Not cool, Taylor Swift. Not cool.
What has me so incensed against the mousy country-popper, poet laureate of 13-year-olds, and dater to the stars? What could possibly piss me off about the wide eyes that have swayed some of the most famous sets of abs in the celebrity-sphere? Could I, perhaps, be angry at her for her latest single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, and how soulless and terrible it is?
Well, yeah, that’s a point of contention. But more to the point, the reason I’m here listening to her newest record, Red, has everything to do with me expecting to be able to craft a hilariously cantankerous review out of it. You know, deconstruct a couple of her petulant break-up jams, write her off as a peddler of over-dramatic adolescent notebook poetry, claim I don’t understand music anymore, self-destruct in the final paragraph; you know, the usual. Instead, I fire up this oversized platter (seriously, there’s 16 tracks on this beast; like, regular-length tracks) and am treated to an unremarkable enterprise that finds T-Swift trying on a few new hats, more or less abandoning her barely-country roots, and singing cute love songs about boys. There’s not really a reason to listen to it ever again, but it’s not nearly as offensive as I’d hoped it would be. It’s just kinda… there.
When discussing Red, it’s important to discuss the new sound. This is Taylor’s most overtly crossover album; she basically wrote pop songs with just enough twang to keep one of her spurred Uggs in Nashville before, but here, she’s essentially, I dunno, Selena Gomez or whatever barely-legal, easily-heartbroken pop star the kids are listening to these days. Red opens with the big, dramatic “State of Grace”, which suggests that Taylor has been listening to The Joshua Tree, like, a lot lately, you guys; it’s the sort of U2-pastiche-by-numbers that has been resurrected wholesale in the rock world over the past decade, and it’s fine. It actually functions as a nice view of the album as a whole in microcosm: overlong, reasonably novel in its tonal shift, and thoroughly okay.
From there, it’s all pop songs and ballads; “We Are Never Ever Ever Ever Ever Ever” is as ungodly in context as it is out, but Taylor’s got a few gems tucked away. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is insidious canned dance-rock, quick and catchy; “Starlight”, mercifully not a Muse cover, finds respite in a wistful retreat to the dance floor. She even slings on some mid-tempo Fleetwood Mac-esque rock on the surprisingly effective title track; no one’s accusing her of having the chops to sell Nicks-like breakup narratives, but Taylor’s color-associative remembrances are, startling enough, kind of touching. It’s the kind of track that harkens back to breakout hit “Love Story”; starry-eyed, melodic, wistful, free of the singer’s tendency to purposefully needle her exes’ nerves.
When Taylor goes back to the well for a bucket of country-ballad crocodile tears, she fares a little less well. Describing her lost love as “Sad Beautiful Tragic” makes the staid country ballad smack of melodrama, and it’s boring to boot; “All Too Well” and “I Almost Do” are just languid enough to be laborious, even though there’s a few surprisingly mature turns of phrase tossed in there. Taylor even duets with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol on “The Last Time”, which sounds like a Snow Patrol track laced with an almost imperceptible Taylor Swift sample; it’s a fine song, but it sounds out of place even on Taylor’s “experimental” record, as dominated as it is by Lightbody and Snow Patrol’s signature sound.
All and all, it’s a big, ambitious, scattershot record. Taylor approaches full-circle maturity on final track “Begin Again”, which sounds morose enough to be a Damien Rice track in another universe, but belies a certain progression on her part: she seems to finally see that all things are eventually made new again, that your latest break-up doesn’t equal the complete destruction of your entire romantic universe — perhaps even that most things that happen to 20-year-olds genuinely don’t matter.
Redis flecked with bits of teenage drama, but it’s largely just an unobtrusive pop album. In other words: it’s fine. Not great, but fine. Only time will tell if Taylor can grow into adulthood without being a petulant Kewpie doll; I may be mad at her for my hilarious review that never was, but Red doesn’t suck, and that’s a start.