Taylor Swift’s second collection was named “Fearless,” but that title seems more apt for her latest album, “Red. Out tomorrow (Oct. 22), the set is the biggest release of 2012 and is expected to sell more than 1 million copies in its first week.
After moving millions of albums, selling out arenas around the world, introducing oodles of younger fans to country music, and creating her own cottage industry based on songs about her good-for-nothing ex-boyfriends, Swift has crafted an album that portrays an artist in transition musically, if not thematically. The 22-year old is not just sliding further toward the pop end of the country-pop spectrum she has navigated since her 2006 self-titled debut, but also strongly gravitating toward rock. She seamlessly and fearlessly veers between these various musical styles.
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“Red” says as much about her estimable abilities as a musical sponge as it does about how her generation of music fans casually disregards genres and embraces any song that speaks to them, regardless of the format some Clear Channel programmer has tried to pigeonhole it into.
But forget about Swift for a minute. On “Red,” her fourth studio album, the star is the drums. Almost every song, even the very few that will get country radio play, is produced with the drums well upfront in the mix and often with a full-throttle rock sensibility. While that is most patently obvious with the drum flourish that opens the album on the U2-meets-the-Cranberries-like “State of Grace” and “The Last Time,” her atmospheric duet with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody; the steady kick drum thump of “Holy Ground” and the dubstep-dabbling “I Knew You Were Trouble” reinforce it.
Swift works with longtime producer Nathan Chapman on a number of cuts here, but she also turns to Jeff Bhasker, best known for his work with Beyonce and Kanye West; Dan Wilson, who wrote and produced “Someone Like You” with Adele; slick pop-meisters Max Martin and Shellback, best known for their work with Pink and Britney Spears; Snow Patrol’s producer Jacknife Lee and Dann Huff, who’s worked with everyone from Keith Urban to Bon Jovi.
Lyrically for Swift, every sense remains heightened, every emotion goes to 11. Every chance feels like the last chance, the last opportunity for one last glance, one last kiss, one last moment together. She’s constantly on the edge of a heated, passionate precipice, which has to be exhausting. Even a simple declaration such as “I just like hanging out with you” turns into “I’d like to hang out with you...for my whole life.” A man simply opening the door for her can cause her to spin off into the promise of love everlasting.
While she seemingly left clues all over 2010’s “Speak Now” about the identity of every celebrity boy who invoked her wrath, the evidence isn’t so clear here or it could just be that at this point, it seems like the check-out boy could look at her wrong and she’‘d run to her tear-stained guitar and catalog what a bad, neglectful boyfriend he was.
To be fair, she chronicles the beginning stages before anything has time to go wrong as well. On the sloping, gentle “Everything has Changed,” written with and featuring Ed Sheeran, she declares that since meeting her new beau 18 hours ago, “All I know is since yesterday, everything has changed” (see what we mean about dramatic?) On current single, the lovely “Begin Again,” she comes to life after a first date with a new suitor. On one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Starlight,” which opens with a feathery, tinkling synth line before exploding into guitar rock, she dreams of having 10 kids.
But her hope —and seemingly inevitable heartache—is often the listeners’ gain. Swift’s great strength as a songwriter is her ability to unselfconsciously communicate feelings via a small gesture, a greatly detailed line or phrase that intimately describes the situation. On the swelling “All Too Well,” which builds up to a fun.-like crescendo, she recounts her ex’s mother telling Swift about his days as a “little kid in glasses in a twin-sized bed.” She's decimated by the break-up, but she lowers the boom in the last verse, when it turns out he was too—so much so that he keeps her scarf hidden in his drawer. On the alternative, quiet “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Cowboy Junkies album (no kidding), she brilliantly sums up her ex thusly: “You’ve got your demons and they all look like me.”
Swift has become enough of a standard bearer of the very mainstream pop/country scene to have a little fun with her reputation: on first single and former chart-topper “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” she drops a line about how her boyfriend would desert her to listen to “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” On “22,” she’s at a club with the “cool” kids and one of the hipsters brattily drips, “Who’s Taylor Swift anyway?”
She also admits her histrionic nature on “Stay, Stay, Stay,” a sweet, peppy country tune that winks at her heightened sense of drama on the love front and the boyfriend who combats it with seemingly endless reserves of humor and patience. To her credit, she even carries off the nearly impossible line, “Before you, I only dated self indulgent takers who took all of the their problems out on me,” in the ditty.
It would be nice if something —anything — else other than love moved Swift to write a song. She doesn’t have to embrace a cause like saving the whales, but musically, she has defined herself largely as the perpetually lovestruck-cum-hurt-cum-angry girl and that can get tiresome...though obviously not to her. Unfortunately, the problem is that when she tries to move beyond that here with “The Lucky One,” it doesn’t work. A largely observational look at a faded star who disappeared from the limelight, and whom Swift feels may have gotten it right by running away, is one of the few songs that fails and feels clumsily constructed despite Bhasker’s strong production. She has much better success with “22,” a Max Martin/Shellback production that crosses Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” with Hot Chelle Rae’s “Tonight Tonight.” The song also captures the zeitgeist of being 22: “Yeah, we’re happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time/It’s miserable and magical, oh yeah.” The same could be said of the emotions that run through “Red.”
For the early Swift adopter who liked the pop-leaning country of her first two albums, this is probably where they depart the Taylor train. For those who like their pop artists to explore a wide range of musical idioms, then “Red” will definitely take them on an entertaining, if notably one track, ride.