Review Summary: At a career crossroads, Taylor Swift tries to mature while still maintaining her youth, and makes an album that highlights nothing.
In the two year interim between the release of Speak Now and Red, Taylor Swift seems to have established two distinct sides to her personality. In the media, she is a full-grown woman, wearing sleek dresses and deep red lipstick. She vamps across the red carpet in heels and even straightens her famously curly hair. The other side of the coin is the face that she continues to sell on her records, that moon-faced, aw shucks everywoman from Pennsylvania who stumbled into fame and gets her heart broken like everyone else. It’s easy to forget that she’s only 22 years old if only because she sells herself as an older woman and writes like a teen. Red seems to be a conscientious effort to reconcile the two sides of Taylor Swift while remaining the white knight of pop music.
On this front, Red is a moderate success. There are songs like “Stay Stay Stay” that recall her first album and the high energy rocker “Red” that may as well be a sequel to “Sparks Fly.” She has lost nearly all of the country flair that originally got her noticed, but she seems to have exhausted all creativity outlets that have come with her former home genre. On Red, experimentation is the name of the game. Swift incorporates dubstep elements into the choruses of “I Knew You Were Trouble”- a song guaranteed to be blasted out of windows all autumn- and “22” and finds great success with these accents. Furthermore, in a surprising shift away from the DIY ethos of Speak Now, which saw Swift split from her co-writer Liz Rose, Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody make guest vocal appearances in addition to seven songs being co-written. These guests seem to be yet another example of her two sides- Sheeran is quite popular among tweens while Lightbody’s group is a hit with the adult contemporary crowd- and how they can exist in harmony.
However, just because they can, doesn’t mean that they do. The guest appearances are both quite dull and the internal conflict has had an adverse effect on the quality of her material. Most of the strength in her previous work lied in the strength of the choruses and the transparency of the lyrics- it seemed she had nothing to hide. Red finds her more guarded; the boldness of naming names- “Dear John” anyone?- has vanished. The entire album is themed around a relationship with an unnamed antagonist, rumored to be Jake Gyllenhaal, and is told out of sequence with total disregard for order or flow. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but the placement of “Stay Stay Stay” immediately after “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” seems to show that construction was an afterthought.
However, Taylor Swift’s strength has always been in song construction. She still relies on some of her default formulae, but the new musical soundscapes keep them sounding fresh, even six years since her debut Taylor Swift hit shelves. Tragically, the songs themselves aren’t up to her usually high caliber. No song on Red, except “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “Holy Ground,” would stand out on another one of her albums. The issues with the songs are varied: ranging from awkward phrases (loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street; It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters) to absolutely unnecessary spoken word segments (the bridge of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together) to downright blandness. Straying away from country has put even more of the spotlight on Swift. Without her backing band, she is now more than ever before that girl with the guitar. The difference is that nowadays, that guitar is electric and her voice is autotuned more than ever before. It’s hard not to wish for the carefree 16-year-old, especially near the end of this 65 minute behemoth.
What keeps Red from failing as an album are the moments that Taylor Swift shows off her charisma and sticks to what she knows best. The sunny “Stay Stay Stay” is reminiscent of “Ours” from Speak Now from a delivery standpoint and title track “Red” is a pop radio jam that should get the crowd smiling. When she relates personal moments, such as throwing her phone across the room, she connects with the listener. It’s a shame that these moments are relatively few and when she describes sneaking into a yacht club on “Starlight,” one wonders how much she actually has in common with her fans anymore. The charisma is definitely still obvious, when she sings with a twang it doesn’t sound forced and many of the songs have great sing-along potential. Perhaps her biggest display of talent on Red is saving the sonically boring closer “Begin Again” from being a dud and turning it into an “Enchanted” style confessional. She’s at her best on the songs where she can combine her maturity and youthfulness into one work- like opener “State of Grace,” which showcases vocal and, to a lesser extent, lyrical maturity while remaining upbeat and engaging.
Red is basically the album that Taylor Swift had to make in order to stay relevant, but the album that no fan really wanted her to make. Try as she might, she can’t stay 16 forever and it’s a step in the right direction for the future to have made this album. By incorporating a new set of genres in place of her staple country music influences, Swift is able to keep the album fresh despite its length and her reliance on writing templates. Although some of her experiments, particularly the addition of guest stars, prove unsuccessful, it’s to be expected from someone stepping out of their comfort zone. This album is far from flawless, but it certainly could have turned out a lot worse; this is due mostly to Red’s consistency- few songs stand out in either a positive or negative way, but the songs are consistently average. Red may not have the flair of Speak Now or the refinement of Fearless, but it does have passion, which is enough to make it listenable but do very little beyond that.