“But you keep my old scarf from that very first week / cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me,” sings Taylor Swift on “All Too Well”, one of the standout tracks from her latest album Red. Swift is a lot of things –Forbes list topper, Queen of iTunes, lover of all things chiffon– but innocent sure isn’t one of them. The doe-eyed superstar has had more boyfriends than Rihanna’s had top 10 hits (i.e. a lot), and with her propensity to publicly name and shame her exes, you have to wonder why so many men still willingly fall into Taylor’s flytrap. It says a lot about her bulletproof appeal, which has allowed her to be both a wholesome idol for young girls and Hollywood’s most unlikely femme fatale.
Swift is still packing fifty shades of rage on Red, but it’s just one of the many conflicting emotions that blow through the album. Throughout its 16 tracks, Swift both lives in the moment and reminisces for the past, begs a boyfriend to stay and vows to never (ever) get back together, mopes at home and parties at the yacht club, and points the finger at every man who has ever done her wrong — and occasionally, even at herself. Swift may have cover girl looks and a bank account bigger than Christina Aguilera’s ego, but she’s still just as confused and messed up as any early twenty-something out there. It’s one of the reasons that her self-penned pop is so relatable, and her undying yearning for picture perfect moments and fairytale endings is something we all share, whether you fit Taylor’s target demographic or not.
Alarm bells went off ahead of Red’s release when Swift released a couple of bubblegum singles: namely the Avril-ish lead offering “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and the dubstep tinged “I Knew You Were Trouble”. Had Taylor ditched country music for good? Had she chosen style over substance in her quest for world domination? Not quite. Swift’s Max Martin collaborations don’t make up the entire album, and they sound fantastic when peppered in amongst her trademark country-pop fare and some other genre stuff than they did on their own. This makes Red not only the most varied and widely-accessibly album of her career, but potentially the most successful too.
She tackles sweeping U2 sized rock on Red’s glorious opener “State of Grace”, and successfully tries her hand at gloomy AC balladry by duetting with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody on “The Last Time”. But her skill as a true songwriter shines the brightest on “All Too Well”, where Swift processes a past romance with Jake Gyllenhaal (“Hey you called me up again just to break me like a promise,” she wails) from which the scars have clearly yet to heal. It flies in the face of the anti-Taylor brigade who label her tunes immature by delivering the kind of emotional thwack that very few of her contemporaries are able to match.
Swift still finds time to have fun amidst all the heartache, dropping two of the most joyful love jams of her career with the plucky “Stay Stay Stay” and the exhilarating “Starlight”. She even dives into the subject of sex (shock! horror!) on the sensual “Treacherous”, tenderly stepping into womanhood by cooing about making love to a bad boy. The song simmers and builds for a while, before blowing up with a climactic finish, just like a — well, you know.
But if it’s a mammoth hit that Swift is after, then she need look no further than the G-rated Ke$ha stomper “22″. The Max and Shellback-produced cut has global smash written all over it and is destined to become Red’s biggest success once it inevitably gets the single treatment.
Swift’s growing fame has made her painfully self-aware, and it’s clear when listening to Red that every A-list producer and not-so-subtle boyfriend bashing lyric is just as carefully calculated for chart success as it is a genuine expression of Swift’s artistry and emotions. And that’s completely okay, especially when it works this well. The only thing that stops Red from being a near perfect pop album is its lengthy tracklisting, which almost borders on self-indulgent. The Ed Sheeran duet “Everything Has Changed” is just as bland as one expects from anything with Sheeran’s name attached to it, and Swift’s semi-autobiographical foray into the perils of fame “The Lucky One” isn’t even worthy of iTunes bonus track status. The songstress may not have made her pop masterpiece yet, but at just 22 she’s already come close more than once. And if there’s one thing that Red makes crystal clear, it’s that she’s well on her way to getting there.
Must Download: Everything bar “The Lucky One” and “Everything Has Changed”.
Delete and Destroy: “The Lucky One” and “Everything Has Changed”.
For Fans of: crying alone over old boyfriends, pop songs with actual lyrics (not just dumb words that rhyme), classy yet secretly slutty waifs who outsell your fave’s career in one week.