control of repetition: As you can see above, Swift repeats too much in many of the songs. Frequent two-note and three-note melodies with overly repetitive rhythms and lazy bridges do not make a musically stellar album. 
  3. Instrumentation and texture: For the most part, 1989 does a good job at varying instrumentation and texture, but the album is inferior to her previous albums in this respect. One example is the overdone overdub high note/scream, used on the majority of the tracks.
You proved you’re a good songwriter with passionate voice, Taylor Swift, but after you get those great lyrics, please try a little harder on your melody and song construction, instead of simply relying on the music production to breathe life into the songs. I'm looking forward to hearing more good songs on the next album. Until then, I've got a few good tracks to tide me over.

Vocab: melody, harmony, lyrics, bridge, hook, instrumentation, texture

No comments:

Post a Comment