For a sense of how much Taylor Swift has matured on her new album, compare the title track with that of her last record.
“Speak Now,” from 2010, cast Swift as a hapless “girl” (in her words) who crashed the wedding of her ex-boyfriend and proceeded to hide behind a curtain and make silly jokes about the bride. The whole scenario was cute, like something a lovable sitcom character would do for a cheap laugh.
Think of “Red” as the next chapter in that young girl’s life. She has become a young woman, and that joke isn’t funny anymore. Now she’s writing about heartache from a decidedly grown-up perspective.
“Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street,” Swift sings in the killer opening line before expounding on the color metaphor:
“Losing him was blue like I’ve never known/ Missing him was dark gray, all alone . . ./ But loving him was red/ Oh, red, burning red.’’
Look, it’s not Bob Dylan, but the songwriting is leagues ahead of where Swift was as recently as two years ago.
That’s the good news about “Red,” which was released today and stands to be one of the year’s biggest sellers. It’s her fourth studio album and the first one that makes you forget it was made by Taylor Swift the precocious princess of country-pop. Her lyrics are stronger, as is her voice. (A Rolling Stone cover story this month noted she has “refocused on vocal lessons”; it shows here.)
Swift has always leaned heavily on pop music, but “Red” is acutely her most calculated move toward Top 40 radio domination. She even enlisted Max Martin, the Swedish producer and songwriter whose credits range from Britney Spears to Christina Aguilera, to work his Midas touch on a handful of numbers, all of which stick out like exotic animals on an album full of house cats.
In hot pursuit of pop hits — and “Red” surely has at least three or four of them — Swift also doesn’t want to lose the story songs that have made her so relatable, particularly to a young audience. “Fifteen,” from 2008’s “Fearless,” spoke poetically to the challenges of that fraught age. Swift is 22 now and owning her experiences, both good and bad.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the monster hit first single, which is easily the most one-note moment on the album, established the template Martin devised with fellow Swedish producer Shellback. The verses are conversational, but then the choruses lay on a genteel layer of rock bombast. “22” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” vaguely make Swift sound like she’s Katy Perry approximating Joan Jett.
On “22,” you’ll be forgiven if you mistake Swift for Ke$ha when you hear how she delivers the lyrics in a deadpan recitation: “It feels like a perfect night/ To dress up like hipsters/ And make fun of our exes . . . We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time/ It’s miserable and magical.”
For the chorus Swift ramps up the swagger: “I don’t know about you/ But I’m feeling 22/ Everything will be all right/ If you keep me next to you.”
Simple, sure, but who didn’t feel like that at that age?
As with all of her albums, “Red” is overstuffed. Sixteen songs pad it out to just over 65 minutes, and it drags accordingly. The misfires are at least interesting, a window into how Swift and her team are trying to broaden her comfort zone. “The Last Time” pairs her with Gary Lightbody, lead singer of the Irish rock band Snow Patrol, but they’re the odd couple. Against an orchestral backdrop, his morose croon sounds dreary alongside her thin, unadorned vocals.
But the gamble pays off on “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” which, of course, refers to one of Swift’s failed romances. It’s an unusual addition to her catalog — a ballad both dreamy and devastating — and marks the first time you could claim Swift is a sensual singer. It also gives her one of the album’s sliest lines that reminds you she’s not a kid anymore: “You’ve got your demons/ And darlin’, they all look like me.”
About the genre. Is this a country album? If your notion of country music involves the occasional banjo or mandolin, then absolutely. Otherwise, Swift is on the same middle-of-the-road path that Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks blazed long before her.
The difference, at least on “Red,” is that we get to witness Swift blossom as both a pop star and a young woman. Just as Adele named her two albums after the ages when she made them (“19” and “21”), Swift makes records that double as diaries.