Month: June 2015

Confessions of a ‘1989’ listener

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Generally speaking, pop music makes me uncomfortable. It’s too loud, it’s too catchy, too mundane, too…easy.

So I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought a copy of Taylor Swift’s 1989.

I’d heard Shake It Off, I’d watched the Blank Space video (which, incidentally, makes for a terrific reaction from all car-lovers… girly screams galore, and that was just my dad). But you know, I didn’t think this was my thing. What did interest me, was how a musician could leap from one genre to the other and bring their fans with them. So I handed over $22 to satisfy my curiosity and listened to the whole damn thing in one sitting. Call it research.

Oddly enough, I can recall my first encounter with Taylor Swift rather vividly – especially given that was a figurative sentence, not a reference to a face-to-face encounter. It was my 17th birthday, I was cruising down the freeway, and one of my best friends (and enthusiastic Swifty) couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard Swift’s eponymous debut album. ‘Play’ was pressed accordingly and I found myself privy to someone else’s love-life in a matter of seconds. I was fascinated; not just by these uncensored matters of the heart, but by the neatness of the meter and rhyme (Edward Lear’s poetry was always my jam).

Seventeen-year-old me may have investigated further, but Love Story had invaded the airwaves several times too often and I made it my full-time job to avoid this soppy, angsty, trash – much less ever seek it out. I turned up The Beatles and directed the full force of my adolescent disdain toward Swift’s crowd-pleasing love songs. Oh yes, my music snobbery started at an early age.

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But how time changes the heart. Last week, I finished my 1989 listening spree feeling subdued and emotionally spent. Swift has always been an earnest scholar of the laws of attraction – and her thorough research has given her reams of relatable material – but 1989 deals more sagely with that vulnerable place between teenage romance and adult affairs. The passions are stronger, the recoveries slower, the scars are deeper, and our narrator changed forever. If ever there was a time to apply the “coming of age” label, this is it.

And let’s talk music. In keeping with the magnitude of the emotions dealt with here, 1989 is created mainly from an expansive palette of 1980’s-inspired synths and booming beats. The banjo has been banished, gone is the girl-next-door twang, and the whole album is begging to be heard loud and live. Even I know this is not typical Swift. That was, in fact, part of the attraction. If I liked this album, I figured, it wouldn’t make me a T-Swizzle fan…right? I’m safe. So I can sing along as loudly as I like… *ahem*

1989 is a pop record, plain and simple. Swift’s knack for narrative and rhyme means she handles the catchy chorus better than most, and her snappy songwriting fits sleekly into her new choice of genre. The euphoric Welcome To New York is surely a concert-opener, Style had me at “James Dean”, but it is Out Of The Woods (which I invariably call “Into The Woods” because I am actually a forgetful, Sondheim-loving grandma) that forms the standout moment of the album for this reviewer. It’s a powerful combination of adult realisation and innocent hope, delivered with hard-hitting repetition and a plethora of backing vocals. Shake It Off pales into insignificance beside this kind of thing.

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So here’s my shocking (at least to me) confession: I’ve had 1989 on repeat ever since I bought it. I can’t say I like all the tracks (Bad Blood, for all its hype, is a little too whiney for my taste), but the bigger numbers keep me coming back for more. Perhaps it’s the inevitable relevance it carries for me as a twentysomething, perhaps it’s the fact that Swift’s songwriting transfers effortlessly to a pop sensibility, perhaps it’s just that sometimes you need to stop thinking and dance. But I actually dig this album.

One more confession: less than a week after purchasing 1989, I added Red to my collection. And though I will never, ever, ever, ever, like THAT song, I rather enjoyed the others. Which begs the question: after all these years, am I actually a Swifty??

Well, they do say denial is the first stage…

SOAK: Before We Forgot How To Dream

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SOAK: aka. Bridie Monds-Watson

Album: Before We Forgot How To Dream
Artist: SOAK
Label: Rough Trade Records
Released: June 1, 2015

RATING: 3/5 STARS

These days, it seems child prodigies are a dime a dozen (how else did The Voice Kids become a thing? *coughs*), so perhaps the least impressive fact about 19-year-old Bridie Monds-Watson – aka SOAK – should be her age. And yet, the maturity of both songwriting and delivery on Before We Forgot How To Dream makes it difficult to be entirely unimpressed. Because she is, of course, talented beyond her years. Endearingly earnest and refreshingly devoid of try-hard, Monds-Watson writes with a youthfulness that is inescapably relevant to this album of dark, soulful, indie-folk. (SOAK = soul + folk, you with me? Yep.)

“The teenage heart is an unguided dart/We’re trying hard to make something of what we are”, are her first words to us (in B a noBody). Sometimes throaty, sometimes whispy, SOAK’s vocals sit somewhere between Bjork and a younger Laura Marling, but have a distinctiveness that is all her own. The pulsing acoustic guitar lines, moody melodies, the dark and dangerous vibe; all stand in startling contrast to the childlike tones of Monds-Watson’s higher register, even as she manages to sound world-weary in the very next breath.

It may be the adolescent transparency that initially captures our attention, but Before We Forgot How To Dream grows in maturity as it progresses. The flow is concept album-like (a number of short ambient numbers link the anchor tracks with satisfactory ease), travelling through the bass ‘n’ drums-driven Sea Creatures, the gently reckless Garden (“I’d waste all my time on you if I could”) and finally to the murky whispers of “blind”. The innocence gradually fades in the wash, the vocals becoming more faded and cracked with time; you can practically hear Monds-Watson ageing. The astute poetry of the earlier B a noBody is replaced with streetwise cynicism by the time we reach Reckless Behaviour: “Slowly holding to things you told me/Most probably stolen from online poetry”.

No matter how much talent they ooze, ideally, debut albums leave their listeners wanting more. Before We Forgot How To Dream lingers a couple of tracks too long, utterly saturating us in SOAK’s dreamy, dark, indie-folk before it takes its leave. On the other hand, there is an abundance of confident musicality to praise. Damn these talented youngsters.