Thursday, October 25, 2012

"Red" Album Review (It's T-Swift-a-Palooza!)

I was called “Taylor Swift” by a guy once. It wasn’t, as I soon discovered, meant to necessarily be a compliment. He was implying that I was naïve and young – and he viewed Taylor Swift the same way.

To be honest, a lot of people still think of Taylor Swift as that fifteen year old girl singing about Tim McGraw and high school romances. And it’s interesting that people do this – that they view her, still, as a child – because they don’t frequently act the same way with normal twenty-two year olds. I’m rapidly approaching my twenty fourth year of life, and I can honestly say that no one has approached me on the street, looked at me and patted me on the head, calling me “sweetie.” No one talks to me condescendingly, like I’m a teenage girl, when I announce plans or dreams or visions. And, on the rare times I talk about love or relationships, I haven’t come across anyone yet who shakes their head or rolls their eyes and says: “Would you stop being so immature?”

So I return, once more, to the question: why do people tend to treat Taylor Swift like a child when she has been a legal adult for years? Perhaps it’s because Miss Swift is in the spotlight, or because she is famous for writing break-up songs or because she has a child-like sweet disposition. And Swift’s previous albums have reflected her own personal journey as an artist – from her first self-titled album, to the eclectic “Speak Now” record, it’s clear that Swift has grown both as a person and as an artist. But it’s “Red,” her latest record, which intrigues me the most.

“Red” is an album that doesn’t play like a “Who’s Who” of Swift’s exes (though “Speak Now” was an enjoyable album, it seemed like every song was made solely for the audience to listen for thinly veiled mentions of ex-boyfriends). Instead, it’s arguably a tragic, mature album. Though there are some tracks that glitter with the sugary, catchy naiveté that we have come to associate Swift with (“22” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”), there are painful songs on the album (“All Too Well”) and songs that reveal much more about Swift as a person and – consequently – as an artist. 

In the spirit of discovery and exploration, I will cover each track on the album (briefly) and explain what I like about it and what it potentially reveals to us about Swift’s emotions and personality. Since I bought the Target deluxe edition of “Red,” I also have three additional songs, two demos, and an acoustic cover of “State of Grace.” (I do love Target!)

Are you ready to understand Taylor Swift better? Grab those guitars, don a pair of vintage shoes, and follow me. :)

#1 – State of Grace

Love is a ruthless game unless you play it good and right.

I love that Swift chose to open her record with something that is more atypical for her – not a country anthem or a ballad, but with a stadium-sized power number. Just listening to the track, it’s easy to imagine the song being played to crowds of thousands on a tour. “State of Grace” is a hopeful song, too – it’s a fun, loud song. But it’s also the first song on the album that reveals something deeper about Swift than “Mine,” for example off her previous album. She explains that she’s in love with the guy that she is singing too, but that she loved his “shades of wrong.” This is the first, but hardly the last, time that Swift describes her affinity to fall for guys she knows are wrong for her. She plays the victim on a few of her tracks, but I think that “Red” (for the most part) places more blame on Taylor for falling for these guys than it does the guys themselves. “State of Grace” is an anthem though, explaining why love is worth fighting for and how sometimes the most unexpected things are the most worthwhile in life.

#2 – Red

Fighting with him was like trying to solve a crossword and realizing there’s no right answer.

In her liner notes, Swift explained why she titled her record “Red” – namely, that the color red seemed to embody a lot of the passion, energy, and effort that occurred when you fall in love and when you’re in a relationship with someone. It’s a significant color, hard to forget and ignore, and powerful. I really loved that she incorporated colors as adjectives throughout the song – that “blue,” “dark gray,” and “red” were more than just hues, that they truly embodied feelings and emotions. And I think “Red” really does embody Taylor Swift’s latest record as a whole – it’s full of love, passion, overzealousness, and – even in the bluest moments – there is energy there, the hope of a new love, of a new beginning, and of adventure. And it’s all colored red.

#3 – Treacherous

I can’t decide if it’s a choice, getting swept away

This is the first quiet, low-key song on the album (even though the song picks up considerably more after the second chorus), and it begins very interestingly. Indeed, all of “Treacherous” is… interesting. I think it’s the first song that made me a bit uncomfortable in Swift’s album history because of how completely honest and raw it is, and also how much it made me want to reach out and help Swift (which, I suppose, is a great thing to be able to accomplish through one four minute song).

