After Taylor Swift’s album leaked online ahead of schedule, we came to the important editorial conclusion it would be a disservice to our readers if we didn’t review her latest offering. Update, Monday, October 27: The album has now been officially released.
What follows is a transcript of the live conversation between Mother Jones engagement editor Ben Dreyfuss and Climate Desk senior producer James West as they listened to the songs for the very first time; this was the only way we could think of to get this important cultural event to you in the quickest possible manner.
This conversation has been edited for clarity—it needed it.
Track 1: “Welcome to New York”
James West: Okay. That synth beat. You were saying, Ben, that this song was pilloried. But I actually like it. It has a big, banner sound full of deep, pulsing synth; a happy beginning to the album.
Ben Dreyfuss: Right. People hate it. Actually New York hipsters hate it. But New York hipsters hate everything.
JW: And who cares if it’s a little uncool, like she thinks she’s the only one who’s ever lived here before?
BD: That’s the way people act when they come to NYC! People are stupid. It’s easy to laugh about it years later when you consider yourself a jaded Gawker reader but you were once romanticizing the city on a bus from Des Moines too.
JW: (Or on a plane from Sydney, Australia!) But also, importantly Ben, I do like how gay-friendly it is. “Boys and boys and girls and girls.” Good one, Taylor. Stick it to the homophobes.
Track 2: “Blank Space”
JW: “You look like my next mistake”—hey, that’s one helluva line. Taylor’s grown. Now that she’s in New York, she’s having some kind of bad first romance, right? That’s the narrative? It all smacks of a jealous, no-holds-barred love affair: “Fuck it,” she’s saying. And this beat is totally infectious again.
BD: The Story of Taylor’s Big Move to the Big City.
JW: That cassette click is super cheesy. But now we’re into the pared back “spoken wordy” wisdom bit. What Taylor Has Learned of Love.
BD: “I love the players. You love the game.” LOL. “Boys only want love when it’s painful” or something? That is, in my personal experience, true.
JW: I really liked that one.
Track 3: “Style”
JW: Oh, now here it comes. Instant fave this one.
BD: The beat is so good. So ’80s.
JW: It’s twilight. We’re driving on a long road trip. Blondie is definitely nearby, on a cassette tape near my feet.
BD: Michelle Pfeiffer is there.
JW: Suddenly, we’re in a truck stop, refilling the car with gas in some kind of epic, knowing way. Top Gun is playing inside on a TV. The Sunday Night Movie.
BD: “James Dean…” what was it? That is a catchy hook. Although I clearly can’t even remember it two seconds later.
JW: She’s comparing herself to a classic movie star, I think. “I got that red lip classic thing that you like.”
BD: That’s basically Lana Del Rey’s entire shtick, no?
JW: This feels better than that for some reason. Kind of.
Track 4: “Out of the Woods”
JW: Okay, here’s another single prereleased. Again, this depressed, haunting minor key thing that she’s got going on the other tracks. Incremental, darker verses, leading to loud, washy choruses. I like it.
BD: She’s doing the “here’s a story that is emotionally evocative from your teen years” thing.
JW: This is the bit about Harry Styles right?
BD: I assume so. The imagery in this song is so deliciously meaningless.
JW: This breakdown bridge bit is nice. And then the final chorus to bring it right home. Wow. There it is. That was fast.
Track 5: “All You Had To Do Was Stay”
JW: Okay, this sounds a bit more generic now. This song sounds like a first cut of one of the other tracks, to be honest.
BD: It sounds like one of Katy Perry’s lesser songs.
JW: Yes. But there’s a nice “Stay!” vocal higher up there in the mix from the backing singers.
BD: Yeah, it’s a nice refrain, but in the earlier songs some of the totally meaningless imagery worked. Here it seems like fluff that exists because the song needs some words.
JW: Totally. In fact, it’s almost a bar-by-bar formula-copy of the first four songs, just worse. Don’t get me wrong, Ben. It’s still the best thing I’ve ever heard.
BD: HAHAHA. It is catchy. By the end “Stay” does have you moving with it.
