Friday, December 22nd, 2017

Taylor Swift – New Year’s Day

And we wrap up 2017 with the woman that we always have such high hopes for…


Isabel Cole: Swift’s famously concrete scene-setting details have only in recent years begun sounding less like lines culled from a predictive text generator trained on CW scripts and more like human moments caught by someone with a thoughtful ear. Here, they function not as specificity for its own sake but to sketch out both a series of spaces and a state of mind: the exhaustion of girls with heels in hand, the backseat flirtation that whispers possibility, the shock of finding that after an end comes a beginning, maybe, after all. In fact this song has all of her repeating motifs, as well as she’s ever done them–her preoccupation with narrativizing her own life (don’t read the last page), her fucked up relationship to time as something that takes and takes and yet slips by too fast, her tangled conception of memories as both something precious to be cherished and an unrelenting force from which there is no escape: hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you, she sings, echoing a phrase that bookended her most idiosyncratic album. But New Year’s Day is not a retreat into familiar territory tacked onto the end of a record of unsuccessful experimentation. Muted instrumentation complements an uncharacteristically hushed vocal performance that captures, even more than the gentle loveliness of Begin Again, the tentative tenderness of new love for someone who has felt love die not in fire but in ice; please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize everywhere tells a story that creates a person who understands now that love in fact is not a victory march, and heartbreak is no aria. For all her infamy as the girl who will write songs about the boys who dump her, Swift has also woven into her work a version of herself as someone who leaves things that shouldn’t be left; what makes her wish for gathering party detritus more believable than her previous playacting at domesticity is what she tells us about why it lasts: but I stay. I stay when I’m scared, I stay when it’s hard; I stay, which is something I have learned to do. Locating the power of a love not in someone else’s repeated decision to choose you but in your own capacity for remaining present in the face of uncertainty, revering not the luck it takes to be loved but the strength you find in yourself to keep loving, is–well. It’s very grown-up. Making this feel like the first song Taylor Swift has truly written as an adult, and more than that: like the song she has spent her entire career learning to write.

Stephen Eisermann: My birthday is on New Year’s Eve, so the New Year holiday has always been a very bittersweet one for me. Most people party their night away with the idea that they will wake up as more improved versions of themselves, based only on the resolutions they made a week prior and will forget a week after. It’s ritual, but it’s a devastating one, really, to want to change so badly that you are willing to drop and forget everything from one year to the next just because you feel like you need to be better. In a quest to better ourselves, we too easily toss aside the experiences, good and bad, that molded us and would rather crumple the paper with our notes for a fresh piece, than bring the key points on to the next paper because maybe we got those key points from something painful… I’m rambling, but there’s a point. This past year saw me struggle a lot — with work, with life, with our country’s moral compass — but I can undoubtedly say that I have never been happier. This, in large part, is due to my boyfriend, who has taught me that you can’t let go of unhappiness or darkness, just learn to work with and around it. That piece of advice, however general sounding it seems, has carried me through difficulties this year and I think, with this song, Taylor is saying the same thing. She had a rough couple of years in the media between her album cycles, but some people stuck around for the aftermath — the cleanup — and she’s eternally grateful and willing to do the rest for her lover and her friends. It’s a beautiful feeling, and the lines “hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you” as well as “please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere” are particularly devastating, simply because too many people abandon others they deem unfit solely because they have demons they can’t take ownership of, so they’d rather pass the blame to those they love; and that’s heartbreaking, especially when accompanied by a sparse, melancholy piano production.

Alfred Soto: Now the party’s over, and she’s so tired — even the piano sounds hungover. Taylor Swift, whose contract doesn’t allow for hangovers, sounds alert, as if she’s been keeping an eye on the condition of the floors all evening. After an album of sometimes compulsive ebullience, “New Year’s Day” is supposed to remind listeners of the early Taylor Swift.

