Of all the songs on Taylor Swift’s new album, 1989 (out October 27), “Out of the Woods” is supposed to be among the rare few that shit-talk — specifically, it shit-talks an ex-boyfriend, who happens to be One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles. This will undoubtedly be the one thing people remember about “Out of the Woods” in those too-common instances when they remember only a single fact about a pop song. But it’s not what people should remember about the song, which currently sits at No. 1 on the iTunes chart just 12 hours after its release. (You can hear it here, if you don’t want to just pay the damn 99 cents for it.)
Swift has always been passionate about writing deeply personal lyrics, and as her star has ascended, the world has become more and more interested in dissecting her songs (“Out of the Woods” included here, here, and here) for tabloid “clues” about her famous romances. And of all the songs Swift has written about ex-boyfriends, “Out of Woods” is the one that asks you to pay the least attention to its overt subject matter (which means this is probably not why Harry Styles was vomiting on the side of the road this past weekend). The song is not about Styles so much as it’s about how a snowmobile accident alongside him during a ski trip a few years back made her feel. That feeling part is the key element in many of Swift’s best songs written about real men, and why she inspires such polarizing opinions. But the difference this time is that “Out of the Woods” is more commanding musically than it is lyrically — and in a really tasteful way, not a crash landing into dubstep à la “I Knew You Were Trouble.”
What’s even more exciting is that Swift told USA Today that “Out of the Woods,” though not an official single, was released because it’s the “greatest example of the sound of this album.” So maybe 1989 is not a love letter to the pop of the late ’80s as much as it’s distinctly new music that feels like an homage to the era. Again, this feeling part is key; this kind of music is very vibe-y. I’m reminded of the cult-favorite soundtrack to 2011’s Drive, specifically the slightly sinister retro-futurism of its main theme, “A Real Hero,” by French electronic producer College and Toronto duo Electric Youth. The chilly yet nostalgic sound of M83’s brilliant sixth album, 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, is somewhere in this equation as well. And it’s not a crazy approach for mainstream pop, considering how Daft Punk’s retro-futurism has made them more ubiquitous than ever in recent years.
The man whose voice you can hear looped in the background of “Out of the Woods” is Jack Antonoff: fun. guitarist, pop songwriter (Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”), boyfriend of Swift BFF Lena Dunham, and most importantly, the man behind New Wave revivalists Bleachers (if you don’t know his “I Wanna Get Better,” fix that ASAP). He’s key in understanding what’s going on here, having provided Swift with a completed track to build off in her songwriting. This is a common songwriting practice in electronic beat-based pop and hip hop (which accounts for a lot of the genres’ biggest hits), but this was the first time Swift had done it. “I tend to want to create something with my guitar or piano and bring it in, then we create the track from the ground up,” Swift told USA Today. “But with Jack, he has something very emotional about what he does when creating a track. I can kind of read that emotion as soon as I hear it, and we work very well that way.” (Clearly these two are excited.)
“I used a Yamaha DX7 a lot on that song, which is so uniquely ’80s, but then countered it with a super-distorted Minimoog Voyager in the chorus,” Antonoff told USA Today. “That sounds extremely modern to me. It’s that back-and-forth.”
For Swift, it seems the “big” musical feeling was an attempt to echo her emotions (the repetitive chorus helps with this). In a quick video interview about the song on her YouTube channel, Swift explains what she was trying to do on “Out of the Woods” without recalling any specific musical reference points:
I wanted to make sure that these songs sounded exactly the way that the emotions felt, when I felt them. This song is about the fragility and kid of breakable nature of some relationships. This was a relationship where I was kind of living day to day, wondering where it was going, if it was going to go anywhere, if it’s going to end the next day. It was a relationship where you kind of never feel like you’re standing on solid ground. And that kind of a feeling beings on excitement but also extreme anxiety, and kind of a frantic feeling of wondering — endless questions. This song sounds exactly like that frantic feeling of anxiety and questioning, but it stresses that even if a relationship is breakable and fragile and full of anxiety, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthwhile, exciting, beautiful, and all the things that we look for.
I’m reminded of the remix Swift premiered of her 2008 Top 5 single, “Love Story,” on analog synth at September’s iHeartRadio Fest, which fell somewhere between M83’s romanticism and One Republic’s slow-motion “whoa-ohs.” Instead of being a happily-ever-after reimagining of Romeo and Juliet penned by a 19-year-old girl, “Love Story” took on a lost-for-the-ages whist with this new treatment. It also showed Swift’s commitment to her “new” declared pop direction, with all the song’s country traces removed. Overall, it was a great way for Swift to bridge her past with her future while still standing her ground, as if to say, “You can’t ignore where I’m headed.” And by the sound of “Out of the Woods,” I don’t think we’d want to.