Swift’s last album Speak Now was important for a number of reasons. The least of these is that it notched up over one million sales in its first week in America, impressive figures for sure, but more the returns from a fifteen-month world tour and the pop crossover of second album Fearless – the highest selling record of 2009. Speak Now was important mainly because it was solely composed by Swift herself, a move which halted the growing perception that, like other ubiquitous pop stars of the time (the Pinks and Katy Perrys), she was merely a major label puppet. In truth, Swift had written or co-written every song on her previous two records, was the youngest songwriter ever signed to Sony/ATV Music, and the youngest to top the country charts with a self-penned track. Yet being sole-author of all fourteen Speak tracks firmly embedded her as not only a pop crossover star, but one who wrote all her own material.
So, while Speak Now showcased Swift’s formidable songwriting skills, and cemented her mainstream appeal, the actual music still mined the same breezy country-pop territory of the first two records. Red sees Swift stretching out somewhat, experimenting her way through sixteen tracks of conflicting genres with nary an errant moment throughout. Her choice of collaborators is interesting: after resolutely auteuring the last record, she works with Max Martin and Shellback (usually known for their immaculate Swedish pop singles), Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, Ed Sheeran and Jacknife Lee. (iTunes seems in denial, though, crossing its arms and listing all tracks as ‘Country & Folk’.) It’s been a successful move – the record sold 1.2 million copies in America last week, while prior to this, the excellent kiss-off We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together scored Taylor her first number one Billboard pop single – but is it a good move?
The opening two tracks on Red whitewash her past cleanly. State Of Grace is a big rock song, with guitars and propulsion lifted from U2 and lyrics pulled from Swift’s oft-discussed love life. “Up in your room/and our slates are clean/ just twin fire signs, four blue eyes” If this is Swift pushing the reset button on her past three albums and the considerable baggage she has gathered, then it’s a success. Which is to say, musically, it’s quite removed from anything she has done in the past. The title track continues along the same path, but rather than blindly looking forward, this track sees Swift chronicling a stormy love affair that was always doomed to fail, yet glorious because of this very fact.
On Red, Swift often mixes the minute with the monumental. A scarf left at a lover’s sister’s house; a private joke on a note left on a door; dressing like hipsters and making fun of exes; green eyes and freckles; sneaking into a yacht club party – these are all small, personal details that add immeasurably more than all the angry kiss-off lines or the heartbroken pleas. As the album careens along, with throwaway pop arrangements rubbing up against country ballads (I Almost Do, Sad Beautiful Tragic and closer Begin Again are the most traditionally ‘Taylor-sounding’ tracks on the record) it becomes apparent that, despite the window dressing, these are all by-the-numbers Taylor Swift songs. Which is fine; they are impressive, record-breaking numbers, after all. In fact, on Red, the more interference from others, the lesser the results.
All Too Well looks back at a broken relationship fondly. A lover, who was “so casually cruel in the name of being honest” yet has kept her scarf for years because it smells like her, seems to be the one who cannot let go, even if Swift is the one constantly being hurt. “I forget about you long enough to forget why I needed to.”
It’s not surprising We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was Swift’s first number one pop single, the subject matter is universally relatable, as is the possibly misguided determination (never ever? This seems like pattern behaviour Taylor, and it’s only been over again since “last night”). The fractured melody is undeniable, and owes a slight debt to Independent Women Part II, while the chorus is big, swinging and… well, undeniable. Plus the Dawson’s Creek guitars in the introduction will work as an easy trigger for many. The eyeroll dig at her lover consoling himself with “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine” works as a universal fuck-you to her many detractors, and is the funniest/best moment on an album with more than a few witty asides.
Stay Stay Stay is a delightfully breezy acoustic track – lightweight, bouncy, and perfectly placed after the stomping, jolting attack of …Never Ever... It’s endearing in its first flushes of love too, with Swift listing all her new partner’s great qualities before interjecting with the hurried “I just like hanging out with you all the time.” Which is what it all boils down to, really…
Gary Lightbody possibly should have stayed well clear, unceremoniously shoving a Snow Patrol-sounding song (The Last Time) into the mix. It’s a beautiful song, and will probably soundtrack the season finales of numerous shows, but it doesn’t belong here as much as it does on the Upper-East Side (xoxo). Holy Ground flirts with ‘80s synths and drum sounds, but ultimately doesn’t commit to the idea enough to act as the stylistic sidestep it was possibly intended as. The Lucky One is a cautionary tale to the many starlets “new to town with a made up name.” At 22, Taylor has been around for long enough to offer up this kind of advice. Interestingly, it’s the only song not about love on the record.
As with all Taylor Swift records, the words demand to be listened to. Her lyrics are often unfairly relegated to that of diary-fodder, but Taylor Swift is a renegade romantic: the type of person who throws herself into a new love affair with the type of abandon that can only result in things ending badly. And things often do. Swift’s love life has occupied far more column space than her music, but trying to divorce the two is not merely pointless, it entirely misses the point. These are diary entries, in the very best way, and they don’t necessarily paint Swift in a good light. These are messy, murky thoughts, and despite the many attempts to quantify the unquantifiable throughout this record, the most revealing moments aren’t those of removed reflection but when she is scattered and broken and just emotes without trying to understand. “The saddest fear comes creeping in that you never loved me, or her, or anyone, or anything” works because it enters like a stream of thought, same with, “I think it’s strange you think I’m funny, ‘cos he never did.” She felt it, she said it, and 1.2 million Americans bought it.
These are not love songs, but they are songs about love. As Swift herself suggests in the liner notes, these songs are about love that was “treacherous, sad, beautiful, and tragic.” In the end it matters little what stylistic path Swift treads in the future, her albums are wholly and solely about hurtling unchecked into various affairs of the heart, regardless of consequences – or which world-class producers are phoned in to twiddle the dials along the way.