Track 6: “Shake It Off”
BD: I love this song. It’s the perfect pop song.
JW: The single! Alright, Tay Tay. I love this song, too. It’s almost too good. It’s been in my brain for weeks and weeks like a tapeworm.
BD: And here the lyrics totally work as coming from Taylor but also in their appeal to everyone. Everyone thinks everyone else is a fuckup BUT THEY DON’T SEE, well, me landing on my feet. BUT MAYBE I’M JUST PROJECTING.
JW: This is the whole “Taylor as outsider” theory advanced by, well, almost every critic under the sun. And I think it’s true. I don’t know how she’s managed to be perpetually marketed in this way. She is, well, quite a pretty, conventional singer. And let’s face it, the song is pretty bland in the sense that it recycles a lot of old stuff: the horns, the hand claps, this cheerleader thing; but the sum of Tay Tay’s parts are bigger than the individual components for sure.
BD: The cheerleader thing is the low point for me.
JW: It’s silly.
Track 7: “I Wish You Would”
BD: We’re in a car again.
JW: Ha. We are. (Did we ever leave?) Another road trip through the late ’80s landscape.
BD: The funny thing is we don’t actually drive a lot in New York.
JW: Zipcars, I suppose.
BD: This whole thing is actually just an ad for Zipcars over Uber.
JW: Musically, I like the switch between the fast, double-time verse, then the slower beat in the chorus; and this synth wash is again reminding me of watching Back to the Future as a kid.
BD: I like the “You always knew how to push my buttons” bit. The lyric isn’t great but she delivers it pretty nicely.
JW: That’s the thing. She’s really meaning all these pretty generic emotions. But that’s when the generic becomes universal, right? When you mean it?
BD: I’m impressed with her handling of the faster delivery.
JW: This song is faster than the rest, for sure. All of these songs are super-short.
Track 8: “BAD BLOOD”
BD: This is different.
JW: This reminds me a bit of Britney, actually. Dark, breakdown Britney. Sad Britney. Or the girl I saw crying on the L train the other day, with her mascara smeared.
BD: It’s funny. The image that comes to my mind is a sad Britney with smeared mascara but not on the L. I really don’t get a NY vibe from most of these. She’s sitting on the top of her beat up car at night overlooking some football field by her high school in Texas, I think.
JW: Do you think she’s ever been here to New York City?
BD: For shows. Straight from LaGuardia to MSG and then the Standard.
JW: This anthemic chorus is nice. But then, you know, these bits are my least favorite parts of her songs, these whimsical “meaningful” broken-down vocal bits, where she tries to tell you the truth. I like the “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman” vibe of the songs, rather than when she delivers half-baked truths in these bridges.
Track 9: “WILDEST DREAMS”
BD: Is it interesting that all of these songs are her breaking up with someone?
BD: Has anyone checked on him? Is he okay?
JW: Again, her looks are really important in the lyrics: standing in a dress, rosy-cheeked, red lips.
BD: Yeah, it fits further into the Taylor as Film Star. It’s all told in a very cinematic way.
JW: Did she listen to Fiona Apple and Annie Lennox on loop before this song, with a little bit of…I don’t know…Sia Furler?
BD: I feel like Fiona Apple fans are not going to be pleased with that comment.
JW: Oh god. I don’t want Fiona Apples after me. [Doesn’t delete earlier comment].
BD: It’s too late anyway. I am one of those fans. “THE CALL IS COMING FROM IN THE HOUSE.”
JW: Is she putting on a weird English accent in this bit?
BD: YES, a little.
JW: Frankly, I didn’t really like that song. A bit of a filler. Some pretty sighs but nothing that I’ll be drawn back to immediately.
BD: The sighs were the best part but yeah, no, it was maybe the worst so far.
Track 10: “How You Get The Girl”
JW: Oh, is this our first acoustic guitar? Are we back on the plane to Nashville?
BD: God, I hope we’re not on that plane. She has come so far.
JW: I’ve almost immediately written off this song half way through the chorus. This is maybe the most generic pop thing on the record so far. Twee, cloying, too cutesy; doesn’t have the heightened emotions of the first couple of tracks.
