Album Review: Taylor Swift, “Red” (2012)

I have a very strange, love/hate relationship with Taylor Swift.  I generally don’t want to like her music, but sometimes I find myself bobbing my head along to one of her songs on the radio.  I hate that she blatantly bashes all of her exes in her songs, but at the same time, as someone who is also extremely honest about my own life in written form (though my dirty laundry has been confined to blogs, instead of world-famous songs), I have to applaud her for sharing her truth.  And I am impressed by the fact that she’s one of the few young artists on the radio who actually writes all her songs.  Sometimes I see her Tweets, and think, “Aww, she’s so endearing!  I would be her friend…”, but then I see her whine on TV about how Tina Fey made fun of her at the Golden Globes, and I’m annoyed again.  The way I feel about Taylor Swift is just very, very complicated.

Unfortunately my feelings about Swift and her music are pretty irrelevant, as it looks like the 23-year-old country/pop artist is here to stay.  Released in 2012, Red is Swift’s fourth studio album and was the second best selling album of that year.  The disc was also placed on many year-end/best-of lists.  Eventually, I decided that I’d have to buy a copy and see what all the fuss was about for myself.

The disc opens with State of Grace, a pop/rock track with a breezy melody. Though Swift’s vocals are sweet, the melody doesn’t move out of the same few chords it begins in, and despite being nice to listen to, is ultimately forgettable.  The album’s title track, Red, is a bit better- the country-lite sound works well, and the chorus is much catchier than the song before it (“Losing him was blue like I’d never known/Missing him was dark grey- all alone/Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met/But loving him was red/Loving him was red”).   Both songs remind me a bit of the music on Kelly Clarkson’s latest albums- it seems like Swift fits into the “breezy girl rock” genre nicely.

The album really picks up with the disc’s third single, I Knew You Were Trouble.   Swift’s stuck pretty close to her country/pop roots so far, but this track is the first real departure from her trademark sound.  The fast-paced verses, electric guitar playing in the background, and of course, the bass drop in the bridge (which sounds like something off of a dubstep album) is all a new sound for Swift, and it works amazingly well.  Lead single, We Are Never Getting Back Together, arrives a few songs later and though I can see why the track was such a big hit, I never particularly liked it.  Sure, the chorus is extremely catchy and the bouncy sound makes the track an easy one to remember, but Swift’s vocal delivery is a bit too whiny, and the complain-y lyrics just irritate me (particularly the immature refrain of, “we are never, ever, ever getting back together!” How old is she?  12?!). Not to mention that the first few times I heard the song, I thought it was by Avril Lavinge, which immediately put a bad taste in my mouth.

Similarly, 22 sounds like another Avril leftover with the poppy backing music (and an extremely loud, annoying chorus) and Swift’s whiny vocals.  The track is a bit obnoxious overall, though a few of the tongue-in-cheek lines make me smile.  The pop sound continues on with The Lucky One, but the stuttering drum loop that plays throughout is really what steals the show. Starlight sounds like something you’d hear on a Miley Cyrus album.  The overly cheerful sound and poppy beat are a bit too “bubblegum” for my taste- I had my cheesy pop music phase in the early ‘00’s and would like to leave that kind of music there, thanks.

I really like Stay, Stay, Stay.  Musically, the song calls to mind a lot of the tracks on Swift’s debut album- the peppy guitar and easy listening/country sound are familiar territory, but the formula works well for Swift.  Lyrically, the song is about a complicated relationship, but the lyrics are actually sweet (instead of scornful) this time around (“Before you I only dated self indulgent takers who took all of their problems out on me/But you carry my groceries and now I’m always laughing/And I love you because you have given me no choice but to/Stay stay stay…”).  Meanwhile, Snow Patrol’s lead singer, Gary Lightbody duets with Swift on The Last Time.  Lightbody’s slightly raspy tone is a nice compliment to Swift’s sugary vocals, and their two voices sound quite good together.  The song itself isn’t too remarkable- the ballad floats on without making much of a big impression- but at least they sound good.

One of my favourite new musicians, Ed Sheeran duets with Swift on Everything Has Changed.  Sheeran co-wrote the song with Swift, and his acoustic rock influences are made apparent throughout the lighthearted mid-tempo ballad.  Again, the song itself isn’t too much of a standout, but I always love listening to Sheeran’s voice, and he and Swift sound particularly good together during the choruses.

At sixteen tracks, there are far too many songs on the album.  Especially when a lot of it could be scaled back by removing some of the ballads. It’s not that I don’t like hearing Swift sing- she’s got a lovely voice when she isn’t doing that whiny/brat thing she does in some of her upbeat songs- but her ballads are so boring.  Treacherous goes on forever with the bland acoustic guitar and Swift’s melancholy delivery, while I Almost Do sounds like the exact same song, except even more dull- something I wouldn’t have thought possible.  The dreamy sound of Sad Beautiful Tragic is nice- especially during the bridge where Swift holds a few long, impressive notes- but for the most part, the song meanders on for several minutes without making any sort of statement.  The only ballad on the album (besides the duets) that I actually enjoy is All Too Well.  The songwriting is actually the best part, as Swift weaves an intricate tale of the end of a relationship (“Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it/I’d like to be my old self again/But I’m still trying to find it/After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own/Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone/But you keep my old scarf from that very first week/’Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me”).

The album closes with yet another ballad, Begin Again.  The song is probably the most traditional “country” track on the album, mostly due to the slightly twangy guitar which plays throughout. Though Swift’s pretty vocals flutter effortlessly through the song, the track is another snooze-fest.  There’s nothing remarkable about the sound nor lyrics, and the song ends the album on a lackluster note.

I’m not too sure why there was so much hype surrounding Red.  While I do commend Taylor Swift for solely writing the majority of her own songs, for experimenting with new genres (namely in “I Knew You Were Trouble”), and making enjoyable, easy-to-listen-to songs, I can’t say the album is as big of a success as everyone else apparently thinks it is.  The inclusion of so many unnecessary ballads really drags the album down, and there’s a few truly awful pop songs that I wouldn’t be caught dead listening to.  Perhaps this is Swift’s best record to date (which honestly isn’t saying much, but I digress), but I think she has a lot of room to grow before truly being an incredible artist.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Track List
1. State Of Grace
2. Red
3. Treacherous
4. I Knew You Were Trouble
5. All Too Well
6. 22
7. I Almost Do
8. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
9. Stay Stay Stay
10. The Last Time
11. Holy Ground
12. Sad Beautiful Tragic
13. The Lucky One
14. Everything Has Changed
15. Starlight
16. Begin Again

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