The reason that “Treacherous” makes me feel a bit odd is because Swift admits that she knows she shouldn’t fall for someone, that he is either bad news or the relationship will end poorly, and yet she would do anything the guy told her to do. The term treacherous really means: “marked by hidden dangers, hazards, or perils.” It’s not an abusive relationship, but it’s certainly a harmful one. And, as evidenced in the quote from the song above, Swift knows that it’s her own choice to be swept away and still continues to allow herself to do so. Moreover, she says repeatedly in the chorus that she “likes it.”

Don’t get me wrong – the song itself is catchy and very beautiful, but the lyrics rub me the wrong way, only because they depict Swift as so dangerously dependent on the person in the song that she begs for him to stay. 

#4 – I Knew You Were Trouble

‘cause I knew you were trouble when you walked in,
So shame on me now

In an experimental dubstep track (that works really well, actually), Swift sings more about her pension for bad boys. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is an upbeat track that is the first real track to actually place blame on Swift for her boy woes (minus the somber “Back to December” in which she laments losing Taylor Lautner), which is interesting. I like the idea that she’s beginning to realize some of her own mistakes and not necessarily place the blame on the bad guy – after all, SHE is the one who fell for him, even though she knew how much trouble he was.

The lyrics here are less desperate than “Treacherous,” though the message seems to mirror itself in the catchy tune – Swift just can’t help herself sometimes.

#5 – All Too Well

But maybe this thing was a masterpiece ‘til you tore it all up

“All Too Well” is the first “story” track on “Red,” and it’s absolutely beautiful. It tells the story of Swift reminiscing about an old relationship as it unfolds in her memory, recognizing that she can still picture everything “all too well.” There are some amazing images (“we’re dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light”), which are really Swift’s strong points. She can depict an emotional story through her lyrics that manages to connect on some level with each of her listeners. We can picture her dancing around the kitchen, we see the scarf left in an empty drawer, and we feel the wind in our hair as we drive down the highway. Without being overzealous, Swift tugs at the sleeves of her listeners, begging them to remember these moments with her as she painfully recalls them in light of her own heartache.

Honestly, this is my favorite song on the album. It’s so heartbreaking and beautiful without being overdramatic. It’s an honest story from an honest storyteller, and Swift – additionally – shines vocally on the song, especially in the really powerful moments toward the end.

#6 – 22

We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely in the best way

In stark contrast to the song preceding it, “22” is a lighthearted dance anthem – it’s the kind of song that I instantly knew would be my go-to track to blast with the windows down. I think that this is probably the first track on the album that reveals Swift’s (literal) age. It’s bubbly and young. Even the tone of voice in which Swift sings is more child-like than the tone used for her previous songs. It’s a song all about feeling young, when the entire world is in front of you. In your 20s, life is pretty carefree and fun, after all.

(It also gives us a slight glimpse into the whole Taylor-Swift-likes-bad-boys motif with the line: “You look like bad news, I’ve gotta have you.”)

Nevertheless, “22” is a really fun and catchy song!

#7 – I Almost Do

I can’t say hello to you and risk another goodbye

Sandwiched in between two dance, pop anthems, “I Almost Do” is a track that could become easily glossed over or overlooked. Since it’s a slow ballad explaining how much effort it takes Swift not to call or contact an old love, knowing what damage it’ll do to her. It’s a really good song to contrast the desperation of some of the earlier tracks.

“I Almost Do,” is a really mellow song compared with the previous tracks, but it’s not a sad song – it’s a song sung by a girl wishing that her old flame would know that she hasn’t completely forgotten him. But it’s also a ballad lamenting the fact that she can’t physically bear to actually talk to him because she knows what it would mean.

#8 – We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

And you would hide away and find your peace of mind with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine

“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is the first single from “Red” and has already been played on the radio more times than I can count or fathom. It’s a catchy, pop-fueled break-up song, with Swift insisting that she is never going to return to one of her exes. And, unlike the hesitancy and indecision that colors some of the other songs on her album, this track is clear – of course, it’s clear from the title – that she and her ex will NEVER get back together.

