October 23, 2012 6:45pm PT by Chris Willman
Taylor Swift's 'Red': Track-By-Track
There’s something quaint about how, when you upload Taylor Swift’s Red into your iTunes library, the online database immediately qualifies the album’s genre as not just “country” but “country & Western,” as if to promise the 22-year-old global pop idol would be imminently popping out of your laptop in a vintage Nudie’s suit instead of a Elie Saab gown or Zuhair Murad mini-dress.
But if a “country & Hyannis Port” genre ever develops, expect Swift to be at the forefront of that -- still popping in a few dollops of mandolin, banjo, or fiddle, in-between the anthemic rock power chords, programmed dubstep percussion, Avril Lavigne-esque sing-along chants, and mournfully orchestrated paeans to romantic lost idylls in New York, L.A., and the Massachusetts coast. She’s clearly a superstar for all seasons, and states. Title aside, this one will probably go over even better in the blue zones.
Red, which is expected to be her second studio album in a row to sell over a million in its first week, is as much of a stylistic tour de force as 2010’s Speak Now. And a tour-de-BF’s, with just as much intrigue over the true subjects of her laments and broadsides, even if there’s nothing here nearly as eviscerating or news-making as the last album’s “Dear John.”
One way in which it evidences growth is its structure itself: The album seems to be laid out as a very loosely chronological narrative that traces the rise and fall of one relationship, the subsequent regret and recovery, and love rediscovered. In that, it’s not unlike a storytelling album like Elvis Costello’s North, which traced the end of his unhappy bond with Cait O’Riordan and the beginning of his happy union with Diana Krall. The principal other characters here, from what we know and can suppose, would seem to be Jake Gyllenhaal at the beginning and Conor Kennedy at the end, though inquiring minds figure there’s some Harry Styles (of One Direction) in there as a mid-album distraction, too.
It’s tough not to get caught up in which guy the individual songs are about, though, celebrity-beau guessing games aside, she does a highly effective job in the end of making Red into “the story of her,” not them/us.
Here’s a track-by-track rundown of the 16-song collection (19, on the deluxe edition):
“State of Grace.” A thick rock drumbeat and a little indie rhythm guitar lead into the album’s most anthemic, arena-ready number… and one apparently written in the more positive throes of her relationship with Gyllenhaal, judging from the “twin fire signs, four blue eyes” lyric. “Love is a ruthless game, unless you play it good and right,” she sings… hopefully. Don’t worry, the ruthlessness will kick in later.
“Red.” The opening ganjo lick establishes this as one of the few songs on the album that’s really ripe for a country radio remix, though the bouzouki (!) riff in the chorus is the oddest and best instrumental standout. This number doesn’t quite have the overdrive of “a new Maserati down a dead end street,” but it’s propulsive enough to be a likely concert favorite in 2013. Lyrically, Swift color-codes her mixed emotions (plenty of blue and gray when her guy isn’t around, and red when he is), but doesn’t overplay the hues in her hand.
“Treacherous.” Swift’s own version of “My Favorite Mistake” is her sexiest song to date—and not just because of the already oft-quoted promise that “I’ll do anything you say, if you say it with your hands.” Her nearly whispered vocals neatly put across the tentativeness of her sensuality in falling for a bad boy, and when a much chorus finally kicks after two minutes of halting verses, the release is worth the wait. Dan Wilson (of Semisonic and “Someone Like You” fame) produced and co-wrote, and whoever’s responsible, this one has some of the most poetic lyrics on the album: “All we are is skin and bone / Trained to get along.” Well, that’s one theory of evolution.
“I Knew You Were Trouble.” If this incursion into so-called “dubstep” with Max Martin and Shellback isn’t as big as the same team’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” something will be dreadfully wrong with the Top 40 as we know it. She’s never veered so far from country as she does with the electronic beats and filtered vocals here. But in essence, it’s a great rock & roll song -- and an emotional one, though the ear candy elements disguise that at first. When all the noise stops for a quiet bridge that has Swift almost shrilly wailing and wondering if “you never loved me, or her, or anyone, or anything,” it’s an almost primal interjection in a deeply slick piece of pop songcraft.
“All Too Well.” The first traditional heartbreak ballad on the album cajoles a former lover who didn’t know what he had: “It was rare/I was there.” Among the things we learn: Her actor ex apparently kept that scarf she wore while they strolled around Manhattan in full sight of the paparazzi two autumns ago. “You call me up again, just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest.” Apparently he was as good at candor as she is.
“22.” Boys depart the picture for this all-girl birthday bash. The frothiest of three fairly frothy-sounding Max Martin concoctions on the record is a dance party that sounds like Swift was out to beat pal Selena Gomez (who’s name-checked in the secret messages in the lyric sheet) at her own game. Even some Swift fans think this is too lightweight to be on the album, but it certainly serves as a pick-me-up amid the downbeat Jack-the-rake tunes.
