Taylor Swift has to be one of the most frustrating figures in pop music. One moment she’s charmingly and perfectly detailing that sweet rush of first love; the next she’s whining about how you belong with HER, you moron, not the hobag who wears short skirts. One second she’s giving in to the brokenhearted realization that a prince on his white horse isn’t coming to save her; then she starts gnashing her teeth and wailing about how “mean” you are for pointing out her inadequacies as a singer. She’s a walking contradiction, constantly showing signs of progress and maturity but then regressing into a bratty, irritating adolescent point of view that she does all too well.
Upon listening to “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the first single from her new album “Red,” one could be forgiven for thinking that the entire album will be yet another frustrating regression. While the sentiment of the song is relatable, the lyrics are juvenile and lack the specificity that Swift is usually so good at, and the sickly sweet, bland bubblegum pop accompaniment (yet another reminder of how Max Martin has long since jumped the shark) doesn’t help matters.
Fortunately, “Never Ever” is an exception rather than the rule on “Red,” which is (for the most part) a refreshing step forward for Swift, both in terms of image and artistry.
The musical diversity on “Red” is astounding, especially considering how homogenous Swift’s previous albums sound. Rather than adhere slavishly to the country-flavored pop rock of the past, Swift tries on several new musical guises, most of which work.
Opener “State of Grace” is particularly alarming in how different it sounds: ethereal, layered guitars? Elongated phrases? A driving drumbeat and a generally “epic” arena rock sound? Is Taylor Swift really trying to sound like U2? And is the result . . . good? Yes and yes. “State of Grace” is a strong contender for the title of “Best Taylor Swift Song Ever,” and not just because of the music: the lyrics (“Love is a ruthless game unless you play it good and right”) show a newfound adult perspective that pervades the rest of the album.
Swift’s attempt to change up her style is also affective on the title track, which blends a beefy guitar line, banjo plucking and electronic vocal effects on the chorus (sounds messy, but it all comes together despite some clunky metaphors), and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” a jarring but melodically punchy foray into dubstep (even if the concept “Taylor Swift does dubstep” is a touch gimmicky).
Unfortunately, not all of the genre shifts work, particularly the attempts at Top 40 club hits: along with the aforementioned “Never Ever,” “22” is particularly obnoxious in its bald-faced Ke$ha-aping (Auto-Tuned chorus! Generic dance-pop synths! “Party like there’s no tomorrow” lyrics!), and is quite ironic in that it shows off just how out of her depth Swift is when she attempts to be shallow.
“Starlight” isn’t as grating, but it does seem faceless, and the central lyric (“And we were dancing, dancing/like we’re made of starlight”) goes for peppy but winds up sounding cheesy. Swift’s take on adult contemporary fares a little better, but still isn’t quite up to snuff. “The Last Time” and “Everything Has Changed” (duets with Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody and Ed Sheeran, respectively) are elevated by Swift’s writing and harmonies with her partners, but they sound a tad colorless, as though anyone could have sung them.
And how about that writing? Swift certainly seems to have shed a lot of her more girlish, clichéd tendencies as part of her image makeover, and she instead focuses on the detail-oriented narrative format that she does best. “All Too Well” may be Swift’s best-written song, with its mosaic of flashback imagery seamlessly evoking wistfulness, regret and betrayal without resorting to cheap stock lines or misplaced bitterness. “Begin Again” is also gorgeous and refreshingly honest in its portrait of a girl starting up a new relationship after getting burned, and it also shows a definite improvement in her technical singing abilities. She rarely sounds strained or off-key (which can’t be said about her previous work), and actually has enough mastery of tone and pitch to pull off such emotionally naked songs as “Holy Ground” and the aforementioned “All Too Well.”
Overall, “Red” isn’t quite the work of brilliance it should be, considering Swift’s vision, but it’s still a step in the right direction for Swift, and a promise of even greater things to come.
Speakeasy Grade: B
Listen to: “State of Grace,” “All Too Well,” “Begin Again,” “Red”
Skip: “22,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Sad Beautiful Tragic”