Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Taylor Swift - Red

 Taylor Swift - Red
Big Machine Records, 2012
Four stars

Of the biggest players in today’s pop music world, you can probably count the ones bigger than Taylor Swift on one hand. Amidst an ailing music industry and the ever-threatening death of the album format, Swift still moved over a million copies of her third record, 2010’s Speak Now, in a single week. Only one album has replicated that feat since (Lady Gaga’s Born This Way), and even then, the achievement was rendered suspect due to the $0.99 Amazon promotional deal that accounted for 430,000 of its sales. Indeed, in the six years since her first album, Swift has transformed herself into one of the most recognizable and polarizing presences on the radio waves, fueling her diarist confessionals with pristine melodies and full-bodied arrangements. For many (myself included), Swift has become the go-to example of pop music at its best, her honest songwriting and her penchant for towering choruses qualities that almost every other artist would kill to have. For others, her constant use of the “love-gone-wrong” trope is an immediate turn-off, the sign of a spoiled, “woe-is-me” rich girl who exploits her tabloid relationships, turns them into songwriting fodder and makes a truckload of cash in the process.

Obviously, listeners will hear what they want, but for me, Taylor’s manner of heart-on-the-sleeve conviction is one of her greatest strengths. In an age of overly-computerized poppers like Katy Perry and Ke$ha, Taylor’s honesty and candor imbues her music with a girl-next-door sensibility that is nothing short of refreshing. Furthermore, her country music roots allow her to implement traditional textures more often than most of her contemporaries, and even as she has moved away from those roots, Taylor’s reliance on organic instrumentation and classic country, pop and rock ‘n’ roll influences clearly leave her at the top of the pack…or at very least, next to her similarly-minded British counterpart, Adele.

Swift’s fourth record, simply titled Red, continues all of this while effortlessly adding more nuance into the equation, taking the same kind of genre-hopping mentality that defined Speak Now, but refining and grounding it in her most mature and dynamic set of songs to date. At 16 tracks and 75 minutes in length, this album is behemoth that could have done with some liberal trimming, but even as is, there are no obvious miss-steps or throwaways here. Right from the U2-bound arena rock of “State of Grace,” which opens the album in bombastic and triumphant fashion, Red is very obviously the work of a more grown-up Taylor Swift. She still has her moments of childishness here and there, whether she’s throwing a cell phone at her boyfriend’s head on the infectious, should-have-been b-side “Stay Stay Stay,” or joyfully bidding farewell to yet another former flame on the number-one smash “We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together” (complete with a Max Martin-approved hook and a charismatic spoken-word interlude). But most of the time, Taylor forsakes shameless name-dropping and self-victimization in favor of gleeful pop bliss or heartfelt introspection; in both cases, she’s thoroughly in her element.

The album’s most immediate standout track is also its longest. “All Too Well” is a gorgeous and wistful ballad, drenched in the kind of rootsy tradition that defined the best cuts on both Fearless and Speak Now, but taking it to another level with the best songwriting Swift has ever put on record. Rather than focusing solely on break-up fireworks like much of her earlier material, “All Too Well” charts the entire course of a relationship, from the euphoric early days of spending Thanksgiving with her new boyfriend’s family, to the nostalgic glances back after the whole thing has gone up in flames. The idea isn’t new, but the way Taylor approaches it here is undoubtedly effective, imbuing the lovely autumnal backdrop with relatable specificity that hits straight home. “Here we are again in the middle of the night/We’re dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light/Up the stairs, I was there, I remember it all too well,” Taylor sings, transporting herself (and her audience) back to a relationship whose memories still feel fresh. That sense of thinly-veiled recollection, of fondly remembered love affairs that, for whatever reason, had to end, informs the majority of the songs on Red. Make no mistake, this could easily be labeled as a break-up album, a classification that essentially fits each album Swift has made thus far. The difference this time around is that Swift doesn’t solely bask in the swells of her own romantic disasters: this is a record of ups and downs, ebb and tide, triumph and tragedy, and for probably the first time, we’re not always sure if Swift is singing about herself.

