The RED Album Review: Love is a ruthless game unless you play it good and right
If there’s one thing that the Princess in Red abhors is musical boredom. With critics and insiders believing they know what she should do next, the options would seem overwhelming. But this is Taylor Swift we’re talking about. For two years, she’s been writing, planning, recording. If it all began in Country, for her it has never been about staying between the lines. It has always been about how far and wide she can take her music.
For the girl who wrote all the songs by herself for her previous album, the barrier is always one you never expect. She has been addressing this in her recent interviews, explaining that she decided to push herself out of her comfort zone and write and produce with people like she’s never done before. That’s how she ended up with the likes of Max Martin and Shellback to compose and produce several tracks of Red. Nathan Chapman does make an appearance, as well as old time friend and co-writer Liz Rose for some amazing songwriting. So, what does this album sound like?
If you’re looking for it all to sound concise and coherent, surprisingly it does – but songs don’t stay within a carefully defined sound. Instead, every single track strays outside of what you’d expect. Every lyric is a surprise. Every melody seems like a rule getting broken. The entire album is concisely unexpected and coherently out of her comfort zone. Yet somehow the sound, the flavour and the color of the music belongs together. This is a very intense album that doesn’t make any excuses about how it sounds. I have said it before for her previous album, and I have heard it very often lately from friends and critics: Taylor Swift is her own genre.
And Red is Taylor Swift played very loud.
This is an album meant to sound intense, so if you ever thought it didn’t make sense to “blast” a Taylor Swift album this is one that will make no sense to be played quietly. You almost expect the Blonde With The Sparkly Guitar to be cursing in the middle of the song. This is by no means a sad album. This is music that implores to be heard at a party… even if your idea of a party is baking cookies at night – and especially if it is.
Let’s do the play by play. I am not revealing the secret codes here. In my mind, it’s still too soon yet.
State of Grace plays like nothing else in the album. It would be poor to describe it as a rock ballad, and more like a piece of classic rock that somehow the Enchantress created by stepping into a time machine and going back to the days of big arena rock. I’ve heard comparisons to U2, Coldplay and Def Leppard. It feels to me like the big opening theme song of a movie about rock music legends. It’s metallic, it’s epic and it sounds like if it was a cover of an unknown classic that survived the 80′s and 90′s untouched. Notable lyrics here: “Love is a ruthless game unless you play it good and right.” A personal favorite.
Red appears and it seems too soon for the title track, but this is not an album that is going to go quietly after two songs so don’t worry. There’s a thin layer of Country here, although the song is clearly mainstream pop rock. The allusion to the fast sports car in the first line is not a coincidence, because once the song starts it literally – no wait, that is wrong – it lyrically and musically speeds up. The background RE-EH-ED lyric took me a little getting used to, but now I can’t really hear the song without it.
Treacherous is a really suggestive piece of work written with Dan Wilson. It includes this very mature line: “I’ll do everything you say if you say it with your hands.” If Taylor has ever written a song about falling for a bad boy, this is it. Here are some amazing lyrics that no longer come from a teenager. This is the Enchantress talking about knowing a guy is bad for her and still falling for him. The mood has shifted to a more slow pace but it’s hardly quiet.
I Knew You Were Trouble is very heavy on added production but it’s the album’s most unexpected turn. A lot of people have claimed it sounds like a very light foray into Dubstep. I am as far removed as one can be from that genre, but however T-Swizzle spins it, this song still becomes what seems to be the hit of the album. Then you start naming the other songs and blurring the line between a new album and a mix compilation of radio hits. I’m not sure how to describe this song, except that it could wonder into a club and feel very at home there.
All Too Well has been mentioned by Taylor as the song that has taken the most time to write, to the point that she had to call in legendary co-writer Liz Rose to help her out. The song, written two years ago about a very bad relationship, starts slow and introspect. And then it gradually climbs to a crescendo in which the Queen of Sparks is shouting out the lyrics. She herself has admitted the song’s demo is originally about 10 minutes long and she had to cut it down. Every time I play this song I have to play it again. I can’t wait to see her singing this one live. A personal favorite and my top jam from the album right now.
22 is a pop anthem. Not for a country fan, not for just the guy who blogs about Taylor with some ninjas on the side, but it’s meant for the Sparkly Dressed’s definition of girl power. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is her first number one hit but I almost feel this one should’ve had the honors. She has this waiting in the wings, and when it comes out as a single it’s going to take down everything in its path. This is a song for a group of girlfriends to stay up all night and have a dance party in their living room. For the mainstream world, this is a secret weapon locked and loaded to take over the charts. Personal fun fact: the line “we’re happy free confused and lonely at the same time” in my mind sounds like “we’re happy freakin’ fused and…” Ok, perhaps that’s only funny to me.
I Almost Do is a lyrical masterpiece, and one of the Country gems of the album. Subdued on its approach but sweet and mellow, this is one that I’m getting to love just by listening it to it over and over again. It’s not about heartbreak, or rather it’s about a past heartbreak that happened and won’t happen again. It includes this amazing lyric: “I bet it never, ever occurred to you that I can’t say hello to you and risk another goodbye.” How do you fit that in a song, much less fit it in an already existing tune? If someone says that the Sparkly Dressed can’t write a Country song anymore, please play this for them. A personal favorite.
