A bull charges at the matador’s red flag because he both loves and hates that passionate color. A similar combination of frustration, jealousy, spite, regret, and innocent love is at the heart of Taylor Swift’s new album RED. More than just being about ambivalent feelings, though (the good, the bad, and the angry) the album actually inspires those feelings about itself in the listener: Taylor sometimes thrills and sometimes disappoints as she branches left and right into the most robotic reaches of pop and the heaviest parts of country-rock while also trying to retain elements of the original, whisper-and-acoustic-guitar style that has captivated so many lovestruck teens.
The result is something unpredictable and many-sided: newest and most notably there is the Taylor Swift of the almost bacterially catchy “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble”, advance singles which revealed Swift incorporating elements of dance-pop, Avril Lavigne-inspired lyrics, and even dubstep into her music. This could be a concession to a tyrannical record label, as some have seen it, but I prefer to think of it as the artist expressing different sides of love using different instrumentations, rather than relying on her lyrics to show the difference between moods and retaining acoustic guitar throughout. Certainly, the needly “22” (which I can’t decide, as with “Trouble” and “Getting Back Together”, if I love or absolutely despise) would have lost almost all of its sassy bad-girl aura if it had been backed by an acoustic guitar.
The same variation permeates the album in the form of percussion-heavier country (“Holy Ground”) and, in the case of the strange “Stay Stay Stay”, an almost nevershoutnever!-esque perky ukulele vibe. A panoramic view of the album, however, shows that Swift’s experimentation yields mixed, if unpredictable, results. “The Last Time”, her driving duet with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, ends up with Gary outshining Taylor herself, but the other duet, with British boy-toy Ed Sheeran (“Everything Has Changed”, an ode to love at first sight), marginalizes Sheeran to mere harmonizing with Swift, and because of it becomes one of the album’s better songs. Sometimes the experiments pay off, and sometimes they just don’t: the opener, “State of Grace”, drowns out otherwise stirring lyrics in a raucous drum arrangements.
I hold that this evolution in Swift’s style was precisely her idea, probably to demonstrate the various “colors” of emotion in ways her previous style wouldn’t allow. I say this rather than saying that she’s “sold out” because her songwriting talents are as sharp as they’ve ever been, especially on tracks that hearken back to classic Taylor. Stuck in between the poppier and more surprising songs, these older-sounding tracks may not be as memorable as classics such as “Teardrops on my Guitar” and “Back to December”, but they’ll still stir the hearts of girls nationwide. “Begin Again”, “Red”, and “All Too Well” (“And you call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest”) are standouts of this sort.
Refusing to change is one of the worst things an artist can do, and if Taylor Swift had released another album of acoustic ballads I might’ve had to accuse her of being a one-trick pony. The boldness and bravado of most of Red, however, is something fresh, if imperfect, from Swift. With some more polish and time, we may very well see her enter a whole new era — a RED period, if you will. Score: 7/10.
Best Tracks: “All Too Well”, “Starlight”, “Red”, “Everything Has Changed”, “I Knew You Were Trouble”
Worst Tracks: “Stay Stay Stay”, “State of Grace”
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor