Everyone’s favorite guitar-strumming sweetheart who loves to sing about boys, fairy tales, and hanging out in the passenger seat at 2:30AM is back. Well, she could possibly also be your least favorite too, but at least there are two things Taylor Swift is undeniably excellent at: generating buzz and creating some damn catchy tunes. The award-winning music star released her fourth studio albumRed last week, adding some new sounds to her repertoire yet sticking with the tired, recycled themes of her past works.
The fact is, Swift is no longer a country artist. She will always have her roots in country music, of course, but since the release of her last studio album Speak Now with all its non-country sounding tracks, it was becoming obvious that she was departing from that organic, down-home image. When her debut single off of Red debuted—the terribly titled ‘But I like singing this song when I’m dressing up for work’ “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”—the inkling that Swift was officially a pop star was confirmed. Thankfully, the polarizing ditty hasn’t dictated the quality of the rest of the album, but it is correct in setting the tone for an all-new Taylor Swift.
The heavily inspired album isn’t disappointing at all, really—it’s more annoying that we have to hear even more about the new boy that came into Swift’s life (Jake Gyllenhaal? Conor Kennedy?) and how he broke her heart and the never-ending cycle involving these feelings and these relationships. Though Swift gets a lot of publicity and criticism for seemingly always penning these types of songs and making some bucks off them, true fans will know that she can write about so much more. In fact, one of her non-lovey-dovey tunes “Mean” garnered much acclaim over this past year. She wrote the adrenaline-pumping “Eyes Open” and co-wrote and collaborated on the bonechilling “Safe and Sound” with The Civil Wars on The Hunger Gamessoundtrack. She’s written songs about finding herself (“A Place in This World”), her mom (“The Best Day”), her band (“Long Live”), inspiration (“Change”), and even that Kanye Westincident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards (“Innocent”). But in Red, we only get one song that’s not about love and heartbreak, and the overproduction and screamy vocals make it sound like it belongs on Avril Lavigne‘s new album—”22,” an ode to some of Swift’s famous pals and about being young. Like many of the songs, it might get stuck in your head and never leave. However, it doesn’t really challenge Swift lyrically and content-wise if you’re one of the few people in the world that’s just being introduced to her.
If “22″ sounds like an Avril song, then lead-off track “State of Grace” channels U2 with its guitar riffs, and the cutesy “Stay Stay Stay” has shades of Train‘s “Hey Soul Sister”—that is exactly what is meant by “heavily inspired.” She even gets into the dubstep craze with “I Knew You Were Trouble.” When Swift is not being influenced by other artists, then she’s joining them. There are two collaborations with a couple of high-profile musicians: “The Last Time” featuring Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol has a classical feel and is breathtakingly beautiful as one of the strongest tracks on the album. “Everything Has Changed” features folk musician Ed Sheeran, who was recently announced as Swift’s opening act on her upcoming US/Canada tour, and opens a door to a new musical direction the songstress could take one day—humble but edgier.
Vintage Swift still exists on Red, or at least remnants of her: “Treacherous,” “I Almost Do,” and album closer “Begin Again” are well-orchestrated songs that could have appeared on her past albums and remained true to her original genre. The fantastic title track, which is a pretty awesome country-pop-rock hybrid using analogies that make little sense (“Touching him was like realizing all you ever wanted was right in front of you.” I am still trying to decipher that one.), might be a little bit like vintage Swift too, if it weren’t for the electronic echoes in the chorus that make it something else.
It’ll be worth it to go to Target and pick up its exclusive deluxe edition of Red, as it contains six additional tracks. There are two demo recordings and an acoustic version of “State of Grace” that really showcases how pretty Swift’s voice can actually be, but the other three songs absolutely warranted slots on the standard edition. “The Moment I Knew” is kind of unintentionally hilarious—I’m pretty sure it’s about some guy who didn’t attend her birthday party, as if you thought Swift ran out of boy-related things to whine about. Unintentionally hilarious subject matter aside, there’s a dramatic and cinematic vibe to the song that hasn’t been heard much from Swift before, though maybe similar to “Haunted” in her last effort. The other two tracks, “Come Back…Be Here” and “Girl at Home,” are tracks that fans of the old country T-Swift would adore, though “Girl at Home” is more on the folksy side.
Red is sure to provoke mixed reactions. The various rock, folk, alternative, and electronic influences are very strong with this one, and the pure Taylor Swift of Nashville is only present in a few. The one thing that hasn’t changed about her is her knack for songwriting about dudes—Red could have used a little more balance with at least one more song that draws on a meaningful life experience that doesn’t involve the opposite sex. The album may attract casual pop music fans that enjoy some great hooks, but can turn off those who enjoyed her back when she was all twang, guitars, and fiddles, and understandably so. Then again, maybe some can just appreciate that Taylor Swift is shedding layers. Who hasn’t gone through some kind of experimentation at 22 anyway? One thing that is for sure is that you can’t erase Red from your head once you’ve heard a hot song off of it.
KAREN RECOMMENDS: “All Too Well” & “Starlight”—The incredible and intense buildup cuts deep on “All Too Well” and in Swift’s personal discography, this is master class. On the other hand, “Starlight” is the complete opposite—uplifting, perky, and sounds like an 80s pop-rock hit. (Fun fact: Per the traditional hidden message in Swift’s lyric booklet, this one is “For Ethel,” speculated to be for Conor Kennedy’s grandma Ethel and interpreting her love story with Robert Kennedy.)