This is a tale of star-crossed celebrity lovers: America’s country sweetheart and British pop’s bad-boy Romeo. Taylor Swift has something of a reputation for writing pithy songs about her love life (ex-boyfriends John Mayer and Joe Jonas have been on the receiving end) and this time her subject matter is One Direction ladies man Harry Styles.
In case listeners are in any doubt about the identity of the heartbreaker with the “James Dean daydream look” in his eye, she spells it out in a song cheekily titled Style, complete with an upbeat dance groove, a sound more associated with her ex’s manufactured boy band than her usual country power-pop.
To be fair, Swift has been moving away from Nashville for a while but on 1989 she goes the whole pop hog. The 24-year-old is quite capable of penning songs but this makeover has been concocted with the writer-producers who underpin the charts, including Max Martin (Britney Spears, Katy Perry), Ryan Tedder (Beyoncé, Adele) and Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Take That). You might think this would make her music more generic, but country pop is pretty formulaic as it is, so all she has really done is change points of reference, swapping Charley Pride for Charli XCX.
Appropriately, for an album named after the year of Swift’s birth, the sound taps into a fad for the cheesy synths and sharp drum machines of the Eighties. There’s a wider range of dynamic contrast than you find on a lot of overproduced EDM hits but, none the less, the immediate impression is slick; candyfloss cheerleading, full of American fizz.
Scratch beneath the shiny surface, though, and Swift hasn’t moved so far from her roots. Amid the boom-clap drum patterns and digital hooks are songs that could conceivably be strummed on an acoustic guitar, with well-formed verses, rising bridges and catchy choruses. At the heart of country music is an engagement with the grit of real-life struggles, and this remains Swift’s lyrical terrain. Sharp observation and emotional engagement raise her material above the level of celebrity Twitter spat. They are not score-settling songs so much as emotional reckonings, revolving around the appeal and danger of reckless young love, with repeated motifs of memory and loss.
The album ends with the understated, atmospheric Clean, a song of survival, evoking metaphors of the destructive yet cleansing force of a torrential storm but also breaking clean of an addiction. “You’re still all over me,” Swift mourns, “like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore.” It’s not quite blood on the tracks, perhaps, but it’s got a truth and power rare in commercialised pop.