Awe and amazement have been Taylor Swifts grammar for years now. Whether singing about love or heartbreak there has been no third subject Swift has excelled at capturing the fresh sting, as if arriving at a feeling for the first time.
But Swift is 22 now, and certainly she has seen some things. For most of Red, her fourth album, thats not necessarily clear. Her growth is largely musical, not experiential.
There is a moment, though, on We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together the albums lead single and, as it happens, her first No. 1 pop hit where the cracks begin to show. At the bridge the song gives way to a conversation between Swift and friends in which shes recalling how she shut down a persistent ex who wouldnt stop calling.
This is exhausting, she tells him, emphasizing the middle syllable of the last word, like a car thats just run out of gas. There is something different in Swifts voice here: Its serious and deep, and also shrewd. She has been through this before. She sounds like an adult.
Its about time. Swift, now eight years removed from her debut single, has become one of the most important pop artists of the past decade. But her evolution has been purposefully slow, making sure not to leave behind any of the young women who hold her up as a paragon of beauty, talent and civility. That she did this as a country singer was both savvy the genre demands morals in a way pop doesnt and also, ultimately, limiting.
It was never a question of whether Swift would become a pure pop star; the only question was what sort. Shes without precedent: not as a country star looking for something bigger but as a pop singer trying hard to maintain an air of innocence. Any young woman whos tried to own similar space has done it by making choices of subject matter, of outfits, of public melodrama that Swift has gone out of her way to avoid. (You could make a case that Adele has skipped these steps too, but her music was never young and therefore never had to find a way to grow up.)
Instead, Swift has had to find other ways of growing up. Red (Big Machine) is by any measure a transitional album, showing Swift grasping for what her next stage is going to be and trying to become a sort of pop superstar that currently doesnt exist. Released Monday, Red is expected to sell over a million copies in its first week. Alhough often great, it is her least steady album, with some of her most sheer songwriting. She is showing maturity less as an adult although there is some of that than as a strategist.
The most blatant stroke of pop engineering here is Swifts work with pop-production technicians Max Martin and Shellback, which would be the clear choice for any singer looking for a loud pop splash. But for Swift, who has generally kept her circle of collaborators tight and done just fine with that, it was almost as unlikely as her working with Vybz Kartel or Gucci Mane.
Each of the three songs written with Martin and Shellback feel like inside jokes about the squeaky-clean pop of eras past. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together has a Disney-esque literalness, and 22 feels like cheeky 80s pop. I Knew You Were Trouble, one of the years great pop songs, begins like a sock-hop anthem, with jaunty guitars. A dubstep wobble arrives about halfway through like a wrecking ball, changing the course not just of the song but also of Swifts career. (She also worked with the pop producer Jeff Bhasker on a pair of songs, Holy Ground and The Lucky One, that dont take her out of her genre comfort zone but do amp up the intensity.)
These are among the best songs on this album and a reminder of Swifts tenacity. As convincingly as she set out to make herself a country singer a decade ago, shes applying the same fortitude to much choppier waters and succeeding on her own terms. Although these songs have some of the attitude of pop-punk a sound she explored a bit on her last album, Speak Now they dont feel brash. And they show other kinds of growth as well. On I Knew You Were Trouble, maybe for the first time, Swift genuinely paints herself as culpable, an accessory to her own heartbreak. I knew you were trouble when you walked in, she sings, so shame on me now.Strikingly, though, each moment of pure pop breakthrough is tempered immediately afterward by a contemplative country moment. I Knew You Were Trouble is followed by All Too Well, and 22 is chased by I Almost Do, the song here that could most convincingly be delivered by a more traditional country singer. After We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together comes Stay Stay Stay, which features the most gratuitous mandolin on the album.
Swift has always been a pop star in a country context more than a country star; her trick was in arriving at a time where country could accept such a proposition. She had no direct competition, and the genres borders were weakening. But as she ages, country is becoming more and more of a straitjacket, which means going the full Shania Twain isnt a real option. Twain had firm country bona fides from the beginning: Even as she exploded in popularity, she was still a genre favorite. But Swifts country membership has never been that firm.