What I was worried about, when hearing this song (which is undoubtedly a fun, awesome anthem to dance in the car to) was that “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” would be reflective of Swift’s entire album. I’m pleasantly surprised, of course, to be wrong. While I do enjoy the song itself, it is more juvenile than the entirety of “Red” and more reminiscent of previous albums. Again, that’s not to negate the fun factor of the song because if you drive by me in the car, chances are I’ll be belting along to it.

#9 – Stay Stay Stay

It’s been occurring to me that I’d like to hang out with you for my whole life

“Stay Stay Stay” is arguably the first real “country”-fied song on Swift’s new album. There is an evident twang in her voice as she sings, and a nasality to it (which isn’t bad – it’s very reminiscent of country singers like Miranda Lambert) which helps carry the song into a very country place. And “Stay Stay Stay” is a cute song, too: it’s all about a girl believing that her beau has every reason to leave and is – happily – surprised when he stays with her.

It’s a happy and adorably hopeful song, and one that a listener cannot help but smile along with.

#10 – The Last Time

You break my heart in the blink of an eye

One of the first mixed CDs my best friend gave to me was a Snow Patrol one, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lead singer, Gary Lightbody, would be performing a duet with Taylor Swift on her album. And I really do love Gary’s voice – it compliments Swift’s voice very well in the song. “The Last Time” also has a very Snow Patrol feel to it, with the accompaniment. Though it is a lovely song, I feel like it is more of a Gary Lightbody song featuring Taylor Swift, rather than the other way around. That’s not, of course, to say that it is a BAD song (it’s very good and feels like it could be the song played in a trailer for a dramatic romance movie), but the duet feels a bit uneven, with more power given to Lightbody.

#11 – Holy Ground

Tonight I’m gonna dance for all that we’ve been through
But I don’t wanna dance if I’m not dancing with you

This is one of my favorite latter tracks on the album because it provides such energy and movement. “Holy Ground” is about Swift reminiscing over a love that has passed, but dwelling on its positive aspects. “Darling, it was good,” she affirms multiple times. It, much like the scenery of New York in the first verse, is a whirlwind of fun, playful energy. Even though the relationship fell apart, Swift merely seems to shrug it off – she doesn’t lament the lost love with a painful ballad or angry break-up anthem. She merely affirms that sometimes things fall apart, but that – even though she’s missing her old flame – she will continue to dance and live.

#12 – Sad Beautiful Tragic

What a sad, beautiful, tragic love affair

In contrast to the previous track, “Sad Beautiful Tragic” is reflective of its title. A slow, mellow (and quite depressing) ballad about the loss of a love and the inability to return to the place they once were – to the happiness in the relationship. Swift is alone in the song, noting that the love affair was beautiful and magic… but also painful in its demise.

I think this is one of the most somber of Swift’s songs (perhaps ever), and it’s striking to listen to because of that.

#13 – The Lucky One

Everybody loves pretty, everybody loves cool

“The Lucky One” is one of the rare times where Swift does not sing about herself, her loves, or her losses – she is singing directly to another person, addressing an unnamed “you” throughout the entire song, and depicting HER life, love, and loss. It’s a song about the tragedy of fame… something that Britney Spears did on “Lucky” (hey, look at that little connection!) back in her “Oops! I Did It Again”album. 

Here, Swift depicts the evidently glamorous and also tumultuous life of fame. She explains that everyone in the story commends the unnamed star for their success. In the chorus, Swift repeats: “And they’ll tell you know, you’re the lucky one.” But the verses in between and the bridge depict that the star’s life is anything BUT perfect or lucky. Finally, toward the end of the song, Swift arrives at the place where our unnamed (she never does tell us, and as Kim reminded me, in the liner notes for “Red” says – “Wouldn’t you like to know?”) celebrity frequented. In that visit, Swift explains that she finally understands the star’s life and what it meant to be famous and also still pained. It’s a quite good song, honestly, and I liked the departure from the typical love song for this track.