Will Adams: A limp olive branch to those who might have been alienated by the EDM production on the preceding Reputation tracklist, “New Year’s Day” strips Taylor back to a piano, some guitar, and pretty organ flourishes. Never mind that Regina Spektor wrote this song ten times better a year ago, why leave a ballad at its barest when there’s no reason to?

Katherine St Asaph: Taylor Swift makes an album of shamelessly, undeniably pop songs: often missteps, but also big and seething and vital and alive in the way her past glurge never was. Everyone hates it, except on the one song where she regresses back to beige acoustic sap. Rockism lives! “New Year’s Day” has the slight edge over the past 20 outings because Swift sounds on occasion like Lisa Loeb. But it’s the only thing here that could be called “edge” at all.

Nortey Dowuona: Soft, pulsing piano, barely visible guitar, wailing synths in the corner, dece backing vocals. Tay simply hums without straining.

Thomas Inskeep: Liked Swift out of the box, more with each (country) album, as her songwriting got stronger. Hated her initial pop makeover (wub wub wub). Surprisingly loved 1989. Am indifferent-to-cold on Reputation. And even though “New Year’s Day” isn’t, necessarily, explicitly country, it’s a reminder that she can return to the format whenever she wants. (And her CMA Song of the Year, Little Big Town’s “Better Man,” is a sterling reminder that her pen has lost none of its punch, even if I find her current popcraft largely lacking.) I think we all know that in an album or two she’s likely to make a full-throated return to the format which made her, and we’ll be better for it. “New Year’s Day” helps smooth that transition, and is nicely underproduced to boot. 

Ashley John: The tender intimacy of stability hides the questions beneath the surface, and in “New Year’s Day” Taylor is begging to leave it be. Like Lorde recalling buying groceries in “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” Taylor clings to the boring moments shared only between two. The classic Swift specificity is what made Red so good, and we watch her here smartly paying a bit into that savings account each month waiting to cash out on the inevitable full blown country return. But that doesn’t matter, now. “New Year’s Day” is a treasure I want to keep warm against my chest and share with no one else for fear of them tarnishing it. It is Swift making a moment glimmer with potential and hope by bending time and memory. “Don’t read the last page,” she asks, and I don’t want to. I would rather live in this disillusion before the world wakes up, pretending that we’re the only people who’ve ever been in love like this. 

Alex Clifton: There’s so much in “New Year’s Day” that made me cry the first time I heard it. The lyric about Polaroids, a clear reference to the 1989 era; the lyrical parallels between “please don’t be in love with someone else” from “Enchanted” to “please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I would recognize anywhere”; the lightly waltzing piano in the background, simple but somehow devastating when compared with the overproduced mess that crowds most of Reputation. There’s nothing inherently romantic about New Year’s Day itself as a holiday; so much stock is put into the night before, all the parties and festivities and anticipation for a new beginning that the day of usually feels like a bleak, empty page. Yet as she always does in her best form, Taylor turns something unromantic like a hangover day into something to pine for. “I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you” is so intimate that it almost hurts, like overhearing a snitch of a conversation you weren’t meant to hear. It’s a far cry from the earnest romanticism shown on former tracks like “Stay Stay Stay,” where domestic life was twinkly, cute and fun, backed by toy pianos instead of the real thing. This is the Taylor I’ve longed for, away from the feuds and self-pity and bad rapping: reveling in the small quiet moments she has always been so good at observing.

Sonia Yang: So many songs about holidays focus on the joy of the moment, that explosive rush of living in the moment; it’s what sells. New Year’s Day, however, is the subdued reality in the aftermath of such escapist fantasies – “I want your midnights / But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day” – it’s unglamorous, hesitant, and more vulnerable than it lets on. Not everybody greets the new year with bombast and resolutions they plan to keep; it’s more likely to quietly clean up the mess and go on with life as usual, with all of the same hopes and fears as you carried before the clock struck midnight. The most painful line is “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere”, that aching dissonance between familiarity and isolation that Swift does oh so well. A relationship immortalized in glitter-covered Polaroids can end sooner than one realizes, as if to show that no matter how brightly something shines, nothing gold can stay. It’s fragility at its most cutting; the most powerful words are whispered rather than shouted.