BD: I have not absorbed any of these lyrics because these lyrics aren’t meant to be absorbed.
JW: A runny slick of silliness.
BD: “Pulled your heart out, put it back together.” Wait, when did the heart break? Did it break when she was pulling it out? Was it already broken? He had a broken heart from an earlier relationship? What the hell is this song even about?
JW: I’m confused too.
BD: Is this about Ebola?
JW: I’m disappointed a bit. I have to say.
BD: Yeah I really liked a few of the earlier new ones.
JW: I’m getting a beer. Want one?
BD: Yes, please.
Track 11: “This Love”
JW: Okay. Ready to start again? Only six more songs. Go go go. Moody. This is going to be a torch ballad for sure.
BD: What is this. Is this slam poetry?
JW: It’s so…stereo. She’s coming at me in both ears.
BD: It’s like a song I remember being forced to listen to on the radio in 1993.
JW: Okay, now I’m back, Taylor. I’m so back. Are you in New York yet, Ben? I’m closer. Definitely not Texas.
BD: That’s true. She’s sitting on a stoop with a Parliament hanging out her half-gloved hand.
JW: Tay and some boy just listened to “Papa Don’t Preach” together. Now she’s by herself—
BD: —wondering if that Tisch major friend of hers who just sang that Madonna song so well?
JW: Gay? Probably. But it’s first year Tisch, so…?
BD: He hasn’t even chosen if he wants to act or direct yet. He just knows he wants to express himself.
JW: But don’t we all want that? He just wants to love. Tay knows that.
BD: Five hundred twenty-five-thousand six-hundred minutes…
JW: Haha. Aaaand. Scene.
Track 12: “I Know Places”
BD: I actually hear a bit of that angry fast Fiona in this one…Wait, well I guess I did before this silly hunting hook.
JW: Yes. Wow. This is pretty stupid.
BD: “Lights flash.” What’s with her and this whole car motif?
JW: This is as close to performance art the album has seen (and only glancingly so). But this is Tay as “artist” for sure. Those Tisch classes are really rubbing off. Maybe she recently learned about this woman called “Kate Bush” and thought she was pretty dope.
BD: Oh God, that is so true. You know they are going to be playing this in dorms around Washington Square tonight and someone is going to call this the best song of the album because it’s so “meaningful.”
JW: At least those other ones we didn’t like weren’t pretentious like this. URGH, THAT CASSETTE CLICK THING DRIVES ME MAD.
BD: It’s a cassette player in a car. It’s all part of the same awful confusing element.
Track 13: “Clean”
JW: Drought! She says the word “drought!” Climate change! Taylor Swift, Climate Activist.
BD: Did global warming hurt you, Tay?
JW: Can I report on this, somehow, in my real job?
BD: Remember when Beyonce single-handedly stopped climate change?
JW: [Adds link].
JW: Okay, back to the song. We’re definitely in the softer part of the album now; the slower torch songs bunched right up at the end here.
BD: “I punched a hole in the roof.” I am Taylor. I feel things very strongly.
JW: I am nothing but feeling, and I give voice to what you feel, too.
BD: I am a feeling robot. *does robot movements* Ten months sober!
JW: “Ten months sober!” is she pretending to have had a…drinking problem?
BD: This is her song for the people who are wondering if they have a drinking problem. Tay can do Lifetime drama too!
JW: The drought again! I’m taking this literally, I don’t care what people say. Gov. Jerry Brown listen up! Taylor’s climate album.
BD: That’s our headline.
JW: Gov. Jerry Brown Listen Up! Taylor’s Climate Album.
BD: “I think I am finally clean!”
Track 14: “Wonderland”
JW: IN THAT FUCKING CAR AGAIN. Flashing lights, take a wrong turn…spinning out of control.
BD: She seems mad.
JW: Is this the inevitable come down after the Tisch kids made her take molly?
BD: Hahahaha. “Tay, Tay, babe, you need a Xanax.”
JW: This is actually just a Rihanna song. This “eh, eh, eh” is just “Umbrella”…the chorus is pure “Umbrella.”
