Album number four, especially under the public eye, is the “evolve or die” album. Obviously, plenty can change before then, but being able to change it up and succeed on your fourth long player is a sign that you’re in the game for the long haul. At least that was what Taylor Swift was thinking when she mapped out Red. Speak Now, her previous album, fleshed out her country pop sound without risking too much, but Red sees her pushing in other directions. What she’s evolving into, well, that’s up for debate, but this record’s got more variety across the board than anything she’s done before.
I don’t think I’m surprising anyone when I say that this is Taylor Swift’s least country album to date. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of strummed acoustic numbers, but there’s fewer fiddles, banjos, and Swift’s affected country drawl is disappearing. As far as I’m concerned, these are all good things. Not just because I found them annoying, but because without ditching the superficial “country” elements, Swift wouldn’t have made something as grand as opener “State of Grace”, an arena rock number filled with U2-style guitars and rapid drumming. Hearing it knock the hinges off Red‘s doors is a little disarming, but exciting at the same time.
Let’s look at the three potential Red flags: “I Knew You Were Trouble”, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, and “22”, all written by Swift in collaboration with pop masterminds Max Martin and Shellback. Far and away, “22” is the weakest; Swift’s attempt at Ke$ha’s sing-talk style is grating, and nothing about the song’s lyrics or production stands out–it’s just pop filler. Weirdly enough, the song that I could describe as “Taylor Swift does dubstep” as a scare tactic works best; the bass drop in the chorus works because the song’s energetic and written well enough that it doesn’t feel as clumsy as it could. I still don’t get the appeal of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, the Taylor Swift-iest song title in existence, but it was pop game Taylor Swift’s debut number one hit, so I guess it’s not her, it’s me.
The other two big name collaborations are duets: “The Last Time” with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, and “Everything Has Changed” with Ed Sheeran. Both of them sound like what you’d expect a Taylor Swift and Snow Patrol/Ed Sheeran collab to sound like if no one involved tried hard; both numbers are pretty enough to be pleasant listens, but neither leave a lasting impression, leaving them to both kind of feel like a let down.
But Red is still overwhelmingly Taylor Swift’s album. Swift has 9 solo writing credits, plus one with long time Team Swift member Liz Rose. That effort, “All Too Well”, is an easy highlight; the song’s a musical builder with some great lyrics about the ups and downs of a failed relationship. “I Almost Do”, a Swift loner, reaches the same quality without reaching quite as high; the song’s more of a bedroom composition than “All To Well”. Elsewhere, the radio-friendly “Red” is a little slicker than most, but still good.
As for the writing, yes, Red still has the same preoccupation with romance that Swift’s always had, but she’s looking for new ways to explore those ideas. There are fewer blow-by-blow story telling creations here, and more reflections (“Holy Ground”, “I Almost Do”). Interestingly, Swift seems to be edging out of the virgin-whore complex that she built with songs like “You Belong With Me”: Red has hints that Swift might want to do more than hold the guy’s hand. The balladry of Speak Now‘s been limited, as well; Red‘s backhalf–dominated by Swift’s solo credits, has more forward motion in the form of songs like “The Lucky One” and “Starlight” than dreary numbers like “Sad Beautiful Tragic”. And, although the album’s peppered with hints as to who each song’s about (for anyone interested, here’s YahooMusic’s interpretation of who Swift put in the Burn Book this time).
While Red is a well-crafted and mostly good album, it’s not without its flaws. The sequencing seems to be at damn near random: “22” is ungracefully in the middle of “I Almost Do” and “All Too Well”, and the back half of the album suffers from monotony. Then again, Red‘s also varied just enough that almost any order would be trouble; it’s not the kind of record that invites end to end listening. A good reason for that is that in trying to please everyone, the album gets lost in itself at a 65 minute playtime. Some of the more pandering or cutesy cuts like “Stay Stay Stay”, “Begin Again”, and “Treacherous”–the songs that are only present for people who still insist Swift’s a country artist–could be dropped with little to no adverse effect.
Taylor Swift, like a lot of 22 year olds, is in a transition phase, and Red is very much a transition album. When it hits, it hits out of the park, but the misses come too often and go on too long. Weird as it sounds, Swift’s better for leaving the more obvious country sounds behind, and her most exciting moments on Red are without them. It’s a little too scattered and ultimately unbalanced for true greatness, but all that means is that hopefully Swift will be able to distill the best parts of Red onto her next record. She’s got plenty to work with, and Red at least establishes that she’s in the game long enough to get it perfect. Three and a half stars out of five.
tl;dr: Taylor Swift starts the journey out of Nashville, and she’s all the better for it: 3.5/5