Danilo Bortoli: In a way, Taylor Swift has encapsuled 2017. Reputation has been met with some divisive, if not lukewarm, reception, proving to be the album we didn’t want, yet managed to admit and love its flaws anyway. In a year devoted to uncovering the world’s true colors, her narrative, just like her castle, came crashing down. And also in a year where simply coping seems enough, her happiness has even been seen by some as a luxury – or perhaps a felony. “New Year’s Day” might suffer from this same fate, as some may listen to it as a forced reconciliation with her inner self “a la Miley“, a retreat back from the reckless journey that fits most of Reputation. Yet, it comes off as the truest moment of this era for Taylor: here’s to Old Taylor and the embarrassingly long yet remarkable mantras (“Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere”). As it often happens with her best songs, this one paints a vivid picture, constructing an entire narrative, this time measuring words with a stripped down piano, all suggesting, finally, some closure. It’s candid. It’s simple. It’s heartbreaking. It’s all about character, as she has learnt too late. 

Edward Okulicz: The old Taylor is dead, said the new Taylor, but whoever sequenced the album sure was nice to put this throwback to thoughtful, generous, storytelling Taylor as the last thing you hear. The domestic scene she paints is lived-in, cosy, relatable once more. Her optimism comes through, mercifully, without any smugness and it’s easily the best set of lyrics she put out this year. Thanks, Taylor(s).

Micha Cavaseno: On a certain level, “New Year’s Day” is brilliant because it’s a sham of a record; nothing here is organic; it’s a sea of strums, piano pawings, and musings to sound intimate and sentimental in the way of a singer-songwriter record, and what deep down we somehow understand Swift to be and keep forcing analogies to. It actually is sequenced really badly because, as always, Antonoff is often too clever for his own good and is deliberately making something unnerving and ambitious rather than functional (yet again the bland ambition of Nate Ruess was truly the foil he deserved, a man who could smother his tics to death in brazen tapioca). Swift, who’s clearly not giving a shit on this record vocally or in trying to reign him in, is utterly adrift and her talk of glitter and memory just rings as hollow as the other assemblikit elements of the song. This record could easily be more than it is, but its sense of orphaning is pained and senseless. 

Anthony Easton: Listening to the Harry Styles record this year, I was wondering (and hoping) that Taylor had reached the end of her experiment with taste, and would make something resembling a Laurel Canyon record. Hearing most of Reputation, this was obviously not the case. It was interesting, because it seemed like both Lorde and St. Vincent made albums which took the sonic experimentation of 1989 in new and difficult directions, trusting Jack Antonoff to take care of their aesthetics, pushing and deconstructing this kind of electronic thicket that marks populist taste right now. (See Craig Jenkins essay in Vulture.) I think that I overrated this single because it provided something new, not quite a rapprochement to old Taylor (if Old Taylor was dead, then who is singing this lovely, old fashioned ballad–a ghost, a zombie, something more technologically advanced?) but also not something quite new. I always worry about misogyny when I say these things, that liking the pretty song is not liking the angry song (false dichotomy, I know) or liking the ballad and not liking the more abrasive songs, but the ballad is so beautiful, lush, self-aware and exquisitely sung, even more exquisitely produced. This might be the most conservative thing she has produced, the most republican thing–in the moneyed, tightly private idea of pleasure, but also in the idea that those kind of pleasures are well guarded—thinking of the sexual harassment lawsuit, thinking of the failure of her kind of me-first feminism, that this is a kind of weaponized good taste, explicitly against the vulgarity of current pop, or current discourse, after an hour of trying to be as vulgar as more interesting pop stars, keeps prodding that Laurel Canyon vibe. It’s slippery and fascinating, and probably less good than I want it to be. 

