Last night, 24-year-old pop powerhouse Taylor Swift released the second single from her forthcoming album, 1989. “Out of the Woods” takes a very different tone than the no-worries number “Shake It Off,” released last August—it’s a tense ballad with stark, punchy production. Big drums compete with Swift’s vocals in the foreground, while whispers of synth bass snake around the back. For a young songwriter who’s staked her claim in the pop world by writing flexible, athletic melodies, “Out of the Woods” is something of a sharp turn: its chorus pounds out just two notes bunched together in tight, dense syllables. Compared to recent singles by Miley Cyrus and Sky Ferreira, “Out of the Woods” almost works as a counterpoint to traditional ballad structure—it’s very nearly an antiballad.
Most songs branded with the sometimes unwieldy designation “power ballad” (a style still linked to, if not sullied by, 80s hits from Bon Jovi and Poison) open up at the chorus rather than clenching up. The chorus works to clear space and release tension; it’s a place where the singer can stretch out a single word for bars. Sky Ferreira’s 2012 breakout single, “Everything Is Embarrassing,” and last year’s “You’re Not the One” both gave her room to dilate her syllables as she articulated a mix of heartbreak and the newfound freedom that follows it. And Miley Cyrus’s first Billboard Hot 100 number one, “Wrecking Ball,” is a perfect contemporary example of the style. She sings the verses in quick, clipped syllables, filling each line with mostly monosyllabic words. Then the chorus crashes in, and she drags out wrecking ball like she’s got all the time in the world.
While “Out of the Woods” uses some of the same production techniques as “Wrecking Ball” (massive drums, minimalist flourishes), Swift inverts its rhythmic structure. On the verses she gives herself plenty of space to articulate her lyrics, and on the chorus she packs in as many monosyllabic words as possible. It’s a great strategy for a song that’s about tension and anxiety; Swift has said that she wrote it about a relationship that started out on rocky ground. Many power ballads, including “Wrecking Ball,” mourn the death of a relationship once it’s over. They’re about releasing or resolving tension, not trying to manage it. “Out of the Woods” uses a contrasting structure to evoke the headspace of someone who’s just trying to keep it together in a romance that feels like it could end at any second.