BD: Yeah. The truth is a lot of this album seems like a hodgepodge from a recent NOW CD. I don’t mean that in a necessarily bad way.
JW: Even this “Wonderland” refrain sounds like ‘Yonce at the end of the visual album.
BD: IT DOES. Also, like, is this song even about the Val Kilmer movie Wonderland? I don’t think so.
JW: God, it’s so MDMA-ish. Tay’s gripping her bestie’s hand rolling down the street. It’s not going to end well. “I never felt worse, but never better.” Yikes.
BD: They were in the top of some parking garage all together each with a pill in hand. “Let’s watch out for each other!” DRIVE.
Track 15: “You R In Love”
JW: These are all sounds from my ’80’s youth.
BD: Who produced this? I think when it works it really works, but when it misses it’s awf.
JW: Right. This one is working. There’s some inherent longing in this.
BD: Oh I like this bit. We’re getting back to the good Tay.
JW: Oh god. I just got chills. A little rush of truth and happiness mixed with uncertainty and… optimism?
BD: Cautious anticipation?
JW: Yes. Things are going to be okay, as long as I can master this “living” thing, you know?
BD: Oh that is good.
JW: That quiet moment before it hits the chorus kills me.
BD: It plays so well off “You can hear it in the silence.”
JW: Right. The most real stuff on the album is about falling in love. The break up songs don’t ring true. Am I onto something here?
BD: Agreed. The breakup songs sound like an act? Like a show. Like something she knows she needs to do but isn’t quite sure how to do it.
JW: Yes. Obligatory. But these long train rides home, feeling lost and sad and…urgh…it’s good. And Ben, Ben. We’re now really in New York.
BD: Yes! I’m listening to that on the F train in the winter.
Track 16: “New RomanTICS”
JW: THE FINAL SONG.
BD: You never realize it’s going to be the last one until it’s too late.
JW: But this is worthy, I think. We’ve got this big chorus again. Happy. Shameless.
BD: I like this. I’m feeling it. This is the one song that sort of would make me want to take some molly. NOT THAT I EVER WOULD.
JW: “We’re the New Romantics”…that’s a big claim, don’t you think?
BD: Aim for the stars.
JW: And certainly, this is the most unadulterated dance-floor calling capital-A American song. Like Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA”.
BD: “Please take my hand and take me dancing and leave me stranded. It’s so romantic.” Oh there is so much to unpack in that last bit. So sick. So true.
JW: I keep mishearing, and instead thinking she’s singing “Everyday is like bath salts…” Which is really horrible.
JW: AND THAT’S A WRAP LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.
BD: Now she’s talking about how to write a song.
JW: Urgh, I just switched off. What a mood killer that was.
BD: What’s happening? She had gotten me there. Now it’s gone.
JW: Turn it off. Turn it off!
BD: Okay, off. It’s off. It’s dead. God, never include those voice memo things after dance molly anthems.
JW: So Ben. Overall takeout assessment?
BD: I have to say: I had pretty high expectations going into this and I’m not sure this whole album really met them.
JW: Right. My question going in was: Now that we’ve heard some high-water marks in the pre-releases, what will the album fill out about Taylor herself? And on that front, I did get some more from her than I expected. This whole “living, learning, loving” narrative was quite compelling, even if musically there was a rough patch in the middle.
BD: Exactly. I mean, the beginning has some real highlights and then it hits a sad monotonous valley for a bit and recovers towards the end and the last song is a smash. But I could have done without a lot of the stupid bullshit in the middle.
JW: There was some filler for sure. But, you know, on balance, I think I’m probably a little bit more of a fan than I was before (which, frankly, wasn’t that much), and I’ll definitely put on that lovesick song next time I’m drunk.
BD: Agreed. She’s definitely matured as an artist away from the Nashville nonsense that she was known for a few albums ago. I mean, this is clearly her best album.
JW: Let’s get this on the web.
To preorder Taylor Swift’s album, please visit your favorite music retailer, like iTunes. We’ve also corrected the names of three apparently mislabeled track names in the leaked version of the album.