Awe and amazement have been Taylor Swift’s 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, that’s not necessarily clear. Her growth is largely musical, not experiential.
There is a moment, though, on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – the album’s 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 she’s recalling how she shut down a persistent ex who wouldn’t stop calling.
“This is exhausting,” she tells him, emphasizing the middle syllable of the last word, like a car that’s just run out of gas. There is something different in Swift’s voice here: It’s serious and deep, and also shrewd. She has been through this before. She sounds like an adult.
It’s 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 doesn’t – and also, ultimately, limiting.
It was never a question of whether Swift would become a pure pop star; the only question was what sort. She’s 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 who’s 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 doesn’t 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 Swift’s 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 year’s 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 Swift’s career. (She also worked with the pop producer Jeff Bhasker on a pair of songs, “Holy Ground” and “The Lucky One,” that don’t 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 Swift’s tenacity. As convincingly as she set out to make herself a country singer a decade ago, she’s 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 don’t 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 genre’s borders were weakening. But as she ages, country is becoming more and more of a straitjacket, which means going the full Shania Twain isn’t 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 Swift’s 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 haven’t 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.
That’s 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 she’s been singing. Even if she wanted to cling to her innocence, it’s 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. She’s 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 Swift’s body is as alive as her mind, territory she’s 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, “I’ll 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. (There’s a bonus track on the album’s deluxe edition – a Target exclusive – “Girl At Home,” that is Swift’s most direct engagement with the complexities of unfinished relationships.)
What’s more, “Red” is lighter on starry-eyed anthems than Swift’s past albums. Almost everything here is corroded in some way. The title track is Swift’s version of Alanis Morissette’s “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 there’s no right answer.” The music is pure power country, but Swift’s vocal is chirpy and thin. If she has a long-run limitation, it’s her vocal range, which will never be husky, or dark or purpled. It’s the reason even most of her kiss-offs sound as joyous as water-park rides.
It’s 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 she’s 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 Swift’s strategic obfuscation about the subjects of her songs – if you believe the hidden codes in her liner notes, that one was about Jake Gyllenhaal – she’s 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,” Swift’s gummy contribution to the soundtrack of “The Hunger Games.”
This is progress of a sort, working with British mope-rock softies. In the past Swift’s 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 don’t underscore the things Swift cannot or will not do.
Maybe her agonizing over a paramour’s 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 that’s much cooler than mine,” although really she’s 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. “I’m listening to the kind of music she doesn’t 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.