Taylor Swift is no stranger to heartbreak. In fact, the amount of songs in her discography about break-ups is only equal to the number describing what led to them. In one song, she is a starry-eyed girl delving into a new crush. In the next, that same cute voice gives a blow-by-blow account of her latest celebrity ex.
“Red”, Swift’s latest album released last week, is no exception, yet it clearly resonates as Swift’s most grown-up album to date. Consequently, this personal growth is met with Taylor’s most musically expansive album as she experiments with new ways to express her maturity.
Of course, this new direction comes at the risk of alienating pre-“Red” fans while expanding to a new variety of listeners. Six years after exploding onto the music scene as a country-pop ingenue, some are questioning her country credentials as she veers more and more towards pop. Instead, the poppy forwardness of “Red” comes across as a natural, transitional step for her and should be heard as a vehicle for her new direction instead of not being country enough.
This new Taylor becomes quickly apparent in her deliciously bratty single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It’s epidemically catchy and fun, but above that, it’s a clear glimpse of a girl moving on from her past. More than anything else in the song, her spoken word bridge shows she has been through this break-up phase too many times, yet is moving on and growing up.
There are times, however, when Taylor’s experimental side tends to muddy her continuity. “I Knew You Were Trouble.” starts out as an innocent pop song before exploding fully into its chorus, giving listeners sonic whiplash. The tumultuous bass wobble known notoriously from dubstep tracks splashes harshly across the chorus. While I can understand how the sudden change of atmosphere might fit the song’s lyrics, the dance-like hook only provides the listener with a short, energetic burst which would fall flat on any dance floor.
Next, there’s “Stay Stay Stay,” which seems like a step backwards from where the album’s gone so far. It is a bright, quirky love chronicle that recalls back to her previous albums, but now seems to wear its country instrumentation like a cute, decorative charm instead of a focal point it used to.
In “The Last Time,” the solemn voice of Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody mingles with Swift’s. He brings a different sound into the mix and Taylor seems comfortable enough within it, but Lightbody’s presence is overpowering at times. This is unlike the solid “Everything has Changed,” where Swift and rising British songwriter Ed Sheeran compliment each other’s style and energy.
There are also plenty of standouts on “Red”. In “22,” Taylor handles dance much more comfortably than in “I Knew You Were Trouble.” It’s an unruly pop anthem on the fringes of youthful innocence that works wonderfully. “Red” and “Begin Again” are reminders that Swift can still woo with her clever, heartfelt songwriting. Though her voice has never been her bigger strength, she is more present and versatile than ever before. Each track comes across like more typical Swift songs, yet is much bigger and more intense than before.
As a whole, “Red” is solid and genuine and might even be Taylor Swift’s best work to date. It is a step towards maturity, but I’m not quick to call it her peak. The album works as an enjoyable, transitional piece as Taylor searches for what is next for her, both musically and as a role model for her younger fans.
— Alex T. Leach