February 23, 2024

It was a very good year, 1989 was. And by 1989, of course we mean 2014. That’s the year Taylor Swift put out her biggest and most transformative album, ensuring that, for the rest of our lives, any citation of “1989” will make just about anyone in the world immediaately think of “Shake It Off” and “Bad Blood,” not “My Prerogative” or “Wind Beneath My Wings” or any of the music that actually came out in Swift’s birth year.

Now “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” has arrived, complete with never-before-heard Vault tracks to go along with the 16 re-recorded numbers from the original album, as is her custom with these “TVs.” And what calendar year do you suppose these five wholly fresh (to us) tracks conjure up? Not 1989, of course, but not 2014, so much either. They may have been written in the same era as “Blank Space” and “Welcome to New York,” but in terms of their production and arrangement, there’s no exact fealty to the style of nine years ago. They’re very much about the Swift sound of 2023.

Or, just to be a little more technically correct, the sound of 2022. Because they sound less like cutting-room-floor leftovers from “1989” than they do an additional set of five bonus tracks from last year’s “Midnights.” Which is just fine, for those of us who loved the percolating mid-tempo sounds and rhythms of her most recent all-original album. She’s been in such a groove with co-producer Jack Antonoff that it’s not surprising that she stay in it, even if in the process she’s using some older compositions they wrote together circa 2014. Antonoff has been helping her out in producing some of the Vault tracks for the other ”Taylor’s Version,” but this is the first time she’s gotten around to re-recording one of the albums he was originally involved with (albeit to a lesser extent than he came to be later on). And it seems to have liberated her to really imagine what the material of that time frame might have sounded like if it were a present-day Swift/Antonoff project — not on the re-recordings, of course, because she’s not about to mess with those, but for the duration of this particular Vault break-in.

The cynic might ask, if this newly unearthed material sounds so much like “Midnights,” how do we know these aren’t just brand new songs she and Antonoff wrote together and are passing off as discarded oldies? Well, that’s very cynical, but there’s a dead giveaway that gives away almost the exact vintage of these compositions: the lyrics. The Taylor Swift of 2014 was at a particular nexus point in her attitude and concerns that wasn’t too close to what she’d written before or what she would turn to years later. It’s a Swift who’s shedding her last traces of romantic naivete and becoming wisened, if not nearly as cocky and confident as the seasoned soul who wrote an album as lyrically clever as “Midnights.” You still get a good dose of her seminal earnestness in these tracks, but there’s a lot more of the woman who knew somebody was trouble when he walked in, and went for it anyway.

Plainly put, in the “1989” Vault tracks, she’s falling for a higher class of rogue. And mourning them just a little less, when things don’t work out. None of the gut-wrenching anguish of “All Too Well,” here (10-minute version or five-minute version). Even as she still registers the pain of separations, there’s also a sense of no great loss in some of these old/new tunes. “I call my mom / She says that it was for the best / Remind myself the more I gave, you’d want me less,” she sings in “Now That We Don’t Talk,” the most pungent and possibly the best of the five Vault tracks. “I don’t have to pretend I like acid rock / Or that I’d like to be on a mega yacht / With important men who speak important thoughts / Guess maybe I am better off / Now that we don’t talk.” She even kind of prophesies the defensive retreat of the “Reputation” era to come when she adds: “And the only way back to my dignity / Was to turn into a shrouded mystery / Just like I had been when you were chasing me.” The benefits of the silent treatment have never been better articulated.

Anyone looking for clues as to who these songs might have been about IRL may be stymied here, although there’s at leat one intriguing detail in the closing song, “Is It Over Now?”: The line “When you lost control / Red blood, white snow” seems to mark this number as at least a cousin to “Out of the Woods,” with its eternally memorable snowmobile accident. She’s got a few smart remarks for this guy, whoever he was or wasn’t: “You dream of my mouth before it called you ‘a lying traitor’ / You search in every model’s bed for something greater, baby.” (You sense she throws in the “baby” because sometimes a rhyme that lands too exactly doesn’t sound quite conversational enough.) “At least I had the decency to keep my nights out of sight,” she adds, further poking the bear for becoming the talk of the town for his indiscretions … even though she admits to her own elsewhere in the song.

These more quotable lines may sound kinda vituperative on the page. But actually the bonus tracks here show a Swift who’s become a lot more sanguine about love and its vagaries, as, you know, one of the New Romantics. There’s a practicality about the dating life that wouldn’t seemed possible earlier in her writing career. The song here that has the most provocative title, “’Slut!’” (exclamation point and extra quoteation marks all hers), is also weirdly the most satisfied-sounding of these numbers — with Swift being fine with a kind of quick-thrill romance that seems to have planned obsolescence built into it. “Got love struck, went straight to my head / Got love sick all over my bed,” she sings, sounding like she suddenly doesn’t care so much anymore about how her dating life might affect her image: “But if I’m all dressed up / They might as well be looking at us / If they call me a ‘slut!’ / You know it might be worth it for once.” (She ironically emphasizes the word “slut” with that kind of gang-vocal sound that’s become a trademark in the vocally emphatic passages of songs like “Cruel Summer.”)

Why weren’t these songs picked up for the original “1989” album? Well, besides the fact that she already had 16 corkers, you can see a few areas of lyrical or thematic overlap that were probably best avoided. Listen to “Say Don’t Go,” for instance — the closest thing to a pure ballad here, and the one song not co-written with Antonoff, but with Diane Warren instead. (Who knew they once worked together? Now we do.) “I would stay forever if you say ‘Stay, don’t go,’” she sings. Well, she already had one definitive “stay” song on the album — “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” and as has become her growing custom, she went with the weirder one.

If none of these songs come off as total tragedies, that’s partly because of the slightly tempered nature of her lyric-writing at the time — although she was still capable of reeling off all-or-nothing lines like “You kiss me in a way that’s gonna ruin me forever.” But it’s also because the music beds that she and Antonoff have come up with in the here-and-now for these songs has a mid-tempo throb that is going for pleasure more than abject sadness. “Is It Over Now” sounds like nothing so much as it does “Bejeweled,” the most cheerful — and sheen-iest — “Midnights” track. “Now That We Don’t Talk” has the light pop-suspense feel that characterized the last album’s “Mastermind.” Watching the lyric video for “’Slut!,’” with its background images of champagne and palm trees, you may think of a summertime that doesn’t feel all that cruel, after all.

The ”1989” Vault turns out not to have any songs that would have been obvious singles, like “I Can See You,” from the “Speak Now” re-do that came out just months ago. Or if there are any leftover Max Martin/Shellback cuts still somewhere in the can, she decided to keep them there for now, in favor of emphasizing what she’s got going now with Antonoff. It’s a good call, in my mind, to make the first Vault section that sounds kind of all of a piece, and a modern-day piece. She knows what never goes out of style, even if that means reverse-engineering some of her older writing here to feel like it takes place just before midnight.

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