New Music Monday and an Album Review: Taylor Swift’s “Red”

Taylor Swift’s latest album, Red, is not necessarily “new” since it was released almost two weeks ago, and it also may not be what some would peg as country music. Nonetheless I wanted to write a review for it if for no other reason than to look at how her musical style has changed since her “Tim McGraw” days as a 16-year-old with that wildly curly hair.

If Taylor was going for an occasionally acoustic pop-folk sound, she hit the nail right on the head. “Holy Ground” has a subdued pop-rock feel to it, and I like the way it escalates with an almost electronic-sounding background as the song continues. My absolute favorite song on the album is “Everything Has Changed,” which is the duet she wrote and performed with Ed Sheeran (who is also going to be her tour mate in 2013). It’s a unique stripped down sound, it’s raw, it’s real, and it’s just catchy. A close runner up on my list of most played is “Begin Again,” which is probably the song with the strongest country-esque sound on the album. It’s the only song on  Red that’s playing on the radio station I’m interning for, and yes, I have been caught belting it in the studio while it’s on the air… no shame! The video for it is also arguably one of the best videos she’s ever made.

The title track, “Red,” is an emotionally intense song about a passionate relationship that’s all but doomed for failure. I do like the banjo riffs toward the beginning of “Red,” but they’re unfortunately buried under a hodge podge of more prominent electric guitar sounds as the song plays on.  “All Too Well” does a fantastic job of capturing the sad emotion when you’re trying so hard to let go of someone, but the sweet memories are still there and the hurt from the end hasn’t disappeared either. “The Lucky One” is a haunting tribute to a wide-eyed dreamer whose life was marred by a lifestyle of fame.

Three songs on the album were co-written with Max Martin and Shellback, both of whom have impressive track records… in the area of top 40 pop. Their influence is definitely prominent in all three: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “22.” “22” is by far the worst of the three. It’s homogenized and not at all original-sounding. It’s as if the co-writers were trying to replace Taylor’s usual heartfelt lyrics with an overused narrative about friends going out to a club and clinging to a stranger–completely uncharacteristic of Taylor’s typically classy image. As a friend and classmate of mine, Niki, put it: “It’s just this really cheap sounding song. It just… ugh.” Bingo, almost to the point of being repulsive.

“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” has completely torn up radio and download charts. Lyrically, it’s shallow, but its explosive popularity is probably due to the fact that it has an extremely catchy pop hook.

“I Knew You Were Trouble” has an obvious dubstep influence, and surprisingly, I don’t hate it. Is it Taylor’s sound? Nope. But it’s a good song for jamming in the car when I’m in the right mood. Another black sheep on the album is “State of Grace,” which really doesn’t sound like anything else on the album or like any of Taylor’s earlier work. “Starlight” is an almost cheesy pop song written thanks to inspiration from Robert and Ethel Kennedy. It has a fluffy pop sound, but it’s a not nearly as bad as “22,” which is definitely my least favorite on the album.

If I’m being honest, “Sad Beautiful Tragic” and “The Last Time” (which was co-written with Jacknife Lee and Gary Lightbody and performed with Lightbody) are not much more than forgettable. They’re not necessarily bad, they just lack impact. If you told me to recall the tune of either of them on the spot after listening to them several times each within the mix of the album, I don’t know that I could.

“I Almost Do” and “Treacherous,” are most reminiscent of Taylor’s older, acoustic-guitar-based sound that was present on her debut album. “Stay Stay Stay” has the same laid back, innocent vibe as one of her initial hits, “Our Song.” I’ve been a Taylor fan since her first album wasn’t even huge yet, and her original sound was definitely more country, more carefree, and less… worldly. She used to write more from a small town perspective, and it’s very obvious how both her lyrics and her sound have changed as her fame has taken her anywhere and everywhere. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a change that mirrors her current lifestyle as well as her journey toward maturity.

She’s been calling this her most “adventurous” album, and that it is. There’s a variety of genres represented on the album– you’ve got a copious amount of pop, a tiny bit of folk-country flavor, and even dubstep. The songwriting is decent, and we all know that’s why she’s making so much money anyway– she’s made herself and her lyrics incredibly relatable. When the album first came out, my friend and classmate Niki made the comment that the songs she wrote alone are much better than the ones she had co-writers on. In the case of the songs co-written with Max Martin and Shellback, I wholeheartedly agree. Taylor has her own distinctive style, and somehow the extra contributions of those pop-bent outsiders corrupted her signature feel that’s been present throughout her career.

Overall, I do really like Red. Do I love it for the same reasons I love Alan Jackson or Miranda Lambert? No, not at all, but it’s still worthy of merit. Some of the songs I have to be in a particular mood to enjoy, but nonetheless I’ve had it the album playing in my car since it came out. I’m hoping that Taylor can find a way to blend the great acoustic folky pop sound she’s explored on this album with some more country flavor on her next album. She’s a young star, so she has time to experiment with her signature sound and style, and that’s precisely what she’s doing. I just hope that when she does finally find that signature sound, it’s not terribly far from her country roots.

Find Taylor’s new album, Red, on iTunes here.

Keep talkin’ twangy!


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