“I Almost Do.” At heart, this acoustic standout is the most country-ish number -- especially in the lyrical conceit, which has Swift constantly on a verge of calling her ex, but, unlike the drunk dialers in Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Know,” never crossing that phone line.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” As you already know, resistance to the Pop Single of the Year is futile. Max Martin’s decision to throw in a spoken-word bit -- the inception of the song, as Swift explained some relationship dynamics to her producers, as captured on an open mic in the studio—is sheer genius. “An indie record that’s cooler than” this? Impossible.
“Stay Stay Stay.” Like “22,” this is another moment of mid-album positivity, if not fluff, but the disingenuous sweetness of Swift’s voice as she enthuses over a “daydream” about love gone right is infectious. Mandolin, electric bass, and handclaps make for a giddy combination, even if the light tone does make Colbie Caillat sound like Patti Smith.
“The Last Time.” A moody duet with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody sounds like Coldplay by way of the Blue Nile. “This is the last time I’m asking you this / Put my name at the top of your list,” she pleads, but the odds don’t sound terribly good.
“Holy Ground.” One of the two or three finest tracks, the the most pensive rocker on the album benefits from the sure hand of producer Jeff Bhasker in establishing a driving drum and rhythm guitar sound that doesn’t have much dynamism but grabs your attention from first verse to last.
“Sad Beautiful Tragic.” This heartbroken acoustic waltz isn’t Swift’s most articulate song -- the chorus mostly involves repeating the three title words -- but that lyrical minimalism actually serves what’s easily one of the prettiest songs she’s ever written in 6/8 or any other time.
“The Lucky One.” The other Jeff Bhasker production also makes use of his standout percussion effects on a more balladic composition. It’s a rare voyage outside of first-person usage for Swift, who spins the tale of a used-and-abused starlet who truly gets lucky when she decides to chuck it all and retire. It’s as close as you’re likely to hear good-sport Swift getting to complaining about being a superstar, but her feelings about the fame corner she’s painted herself into are pretty evident here.
“Everything Has Changed.” The album’s other duet, a hookup with British up-and-comer Ed Sheeran, is an acoustic guitar-based tribute to a romantic collaboration… presumably with current beau Conor Kennedy, if we had to guess. And we do have to.
“Starlight.” This album’s swooning equivalent of “Enchanted” isn’t about Swift at all… even though a few early critics mistook its “snuck into a yacht club party” line as referring to her and Conor’s well publicized adventures at a recent Kennedy wedding. As if. Rather, it’s an imagining of the romantic adventures of Bobby and Ethel -- who seems on the verge of replacing Selena as Swift’s new BFF -- as 17-year-olds in 1945. Mirror balls may have been in short supply at the end of WWII, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see a giant one when this gets busted out on tour next year.
“Begin Again.” Reverting from those Kennedys back to that Kennedy, Swift celebrates finding the kind of guy who’s early instead of late for dates and pulls out chairs for a lady. In other words, it’s the polar opposite of “That’s the Way I Loved You” on Fearless, where Swift described good-guy behavior and then picked the bad boy anyway. “For the first time, what’s past is past,” she sings, as new love supposedly drives out the bad memories -- but doesn’t wipe clean the files for all the album’s preceding tracks.
Read about the Target edition's three bonus tracks on next page...
The Target edition includes three bonus studio tracks, and anyone who remembers how one extra number from the previous album’s deluxe edition -- “Ours” -- ultimately became a hit single knows these won’t necessarily be throwaways. Indeed, one of the new bonus songs, “The Moment I Knew,” is the most baldly confessional song on any version of the album.
“The Moment I Knew.” This sad lament is so overtly autobiographical and revealing, you half-wonder if Swift shunted it to bonus-track status just because that’s her nearest equivalent to keeping things private. It presumably describes her birthday party in December 2010, waiting for her notorious beau of the moment to show up… and letting the other party guests see her crying when it was clear he wouldn’t. It’s the closest thing to a “Dear John” here -- at least to the extent you can imagine her young fans reacting by going “Grrrrr, Gyllenhaal” -- and clearly was strong enough to make the main album, if it wouldn’t have tipped it too far over into melancholia.
“Come Back… Be Here.” Maybe this one didn’t make the main album by virtue of sounding a little like “Back to December” redux, though that’s hardly an inherently bad thing.
“Girl at Home.” The bounciest of the bonus disc’s three breakup songs defiantly informs a boyfriend who has a not-too-secret lover back in his home port that she intends to abandon her corner of the would-be love triangle. If this is really about One Direction’s Harry Styles, as rumored, it sounds like he got off pretty easy.