Dear Garth Brooks,
Thanks for keeping my seat warm in country music while I conquered pop radio. Now hand over my crown.
Sincerely, Tay Tay
Brooks may be the biggest-selling solo artist in music history, but Taylor Swift is not only one of the few artists who can match him hit for hit, but she one-upped him in 2014 by jumping over to (and dominating) pop radio with her album 1989. At the time, Swift claimed that she was completely severing her ties to the country genre, but money and Scott Borchetta have a way of changing peoples’ minds, and now Swift is making a U-turn by releasing “New Year’s Day” as a country single from her new album Reputation. While I’ve never been a rabid “Swiftie,” I generally enjoyed her previous country material, and this song (a nice piano ballad that quickly runs out of steam and overstays its welcome) is just okay by comparison.
When I call the song a piano ballad, I mean it: A somber piano is pretty much the only instrument you hear on the song. There’s an acoustic guitar added to the chorus and some bagpipe-sounding instruments tossed in during the first bridge, but they’re limited to background atmospheric duty, and most of the traditional sonic trappings you expect (any sort of percussion, for example) are nowhere to be found. The simplified setup, however, punches above its emotional weight class, and does a nice job connecting with the listener while matching the melancholic tone of the writing. It’s a bit of a departure from past sad Swift songs, but in this case, less is definitely more.
While I’m not terribly impressed by Swift’s vocals here, very little of my frustration is actually her fault. For one thing, the song is a key or two too low for Swift’s range, and the verses push her way below her comfort zone in an attempt to make her sound raspy and breathy. (Not only is this a poor fit for her voice, but during the live versions of the song she struggles to even finish some of the lines.) She sounds much more comfortable when the song lets her voice out of the basement for the chorus, but the addition of the harmony vocals seem to overshadow Swift’s natural tone and makes her sound generic, as if I’ve heard this song a million times before. There are a few moments where Swift gets to be heard by herself at a comfortable range, but those moments are few and far between. It’s never terrible, but it’s never really great either.
The song itself reflects on the aftermath of a party-fueled romance, and how the narrator’s feelings for their partner will live on even after the moment has ended. While the topic itself isn’t terribly novel, the lyrics include some unique images with a surprising amount of detail, and showcases Swift’s skill as a songwriter:
There’s glitter on the floor after the party
Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby
Candle wax and Polaroids on the hardwood floor
You and me from the night before
While the writing starts out strong with these sorts of images, the momentum only lasts through the second chorus, and the second half of the song is nothing but a pair of repetitive bridges and a few chorus refrains. With no instrument solos to speak of, the producers would have been better off cutting the track off after the second verse (even if it’s only two minutes in). As it is, the song squanders most of the interest it generates and eventually just lulls the listener to sleep.
Overall, “New Year’s Day” is a solid-but-not-spectacular from Taylor Swift, and makes me question just how successful her return to country radio will end up being. There’s just enough classic Swift here to make people take notice, but the track doesn’t do enough to hold that interest for very long. If she truly intends to reclaim her perch at the top of country music, she’s going to need more than just this song to do it.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth hearing once or twice to see how it makes you feel.