Music Review: RED

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Music Review: RED

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

     RED is big. Bigger and more overwhelming than its predecessor Speak Now. It’s similarly overstuffed and sagging in places, but it’s carrying a bigger vision along with it.


     Then again, calling it a “vision” might be a little misleading. Lyrically, Swift’s on the home field. She hasn’t exactly vanished in a puff of pink smoke and emerged as the millenials’ Joni Mitchell; her songs are still deeply hardwired into, and draw their lion’s share of power out of, pop’s chief supply of fossil fuel, i.e. love lost and found. And her torch songs and kiss-offs and steadily shrinking country sound (basically absent here) are back in full force. But the main difference between Speak Now and RED can be found in the credits; whereas Swift held sole writing credit on every track of the former, she shares credit on the latter with what basically amounts to contemporary pop songwriting’s version of The Avengers. They’re the folks who have been supplying Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson and Pink and Maroon 5 with the rocket fuel that blasted them into all of your heads. And it’s impossible to see RED as anything other than a game, inevitable grab for pop’s brass ring. I’d say she succeeds by, oh, 95%.


     The singles are, as always, indelible. “We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together” fuses whipcrack drums and surgically strummed guitars into a giddy chorus that’ll metastasize in your head (in a good way). “I Knew You Were Trouble” weds Swift’s still-a-little-shrill crowing to gently gutbusting bass wobbles. “Begin Again”’s lovely mandolin-lined album-closing ballad, one of RED’s brief brushes with country, describes a promising first date that comes after her 8-month-long post-breakup emotional crater. It almost feels a little knowingly ironic, closing out the album, I mean, don’t we know how this is going to end? Don’t Swift songs gain their kinetic energy from the loop they always take, from blissed-out, doe-eyed teen poptimism to poison-penned escapes to emotional freedom? Will this dude be washed right out of her hair on the first track of the next album?

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     Thankfully, it’s not all just fire and rain. She leaves room in between to get complex (as much as radio-grade pop gets complex), and the music takes some interesting turns along the way. “All Too Well” builds a roar out of a twinkle, with bruised nostalgia of a relationship’s “plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own” overlaid with Swift’s (narrator’s? Maybe? Probably not?) reparation that he “lost the one real thing [he’d] ever known.” The twee, low-stakes “Stay Stay Stay” praises Swift’s live-in boyfriend not for commanding the swells of her passion but for just, y’know, carrying her groceries, making her laugh, and hanging out. The assured and soaring opener “State Of Grace” sounds like Swift rode out a particularly intense romantic collision by listening entirely to U2 records. “The Lucky One”’s tale of a once-great star gives us a taste of the fame game’s wearying, darker side, and “Starlight” is all about a goshdarn great night spent in 1945 (even if the dance beat it rides never sounds a bit older than 2012). Swift’s gotten older, and so, gradually, has her songwriting started to put away childish things. As the years roll out I’ll bet money that the fairytale spun-sugar that once reliably frosted her lyrics, already melting away under RED’s heat, disappears almost entirely.

     Like Speak Now, RED’s nominations for “what could have been left out” are debatable, but they definitely exist (at an hour-plus, no shocker). The two duets are a little beige, and Owen Pallett’s strings just aren’t enough to cover up their hollow centers. I couldn’t really tell you who the male halves of the duets are. (Though if past precedent is any indication, they’ll probably have a song or two written about them on the next album, and I doubt they’ll come off positive. See: Mayer, John.) But there’s more than enough excitement busting out of “Holy Ground,” “Red,” and “22” (which has Swift switching from sounding like Katy Perry and Ke$ha and Avril Lavigne so fast it’s hard to remember; I should be playing it loudly through my speakers while I’m a college girl packed into a car with her friends on our way to spring break) to sweep away the lingering boredom.

     Taylor Swift is the synthesized Pro-Tools slick autotuned sound of the 2010’s. She’s a winning combination of steady output, unbeatably popular image and message, and undeniable songwriting/performing talent. She’s a living, breathing embodiment of inevitability. For those like me who enjoy inevitability as much as we enjoy unpredictability in our music, this is not a problem. But for those who don’t, you’ll have to get out of the way or get swept up, because even the haters fuel the empire, the war machine, the Unicron (look it up) devourer of country and pop and confessional that is Taylor Swift. RED isn’t an album. It’s an annexation. Be warned.

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