Andy Hutchins: The story of “New Year’s Day,” in part, is that it was Taylor finding a use for the line “Please … don’t / Ever become a stranger / Whose laugh … I / Could recognize anywhere” — a strong bit of writing from someone whose fantastic songwriting chops have been wasted on too many attempts to veer away from being the evolutionary Carole King she could be with nearly no exertion. But even though I know too many strangers whose laughs I could recognize anywhere to not tear up at that line, the one that makes my breath catch is “I want your midnights / But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” Swift is at her absolute best when she nails the ordinary details it does not beggar belief to think she actually desires — and when she sings that she wants someone for after the afterparty, it sounds honest and yearning in the way truth and optimism can be. Would that she could focus on that, because I give more damns about it than her reputation.

Jonathan Bradley: Taylor Swift alone somewhere at a piano, playing soft clumsy chords, only half-attentive, barely a melody. “New Year’s Day” concludes and recasts Reputation in retrospect; as the unguarded obverse, it accounts for that album’s garishness and noxiousness. “New Year’s Day” is a song of little details and emotional import, which is another way of saying it is what we have come to recognize as a Taylor Swift song. In this one, she finds in the miniatures of her morning-after tableau — glitter, candle wax, “girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby” — a gentle grandeur, and then in that, earnest sentiment. “Don’t read the last page,” she tells her companion, casting them into a storybook before resolving back into the prosaic: housework and hardships. There are not many songs that do this on Reputation, and, as with “Better Man,” casually gifted to Little Big Town, “New Year’s Day” is a demonstration that Swift can still do this, that her current work is not a failure to create vividly detailed pop but a conscious rejection of it. Reputation is an album about privacy and turning away from the public; it asserts again and again that there are things in Swift’s life that she can refuse to make known. The music and sentiment matches this: it is at times ugly, at others glib, often repellent or anti-social, dangling details before obscuring them in ellipsis or melodrama. “New Year’s Day” demonstrates that none of that happened by accident. The old Taylor is dead, but she can be summoned at any time: this song casts ordinary life as legend like on “Long Live,” voices hopes and fears in the form of mantra as on “Enchanted,” and concludes a tumultuous record with a new start like on “Begin Again.” It’s tender and familiar. It’s one of the best songs Taylor Swift has ever recorded.

Reader average: [8.63] (22 votes)

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12 Responses to “Taylor Swift – New Year’s Day”

  1. thank you Isabel, such a beautiful blurb

  2. also amazing that after crippling shortage of new years jams, 2017 has given us this and this


  4. Miss TSJ Acclaim is back

  5. katherine and maxwell are bang on

  6. I agree, Kamal. This song is so contrived album closer’d.

    Begin Again’s wig is secure

  7. aw thanks eleanor! meanwhile i am personally extremely grateful to those bringing down the score because as much as i am genuinely obsessed with this song i’m really very resentful about the situation

  8. omg Isabel

  9. It IS a bit sus how the most “singer-songwriter-y” song is the most widely acclaimed from a clearly pop produced album but… I still like it. Delicate is the best thing here, imo.

  10. Natasha, I totally agree about Delicate – it’s phenomenal.

  11. the only new years song I claim

  12. isabel otm, incredible blurb. the more i listen to this the more i think my original impression (“the old taylor is alive,” a joke i think everyone came up with simultaneously the first time they heard those weird echoless piano chords + the slow accretion of detail) was wrong and that this song is actually the old taylor traversing a vast space in order to meet up with the new taylor, and in merging both sensibilities she creates a crisp contained wavepool of memories, a song that’s as much about precision as it is expansive and allusive storytelling. it doesn’t feel tonally detached from the rest of reputation bc it still feels like she’s adjusting her words to a grid, but that’s why it works—it’s compact, a scrap of paper you find at the bottom of your desk that has enormous almost totemic power and from which innumerable forgotten memories blossom but is still just a scrap, something designed to be fleeting and temporary, without substance, weightless. a trembling ghost of a song

    my fav song on the album is actually “don’t blame me” though which i think might be more rockist