Rating: Four stars
When Big Machine released the Max Martin-produced lead single from Red, “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” a big topic of conversation was how decidedly un-country the track was. Around that time, Big Machine label head Scott Borchetta did an interview with NPR’s Marketplace and gave the quote heard round the world: “Our entire goal is to make something that moves you … if you don’t want to call it country, I don’t care.”
To put it a little less bluntly, debating genre boundaries doesn’t feel terribly relevant to what Taylor Swift’s up to on her fourth studio album. She has a huge, young audience, and she’s thinking just as iPod shuffle-fluidly about music as they do.
This year, pop made by and for the below-thirty set has been dominated by two seemingly irreconcilable musical languages: the all-acoustic, warm-hearted string band impulse (as exemplified by Mumford & Sons) and the string-less, rave-friendly electronic dance impulse (as exemplified by Skrillex). Leave it to Swift to prove that a savvy performer of a tender age can be fluent in both. On Red, she breezes from finger-picked guitar to four-on-the-floor grooves; from strummed ukulele to wub wub wub bass drops.
The minute the record label started previewing tracks from Swift’s new album, people began trying to decode the lyrics to figure out which of her songs were inspired by which of her exes. That’s a sign of an engaged audience—and lots of tabloid attention—but it’s also beside the point. What’s most important to these songs isn’t their particular objects of affection, but the feelings themselves. She spells this out in her liner note letter: “…[T]here is something to be said for being young and needing someone so badly, you jump in head first without looking.”
Swift has gotten phenomenally good at capturing those moments in tangible detail, as she does during the gradually swelling “Treacherous,” the rock guitar-propelled “All Too Well” and the whimsical “Stay Stay Stay.” The title track—which splits the difference between big country-pop and propulsive, anthemic dance music, an experiment that largely pays off—is made of more sensory, synesthesia-style poetry.
Back when “We Are Never Getting Back Together” was out there on its own without the album, the song brought to mind HBO’s Girls—Lena Dunham’s show about early twenty-somethings—suggesting the way that the characters get caught up in spirals of obsession. But in the more nuanced context of the 16 songs collected on Red, it comes off as funny, even bitingly self-aware.
In addition to that first single’s jab at indie rock elitism, there’s more hipster-baiting to be found in “22.” The most striking thing about the latter song is the way Swift manages to simultaneously celebrate feeling her age—“happy, free, confused and lonely in the best way”—and implicitly acknowledge the limitations of her perspective; it’s true to now, though it will probably change. She deserves loads of credit for pulling all of that off in under four minutes.
Still, the way Swift expresses herself tends toward one-sidedness. Whether she’s cutting a callous heartbreaker down to size, or savoring how sweet, goofy and gentlemanly a guy is acting, there’s not much mutuality to the storytelling. And maybe that will come with time. There are plenty of songwriters twice her age who have yet to get there, but her gifts have always grown well ahead of the curve.
Red isn’t just a dramatic color—it’s one that carries ceremonial significance. Red the album makes official that Swift is the leading pop romantic of her generation. If you’re at a different stage of life than she is, it can be exhausting trying to keep up with the succession of emotions to which she deftly gives voice, but also downright exhilarating.