“Took our broken hearts and put them in a drawer,” Taylor Swift sings on “Welcome to New York,” the opening track on her fifth and sharpest album, 1989. Coming from Swift, a superstar who built a global empire penning hits about matters of the heart, this sounds like a threat–stowing her sorrow away after it brought so much success seems borderline irresponsible.
But Swift has gambled before and won. After writing every song solo on her blockbuster 2010 country-crossover album, Speak Now, she teamed up with a varied roster of top-shelf tunesmiths for 2012’s sprawling, genre-spanning opus, Red. That album went quadruple platinum, earned rapt critical acclaim and four Grammy nods and made her an icon.
On 1989, out Oct. 27, she sounds like one. Leaner and keener than those on Red, her new songs fizz and crackle with electricity and self-aware wit. Driven by synths and drums in lieu of guitars, all trace of country abandoned, 1989 holds together sonically as a tribute to the electro-pop that dominated radio 25 years ago. Swift executive-produced the album alongside Swedish hit machine Max Martin, who lends pop shellack to her nimble lyrics. Winding choruses have been whittled down to their stickiest essence.
Thematically, too, Swift breaks with the past, skirting victimhood and takedowns of maddening exes, critics and romantic competitors. Instead, there’s a newfound levity. Not only is Swift in on the joke; she also relishes it. The bouncy “Blank Space” hyperbolizes her portrayal in the media as an overly attached man-eater who dates for songwriting material: “Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane/ But I’ve got a blank space,” she coos before, incredibly, a clicking sound like that of a pen, “and I’ll write your name.” The skronky, horn-driven lead single “Shake It Off” communicates a cheerful disinterest in being critiqued, and a panicked, operatic vocal sample of Swift singing the word “Stay!” gives the swerving “All You Had to Do Was Stay” an oddball kick. The angriest song here is “Bad Blood,” a chanting call to arms over a dispute with a frenemy, and even it feels tongue-in-cheek.
Instead of pain, the songs about romance vibrate with fluttering lust or wistful nostalgia. The winking disco anthem “Style” packs a nasty ’70s groove, while strings and a lush refrain lend “Wildest Dreams” a cinematic grandeur: “He’s so tall, and handsome as hell,” she exhales. Surging drums and a jagged bassline, courtesy of fun. rocker Jack Antonoff, mitigate the longing of “I Wish You Would.” Even the atmospheric electro-ballad “This Love” is more hopeful than anguished, enlivened by a catchy chorus and Swift’s breathless delivery.
Though Swift is skilled with melody, her deadliest weapon is a superhuman knack for tight, evocative images–a skill she employs sparingly here. On the tense “Out of the Woods,” she ruefully recounts deciding “to move the furniture so we could dance,” while the feathery “Clean,” a collaboration with English composer Imogen Heap, sees her comparing a relationship to “a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore.” But the most potent statements are sonic, like “I Know Places,” a thrillingly paranoid cut with a drum-and-bass-like intensity. It’s the album’s darkest moment, until the chorus fills the song with light.
As long as Swift writes autobiographically, her romantic affairs will be the subject of speculation, but it’s the expertly crafted sound of 1989 that marks her most impressive sleight of hand yet–shifting the focus away from her past and onto her music, which is as smart and confident as it’s ever been. Who are these songs about? When they sound this good, who cares?
This appears in the November 03, 2014 issue of TIME.
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