Taylor Swift’s fourth studio album, is her most eclectic offering so far. As she puts it, it is made up of 16 songs that contain emotions in shades of fiery red. Nothing is beige about them. And that’s why she named her album Red. I wish I could say the same about the contents.
The two opening tracks “State of Grace” and “Red” are at odds musically and serve as a template for the album. The former is a U2 and Coldplay-inspired alternative track while the latter is a mix between country and pop, with reverb on the chorus: “r-r-r-red.”
She is her most sultry on “Treacherous,” where she whispers “And I’d do anything you say if you say it with your hands.”
“I Knew You Were Trouble.” is a bonafide pop track, down to the dubstep beat dropping, before introducing the best song on the album.
“All Too Well,” co-written with Liz Rose, is Taylor Swift in her element: writing a great country strong with brilliant lyrics. It is where she excels without it sounding unlike her to deliver such a thing. She reminisces about a love she lost, about the magic that’s not there anymore and about being there, remembering every moment of it all too well.
“22” is definitely one of the most disappointing songs on the album. Instead of being an introspective song, à la Fearless’ Fifteen, it is a track for a girls’ night out to dance like you’re 22. It is definitely a missed opportunity about a coming of age reflection that would have sounded very in place after “All Too Well.” Sure, she is 22 – I am 22 too – but the song could have easily been called “12” and it wouldn’t have made any difference. Similarly, “Stay Stay Stay” is another song that shouldn’t have been on the album. It is an odd attempt at incorporating way too many country elements in a song with very poor lyrics. If Taylor Swift had written forty songs for the album and chose sixteen, I have to wonder: couldn’t she have found something much better than this to include it on the album?
“I Almost Do” is another of the album’s highlights – a very Colbie Caillat sounding song where Taylor wants to tell him “that it takes everything in me not to call you. And I wishes I could run to you. And every time I don’t, I almost do.”
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the catchy lead single is already a huge hit on pop radio and despite the step back thematically compared to the song before it, it serves its purpose well: provide a song that would be a success on the airwaves in order to stay forever in the face of the man who berated Swift with his “indie records that’s so much cooler than [hers]”.
“The Last Time,” a duet with Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody features a dark and haunting melody. “Holy Ground,” produced by Jeff Bhasker who has done songs for Fun. and Alicia Keys, is another new sound for Swift with a very fast driving drumbeat and guitar.
On “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” Swift exposes her songwriting chops yet again as she paints a setting where the protagonist is waiting for a train that’s taking her away from the sad beautiful tragic relationship she was in. “The Lucky One” is about dealing with fame, while “Everything Has Changed,” a duet with British artist Ed Sheeran, is a guitar, acoustic-driven ballad where both artists throw notes off of each other as they sing about the changes due to a growing love.
“Starlight” pays homage to the Kennedy’s by telling a love story set in 1945 but with a very current musical backdrop. “Begin Again” is the song’s second single on country radio after We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together failed to gain traction and became Swift’s first single on the format to miss the top 10 entirely. It serves as a great conclusion to the album where Swift, despite all the hardships that love has thrown at her, is always eager to begin again. “But on a Wednesday, in a cafe, I watched it begin again.”
As you listen to Red, you can’t help but feel that, with the exception of a few songs, it is a definite missed opportunity for Swift at evolving in the right direction musically. The music she does best is not the pop “22” or “I Knew You Were Trouble.” but the ballads and the country stories which she writes so eloquently. Her songwriting on her country songs is what you might call “the impossible easy.” She makes her songs sound very approachable and simple but no one can write them the way she does. And that is her forte – not a song on a bridge where she fakes a phonecall with a girlfriend.
You also cannot but wonder while listening to Red if Swift seeks out the men she writes about solely for the purpose of coming up with album material. On the horrid track “22,” she sings: “You look like trouble. I gotta have you.” And it’s precisely what has fueled most of the songs on this album – her seeking out danger in men that she knows will break her. But does she do that on purpose or has she not learned yet from the previous three albums she offered that she has to have her guard up more often?
I guess when the formula works, why change it? Swift is the storyteller of so many teenagers who can relate to what she does and her record-selling singles off of Red so far prove so. But as she grows up, shouldn’t her music also grow with her? That is the main question posed with Red, an album that shows a regression thematically compared to Speak Now on many of its tracks, albeit it going more into more mature realms with others (Treacherous, All Too Well, I Almost Do). While Red boasts a handful of strong tracks, it is not the coherent album that her previous offerings were. It’s not a collection of all standout tracks that are the creme of the creme of what Swift came up with during the album cycle.
However, what can be said about Swift is that she is in her own element – a genre where she alone thrives. Taylor Swift fans who happen to like country music won’t have a problem with this album. Country fans who happen to listen to Swift may have a problem taking in the dubstep, the reverb, the alternative. Is she risking alienating some fans with this? Perhaps so. But she is trying something new. And I hope her experimentation is limited to this album only because what she needs to know is that her best is when she goes back to basics, sits down with a pen and a paper and writes down her thoughts into beautiful prose that put down her memories forever out there, as is evident by this album’s best songs: the gut-wrenching country ballads that could tug at the heartstrings of the most insensitive people out there. But she seems too busy chasing success nowadays with shaming guys who may have done very little wrong. She may be compromising her artistic integrity with some songs. But one thing is sure: we will never ever – like ever – hear their side of the story.
On the track “22,” Swift mumbles in the background: “Who’s that Taylor Swift anyway?.” That’s precisely the question many will be asking after Red.
B. Out October 22nd.
Download: All Too Well, I Always Do, Red, Begin Again.