#14 – Everything Has Changed

I just wanna know you better know you better, know you better, know you better now

Unlike the duet with Gary Lightbody, Swift’s duet with Ed Sheeran on “Everything Has Changed” seems very balanced in terms of vocal power. Neither singer overshadows the other, and their mellow, soft voices blend very well together. This track is a sweet one for a duet as it involves the moment where a person realizes that they love someone, and – in that moment – how everything changes. There’s a desire in both of the singers to know the other better and to reach beyond the “love at first sight” connection and develop an actual relationship.

#15 – Starlight 

And we were dancing, dancing, like we’re made of starlight

“Starlight” is one of those instant dance-in-your-car songs, and it’s a sweet story about being young and carefree. Apparently it was written by Swift for Ethel Kennedy, and you can tell that the story within the song has a vintage feel to it (the line “summer of ’45” should give it away, obviously). But it’s a cute song (that’s the first word that comes to mind to describe it) about being young and dancing with someone you care about at a party you snuck into. It’s about young love and the magic of starlight. And it’s also about being with a person who allows you to dream – how being young, that’s all you really do.

(Also, it’s catchy.)

#16 – Begin Again

But on a Wednesday, in a café, I watched it begin again

I really love that Swift chose to end her album in a cyclical way – by noting that, while old relationships end, new beginnings are always just around the corner. “Begin Again” is a delicate and hopeful song about a young woman being surprised by a new love because he acts so contrary to her previous beau. It’s a song about the joy of a new relationship and learning that life continues to move on, even in the unexpected ways.

It’s really a beautiful way to end an album, too. Swift knows that her journey on “Red” has ended, but that soon, she’ll begin a new adventure.

Bonus Tracks:

#17 – The Moment I Knew

And it was like slow motion, standing there in my party dress
In red lipstick with no one to impress

When I saw the bonus track listing, I immediately assumed that “The Moment I Knew” would be a sweet song about the moment Swift knew she fell in love with a beau. However, this is actually quite a sad song about the moment that Swift knew her relationship had fallen apart. Her beau, instead of being with her on her birthday like he promised, never shows up. The style of the song is dramatic and sweeping – it honestly reminds me, apart from the actual lyrics, musically of a song that would be played for a slow-dance. 

It’s a gorgeous and pretty depressing story-song (it pained me when she reached the “happy birthday” line. Like, it literally pained me to listen to it), and I wish Swift would have placed it somewhere on her actual album.

#18 – Come Back… Be Here

This is falling in love in the cruelest way.
This is falling for you and you are worlds away

In her second bonus track, Swift laments letting a guy get on a plane and leave when she was just beginning to fall in love with him. She wishes that he would return to her, and the tune itself is reminiscent of “On The Other Side of the Door” (even the theme is, a bit).

Apart from wishing she could be with the guy she loves and realization dawning, finally, on her that she doesn’t want to miss him as much as she does, there isn’t anything super remarkable about the track. It’s not bad, but it’s one of Swift’s more generic storytelling ventures that doesn’t quite stick the landing in memorability.

#19 – Girl At Home

And it would be a fine proposition if I was a stupid girl

“Girl At Home” is one of those songs that instantly gets stuck in your head and won’t leave. It’s catchy and bouncy, even if the subject isn’t reflective. This final bonus track is about a guy trying to woo Swift while he already has a girlfriend. But it’s Swift’s reaction that really is the most important thing – she refuses to play into his seduction, knowing already how the story ends, having been on the other end of a cheating relationship. The fact that the guy in the song wants to chase around tail while he has a girlfriend makes Swift sad, and she notes that she’s not stupid and won’t fall for his tricks and lies.

She instructs the guy at the end of the song to call a cab, delete her number, and just go home. It’s really a song that displays how much Swift has learned from her life experience and her unwillingness to do something that she knows is wrong (and to fall for a guy who is wrong for her).

So really, I am pleased with “Red” and how mature it is as an album. There are, of course, numerous songs about break-ups and lost loves, but each song feels like a genuine emotion. It feels like a collective story – a chapter in Taylor Swift’s life that she’s closed, but is willing to reminisce on for our sakes as listeners. And who knows what the next chapter will sound like. :)


  1. love the track by track review. could not agree more about her album. also feel the last time is more snow patrol on this album. all too well is my fav as well. too beautiful. great blog!

  2. Great Job Jenn!

    Begin Again is my favorite song on the record. I LOVE the hopefulness of it. So so so much.