Instead, she has to carve new territory: a nontransgressive, rose-colored female pop megastar, the likes of which havent been seen in decades. Red is an album of wildly divergent moods and sounds, but it rarely undermines her core values, even if she is at the stage of her career where no one would look askance at her for doing so.
Thats because Swift is post-gatekeeper: Country radio no longer gets to define her, and pop radio has accepted her novel terms. Swift moves her own market, and Swift is patient.
This combination of calculation and instinct makes for a savvy musician, but does it make for an adult?
Swift has been keeping adulthood at bay for as long as shes been singing. Even if she wanted to cling to her innocence, its no longer an option. Reporters ask her about her love life her current beau is rumored to be Conor Kennedy, a grandson of Robert F. Kennedy even if they get nowhere. Shes been interrogated so much about her signature wide-mouthed look of shock that, even if it were at one point authentic, it can never be again.
There are indications on Red that Swifts body is as alive as her mind, territory shes generally skipped before now. We are alone, just you and me/Up in your room and our slates are clean, she sings on State of Grace. On Treacherous, written with pop savant Dan Wilson, she sighs, Ill do anything you say if you say it with your hands. On the zippy Stay Stay Stay she has a fight with her boyfriend at night, and this morning, I said we should talk about it in other words, he stayed the night. (Theres a bonus track on the albums deluxe edition a Target exclusive Girl At Home, that is Swifts most direct engagement with the complexities of unfinished relationships.)
Whats more, Red is lighter on starry-eyed anthems than Swifts past albums. Almost everything here is corroded in some way. The title track is Swifts version of Alanis Morissettes Ironic, returning to a theme over and over again from different angles: Memorizing him was as easy as knowing all the words to your old favorite song/Fighting him was like trying to solve a crossword and realizing theres no right answer. The music is pure power country, but Swifts vocal is chirpy and thin. If she has a long-run limitation, its her vocal range, which will never be husky, or dark or purpled. Its the reason even most of her kiss-offs sound as joyous as water-park rides.
Its also the reason why her shouts sound more petulant than rageful. You call me up again, just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest, she shouts near the end of All Too Well, a song that swells until it erupts. At the end shes exhaling with regret: After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own/Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone.
For all of Swifts strategic obfuscation about the subjects of her songs if you believe the hidden codes in her liner notes, that one was about Jake Gyllenhaal shes generally wonderful with minutiae.
But some songs here feel less detailed and more rushed than her usual fare, seen through with a wide-angle lens rather than a magnifying glass. Still, her ear for the awkward and tentative rhythms of romantic bonding remains, especially on a pair of earthy duets the haplessly romantic Everything Has Changed, with Ed Sheeran, and The Last Time with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, which has residue of the dirge-y folk duo the Civil Wars and Safe & Sound, Swifts gummy contribution to the soundtrack of The Hunger Games.
This is progress of a sort, working with British mope-rock softies. In the past Swifts taste has tended to toothless pop-punk like Boys Like Girls. (She did far better when bringing out guests to join her on the Speak Now tour Nicki Minaj, Hayley Williams of Paramore, Usher and more.) Sheeran and Lightbody are edgeless but therefore dont underscore the things Swift cannot or will not do.
Maybe her agonizing over a paramours indie taste, a theme she returns to a couple of times on Red, is genuine. It feels like a perfect night/to dress up like hipsters/and make fun of our exes, she sneers on 22. And on We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, she taunts, You would hide away and find your peace of mind/with some indie record thats much cooler than mine, although really shes poking at her uncool self.
Swift has come a long way from You Belong With Me, one of her biggest hits, in which she was the outsider throwing barbs at the more conventional, pretty, popular girl. Im listening to the kind of music she doesnt like, she sang, wearing her individuality as a badge of pride. But now that other girl, she listens to Taylor Swift. She might even be Taylor Swift.