Album Review: Taylor Swift ‘Red’

Taylor Swift is a bit anomalous in her ability to come off as charming and intelligent while focusing her creative efforts on types of music more closely associated with people who can neither write, nor sing, nor play an instrument. Genre, though, does not define an artist, and nobody is too cool for straight pop music when the right song comes around, so people like Taylor Swift have a whole lot to prove. If they fail they are forgotten entirely, but if they succeed they stand the chance of shaping an entire generation and defining their era. Yeah, pop music matters.

Her sound has matured somewhat, but that certainly doesn’t mean that she is becoming a more traditional country singer or heading into the graveyard of adult-contemporary. Rather, her pop sensibility has grown and expanded to now allow her greater flexibility in how she plays around with each track and motif, and she does so with great confidence.

“I Knew You Were Trouble” is an example of a great current pop song, because it sounds simultaneously identical to every other song out there right now and totally unique. The dubstep elements on this track come across perfectly, without being too direct or boastful, and the result is a virtual guarantee of a #1 single once the significantly less interesting “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” has run its course.

“State of Grace” creates a dreamlike, melancholy feeling. Its use to open the record seems like a statement, and the track is objectively a cut above her previous attempts, but subtlety in emotional string-pulling does not for long remain a strength of Red, which is a shame.

The bulk of Red’s songs are emotionally deep, but maybe too pandering for some dispositions. For most of the target demographic they will be highly effective, and many songs will hit close to home, but this can also be accomplished with at least a mote of restraint and delicacy to even greater effect and without causing an audible, pretentious scoff from more discerning ears. Lyrics like “So casually cruel in the name of being honest” are strong enough though that those who do relate will make these songs their anthems for the semester.

“22” is a song about her current age, but she sings as if looking back on her prime years. It’s an age at which most of us are smart enough (we hope) to take care of ourselves, but dumb enough to have fun with it and make all of the mistakes we have yet to experience, and that message is clearly defined in this song through clever, even mocking lines. The fact that she understands this either makes her the most fortunate person to ever be 22, or it means somebody else wrote the song.

There is not much country influence here at all. I mentioned in my review of The Hunger Games OST that Taylor Swift sounds more like Katy Perry with each release, at least to my ear, and I think that’s probably a good thing. On some songs there are hints of Avril Lavine as well, or even Ke$ha, and all of these influences at times stand as tall as her country roots. The steady infusion of greater style and character into the way she sings is what makes Taylor Swift slightly more interesting than her peers, and the difference is becoming less slight.

There are at least as many boring, sappy love and breakup songs here as there are branches outward, and all of those branches are very, very short. One tentative step in six different musical directions may be almost unnoticed on the whole, but it shows the great potential of Taylor Swift to be more than just a pop singer. Her reluctance to really go down these paths should keep a certain type of fan happy and comfortable, but it keeps Red from being the special record that it wants to be.

Release Date: October 22, 2012
Image Courtesy of Big Machine Records

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