The sobering “The Last Time” is another break-up ballad, this time playing out between intertwining male (Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody) and female voices. Throughout the song, it often feels like Swift is the supporting act, with everything from the melody to the wall of guitars to the vocal distribution tilting towards Lightbody’s wheelhouse. That disconnect hints at the ambiguous perspective of the piece, at the question of whether Taylor is actually the narrator or if she has adopted the situation of another. Likely, the song is the album’s most obvious rumination on the demise of the marriage between Swift’s mother and father, who separated this past spring. “Put my name at the top of your list,” Lightbody and Swift demand in turn, questioning just how much of themselves Swift’s parents poured into their daughter’s career and whether that skewed distribution of efforts and affection may have caused their relationship to implode. The feeling is similar on “I Almost Do” and “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” a pair of sparse acoustic ballads that assist the album’s central themes (those of regret and longing, heartbreak and hope) in moving to the forefront.

But while Red spends a fair amount of its runtime situated in the lower end of the tempo spectrum, it often thrives best within moments of pure pop sensibility. The title track morphs heartbreak into a simile-loaded slice of pop perfection, while the dubstep-injected “I Knew You Were Trouble” is one of many prospective chart-toppers at play here. The beat-driven stomp of “Holy Ground” is a modern-pop take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands,” a tear-down-the-walls anthem that ranks as one of the most powerful and resilient songs ever written (and not a bad standard to be compared to); Taylor’s version should be Red’s  penultimate cut. That position goes instead to the neon-drenched “Starlight,” whose luminescent opening is almost tailor-made (pun intended) for some fantastical beauty product commercial. Remarkably, that indulgence works, not only because Taylor resides in a genre where commercial connections don’t ring utterly false, but also because she’s still pretty damn good at playing the princess.

And pop princess she is, especially on “22,” which is destined to be her biggest hit to date. Fans of Swift’s country roots will likely shake their head at the redneck-Ke$ha opening, but once the song opens up into a wall of synthesizers and settles into its indelible hook, it’s almost impossible not to shout along. The song’s youthful energy and “throw-away-the-obligations” mentality will make it an essential cut for many a college party in the coming months and that association is absolutely justified. Almost equally addictive is the Butch Walker-produced “Everything Has Changed,” a simple folk-pop song taken to the next level by a hip-hop-ready beat and titanic production values. Swift and British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeren serenade each other, their voices blending in a sweet valentine of a song that welcomingly indicates light at the end of the tunnel for what is, on the whole, a pervasively sad record.

Pictures with Bruce AND Butch? Good deal.
Fittingly, the full daybreak comes on the album’s final track: “Begin Again” sounds like classic singer-songwriter fare, something that Carole King or Joni Mitchell (whose influence extends to every corner of Red) might have put on a record in the 1970s. A classy James Taylor reference only enhances the vintage feel, but at the end of the day, it’s Swift’s growth as an artist that allows her to sell the song (and in connection, the album) so effectively. When “Begin Again” hits its bridge and Taylor delivers the climactic lines (“And we walked down the block to my car and I almost brought him up/But you start to talk about the movies that your family watches/Every single Christmas, and I won’t talk about that/For the first time, what’s past is past”), it’s the mark of a songwriter who has finally grown up and learned to let the bad things go, and it’s because of this maturation that Red is ultimately an uplifting record. Despite the trials and tribulations she runs into along the way, Swift realizes that there’s always a lesson to be learned, that the pain is all a part of growing up and becoming the people we were meant to be, and that maturation is an exciting one. People don’t pour this much of themselves into strict pop records anymore, something that would make Red notable even if it were a relatively one-note affair. That the album covers half a dozen genres without ever sacrificing flow, thematic integrity or pure pop ecstasy makes it not only the best album of Swift’s budding career, but the best mainstream pop record we are likely to hear in 2012; here’s hoping that Swift just keeps getting better.

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