A platinum artist many times over, singer Taylor Swift at 22 seems to be on top of the world. She’s dating a Kennedy, earning millions, and has touched the lives of generations with her delicate lyrical sensibility and songs of love. She’s a near-constant hot topic on the Internet whose existence is more closely watched than just about anyone’s on the planet. And on “Red,” she’s easing into this role.
“Red” is Swift’s fourth album since her breakout debut in 2006, and it’s the most consistently surprising of the lot -- even if it reveals an artist whose success has most definitely gone to her head. Completely aware of the scope of her fame, Swift is more often the teacher than the student in her new songs, and in this role she’s offering lessons on the importance of musical versatility while continuing her laser-beam focus on the emotional workings of her heart.
This versatility is the album’s most striking characteristic. Beginning with the aspirational rock song “State of Grace,” which sounds like a U2 cover circa “The Joshua Tree,” and moving through dance pop of the Max Martin-produced “I Knew You Were Trouble” to the soft-rock gem “The Lucky One,” Swift seems to have crossed some sort of emotional threshold.
Absent are the tentative questions of a young woman trying to process life and love through song, and in their place are the assured words and music of a star who feels like she has learned a lot about life and wants to share her knowledge. It’s no accident that she name-drops Pablo Neruda in the first sentence of an introductory “Prologue" in the record's liner notes.
This two-paragraph essay sets the tone for the sentiments to come. “This album is about the other kinds of love that I’ve recently fallen in and out of," Swift writes. "Love that was treacherous, sad, beautiful, and tragic. But most of all, this record is about love that was red.”
“Red” is a big record that reaches for Importance and occasionally touches it, filled with well-constructed pop songs Taylor-made for bedroom duets. If “Everything Has Changed," a powerful collaboration with British singer Ed Sheeran, or the mandolin-driven romance “Treacherous,” were automobiles, they’d be parked in an Audi or BMW showroom -- sleek, solid and built for comfort. There are no bumps on “Red.” Only clean, perfectly rendered American popular music.
But to toss one of Swift’s better similes back at her, the pop fodder on “Red” at its worst feels “like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street.” Much of the record's expansion is in sound rather than structure -- even if half of "Red" will still work perfectly well on commercial country radio playlists. Whether it's the harder rock of “State of Grace” or the Hallmark-ready treacle of “I Almost Do,” at times Swift feels like a mere cypher for the music that surrounds her. To mix metaphors, she occasionally resembles a flawless mannequin upon which any number of fashions look fabulous.
In this context, to call Swift’s sonic expansion a brave move is to credit her with accomplishing something more artistically significant than simply shifting toward the center of her demographic. By setting rural music alongside more “urban” sounds of the moment, Swift is arguably just responding to a pop world in which country singles might please her base, but certainly doesn’t expand it.
But that’s the cynic’s view, and Swift on “Red” has little time for cynicism. Rather, she's striving for something much more grand and accomplished.
Three stars out of four
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit