07 December 2013

red || taylor swift || 2013

Working in country radio from 2008 to 2010 versed me well in Taylor Swift's music. She rose to fame as an impressive young songwriter, penning honest songs that teenage girls could feel to their core, while their moms likely sat silently and empathized with Swift's emotions as well. Now on her fourth album and well into her 20s, it's pretty obvious that Swift was ready to shake that image and break some new ground.

She uses the title track to remind us that she knows her roots by slipping a banjo into the instrumentation a few times. It doesn't really sound out of place, but it did make me roll my eyes a bit because it seemed forced. It's almost like she felt like she had to stick a banjo into a song as a metaphorical foot to keep the door to the world of country from closing, but why? If you're exploring new genre territory, slam the door and walk all the way into the next room.

"I Knew You Were Trouble" would be a fine pop song if it weren't for two things. First, the chord progression is probably the most overused in pop music history. Secondly, her high "ooohhs" and the effected "TROUBLE, TROUBLE" in the chorus are stilted and the result is jarring. The concept is fine, but the execution just didn't cut it.

"22" is the first time we hear Swift at her best. Ridiculously simple, relatable, self-aware lyrics, a cutesy chorus, and a radio-friendly hook. The lyrics are certainly true to what a 22-year-old feels, though I'm not sure what it means to be "lonely in the best way." This is where the album finally charges all the way into the pop album that it's trying to be, and it's the first moment of it that I took her seriously.

"I Almost Do" is the first ballad on the album that doesn't feel like it's trying to double as both a pop and country song. It sticks to the classic pop ballad instrumentation of acoustic guitar and drums, with a little kiss of twinkly Spanish guitar in the bridge. The lyrics are on point in their depiction of post-breakup communication woes.

The same credit I gave to "22" has to also go to "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." It's pretty easy to write it off as a dreadfully annoying song (I could do without the "oooh, ooooOOOOOhhh oooh" crap), but you'd be remiss to say you didn't understand what she's talking about. Much like her previous hits, it's accessible and believable. I absolutely love the deadpan bridge.

"Stay Stay Stay" is a deliberate country crossover, but there is something very smart about it. The twang comes not from a banjo or a pedal steel guitar or any other traditionally "country" instrument, but a ukulele. The result sounds like every single song you've heard in a commercial in the last year.

I would enjoy "Sad Beautiful Tragic" a lot more if it were about a minute and a half shorter.

Neither of the two ballads is particularly memorable, though I did enjoy "Everything Has Changed" with Ed Sheeran a bit more than Gary Lightbody's. These were probably intended to show Swift's range, but it didn't quite connect. She certainly sounds more comfortable singing with Sheeran than Lightbody (who is 13 years her senior).

My favorite instrumentation on the album is in "Starlight." It's a period song that Swift says she wrote after seeing a photo of young RFK and Ethel Kennedy. Even though she's singing through someone else's eyes, it's a very genuine and cheerful song that remains consistent in both its narrative and style. I love the idea of imagining young lovers from the '40s having a night out to a tune that's reminiscent of late-'80s pop rock.

Swift's crossover into pop feels more like a cautious embarking than a full-blown foray. It's like she got invited by a friend to a party at a stranger's house, which she was promised would be super-duper awesome, but she knew she wouldn't know anyone there, and instead of walking up to strangers and introducing herself, she spends the first 30 minutes awkwardly walking around looking for her friend, who eventually finds her, puts her at ease and helps her make some new friends. Something like that.