Artist: Taylor Swift
Label: Big Machine
In an interview with Billboard magazine recently, Taylor Swift was asked to characterise her latest release, Red. She replied, “It’s all the different ways you can say goodbye to someone.” This is a fitting description for the phenomenally successful artist’s fourth album, a complex and surely divisive leap of faith, as it represents more than anything she’s done a move from her precocious, girlish roots into something more self-aware, mature, and considered. It’s a beautiful album and a really magical listen to anyone in the right frame of mind, though it’s an awkward and deeply uncertain one at the same time. Here more than ever before, we can see her take careful steps towards what she wants to be, straying from her comfort zone in precise and methodical ways, though not quite enough to produce a fluid album that’s consistent and coherent in its sound and intentions. It will take more than one listen to fully appreciate Red and indeed, some may mistake her over-eagerness on tracks such as “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” for vacuity and never quite warm to it. But there is a plot here, and a carefully delineated one, even if it is occasionally usurped by some of the more playful ditties spawned by her co-writers.
Perhaps the most distinctive difference between Red and Swift’s previous release, the delightful Speak Now, is how ballad-oriented it is. There are numerous cheery songs, but so many of these tracks are ravaging, uncompromising personal pieces. This in and of itself isn’t new territory for Swift – she’s made her name effectively transcribing her diary into songs. But the style here is completely different, and marks a departure for her. She’s older, she’s wiser, her sensibilities are different; and there is something more mature and accepting about her writing that makes it markedly less precocious and wounded. On “Treacherous” and “All Too Well,” she demonstrates a newfound willingness to find the positives in a messy situation. Notes of resignation creep into her voice, but so too do impassionate streaks. The spark of optimism is clear, and it’s underlined with more power, maturity, and even mild aggression than before. “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” which she herself described to Billboard as “a cloudy recollection,” is a tender, emotionally bare piece largely devoid of emotion and yet very poignant. It’s less about being sad or bitter and more of a deeply personal, internally honest dialogue about what went wrong. This detached viewpoint is unusual for Swift, and it’s one that suits her, as the cold grey sincerity of what she writes comes into its own.
Nestled alongside these stirring self-explorations are happier, cheerful odes about youth, exuberance, and enjoyment. This is where some of the trouble seeps in, as there tends to be an awkward dichotomy between songs Swift has written herself and those which have been co-written. “State of Grace” and “Red” are bubbling, vivacious songs, subdued for her perhaps, but romanticised and free-spirited as ever with warmth and richness in droves. “Starlight” is fitful and passionate, its emphasis on dancing reflecting a carefree freedom. “Holy Ground” is similarly bright, but with a slightly vacant, nostalgic feel; something like a lingering, yearning memory. There’s an infectious life to these tracks that tends to be lacking in some of her more polished numbers. “22” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” are really fun songs in and of themselves – the latter’s little bypass through dubstep nowhere near as ill-advised as you might think – but their pristine, chart-flavoured sheen sound like a forced digression from her heartfelt style and don’t exactly advance her in musical terms. It would be easy to denounce much of this record on the flaws of those tracks, and likewise, the horrible leering depressiveness that follows Gary Lightbody around and thus finds its way into “The Last Time” (her collaboration with Ed Sheeran, “Everything Has Changed”, works much better though).
That, however, would be churlish as there is something more mature running finely throughout Red – a tentative streak perhaps, as though she’s not quite comfortable enough to make the leap entirely. It can be heard in the more reserved tone of her ballads as well as the wildly veering tempos; imprints of sobriety and caution where once she would have freely poured her heart out. The bubblegum pop numbers (of which “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is another example) feel like a brief hiding place between the reaches she wants to make as she grows older, and the whimsy that has largely informed her work up to now. She is less freewheeling and unbridled and yet in this, one can see an evolution waiting to take hold.
Red is far more subversive than anything Swift has done, more decidedly inward and more withdrawn. It differs starkly from the sprawling splendour of Speak Now and will undoubtedly be criticised for sounding somewhat self-involved, quiet, and indulgent. But this is, I think, to do the album disservice. It may not have the hooks of her other work – at least not mostly – but it is a necessary album for her, truer and more honest than she’s ever been. The charm lies in the subtleties, and one has to really get lost in the feeling. If it doesn’t envelop and captivate you, you may miss a lot of the searing magic in the words themselves. Swift’s writing is about storytelling, not catchy beats, and in this she has remained truer to herself than ever.
Review written by Grace Duffy