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together (like ever) is the first of the pop anthems in this album. It’s meant to creep up on you, take over your brain and put it in a roller coaster. The song is infectious, full of the hooks that the Blonde With The Sparkly Guitar is famous for but at the same time with the added mainstream production values from Max Martin and Shellback. You probably know the story already. A friend of Taylor’s ex walked in on her with the famous Swedish producers while they were in a writing session. He told her he had heard Tay and her ex were getting back together. As soon as he leaves, the Princess in Red goes on a rant about how is that not going to happen ever (like ever!) and we get what would become the first big hit single of the album. Unfortunately, it’s easily becoming T’s new You Belong With Me – meaning it could easily get overplayed. I love the song and I love everyone singing and following along to it, but after listening to it I need to listen to another song to balance it out, like needing a glass of water after having something really sweet.
Stay Stay Stay is deceptive when it starts as a harmless little fun tune. It’s got a mean hook and will reel you in. The entire song seems to be expressively design to make you smile. It’s one of the many, many reasons why this album, which Tay once described as a sad album about a year ago, did a 180 degree turn at some point and became a happy one. Ok, the real reason might be somewhere in Hyannis Port… but the point is that this song just gets you in a happy mood and you just want to sing along. I can imagine the Sparkly Dressed and her new backup singers all getting drowned out with everyone’s else singing the first time she performs it live. Her giggle at the end and the words “so fun!” as it ends are a bit of a bonus.
The Last Time features Gary Lightbody and it’s no surprise it was crafted with Snow Patrol’s producer Jacknife Lee. This is an impressive song with an almost indie style rhythm and a beautiful chorus that fuses itself with the rest of the lyrics. As many other songs, this is one you would not expect from the Princess in Red. It went as far as threw me completely off thinking I had somehow switched to my radio app (plus the fact that Gary starts singing first). If this tune doesn’t become a hit, I’ll lose all respect for the mainstream public. A personal favorite.
Holy Ground may not sound ground breaking at first. However, regarding love and heartbreak, it’s about a subject rarely explored: gratitude about a past relationship not because it ended but just because it happened. It’s T-Swizzle acknowledging that it was a good thing in her life. This song has production from Jeff Bhasker. I’m still for the most part discovering it, meaning I can’t claim this one as a favorite yet. However my favorites are in constant rotation.
Sad Beautiful Tragic is… well, I try to not describe this style of song always as “haunting” because I think I’ve done that to death.This is a now classic Taylor blues. I could easily picture this song alongside the likes of Last Kiss or Dear John. It’s got some blues and jazz on it, but for the most part it focuses on a string performance. I can easily see Grant Mickelson, Paul Sidoti or Mike Meadows strumming along to this one with a blue (or red) mood lighting on them. It’s actually less on who did what to whom as it is on how the relationship affected both of them.
The Lucky One is another of those lyrical songs in which the melody is nice but you really need to stop and listen to the lyrics. It is also the first time that the Princess in Red explores this territory. It’s basically a real world scenario of an artist that got famous and then decided to back away and live a private life again. I think this is about Joni Mitchell, and I know I’m not alone in that theory. The hidden lyric reveals nothing in this one, but you will have to look it up. Unless it refers to the fact that Taylor can’t talk about this one which would reinforce the theory since she may or may not be up for the role. The other character in the lyrics is the Enchantress herself, becoming The Lucky One and realizing it’s not worth it. Taylor has admitted this is one of her biggest fears – ending up hating the life she has chosen but firmly states this is a “what if” scenario.
Everything Has Changed features none other than Ed Sheeran and has already gone up the charts. Is it any good? Yes. This one should be a single very soon (and I’m taking soon like this year). Both Tay and Ed are prolific songwriters so it would stand to reason they wrote more than just this song. However, it is not about each other as stated by both of them. I think it’s one of the best songs the album have but you might have realized by now more than half of the tracks fit that description. Love the acoustic feel to it, love the harmonizing by Tay and Ed and love the way there seems to be multiple choruses in it. A personal favorite.
Starlight is not my favorite song in the album right now. There’s no big secret here if I reveal this is about the young romantic days of the oldest female member of the Kennedy clan. Some might find adorable if not just a bit stalkerish – but people that live in glass houses should not throw rocks at things that shine. It is is a very light pop tune which as you listen to it you can appreciate that Tay prevented it from getting any crazy beats and kept it sweet without getting clubbish. Although not a favorite, I can see why she included it on the album.
Begin Again is the other full Country gem besides I Almost Do. I can see why she put it at end, and it’s a bit of old school Taylor strategy we’re seeing here. It entices you to play the album again, the same way that Our Song did at the end of her self-named debut album (it had the lyric “if he could play it again”). This is one of my favorite Taylor styles, a relaxed and mellow Country ballad with hidden hooks to draw you in. It has the intensity of a hidden current underneath a calm sea surface. I also love the twangy strings on this track. This was my favorite of the album’s released singles before the album came out. Obviously a personal favorite.
From the bonus tracks on the Deluxe Edition, I can say I enjoy Come Back… Be Here but I’m not crazy about Girl At Home. I have to say I love The Moment I Knew so much that I wish it had been released to a wider audience by being included in the standard edition. Coincidentally, the track includes backup vocals by Elizabeth Huett. A personal favorite (the track I mean… stop snickering on the peanut gallery).
To make a long story short… okey, okey to make an insanely long blog entry even longer, this is the album to get right now. It’s almost frustrating to see it being released just as award season is getting here because it will not be nominated until we’re well into 2013. But you and I don’t choose albums based on whether or not they are nominated, and we don’t love Taylor based on the fact she has curls or not, or the fact she’s wearing high heels and not sneakers (though I miss seeing some boots on her), or how close her songs sound to Country or Pop. We love her because as she grows, we can still relate to her and she’s still “I will never change but I will never stay the same either” Taylor.
We love her because we don’t need a reason, we just can’t help loving her.
And love is what the album is really about. It’s about love in all its forms: young, aged, innocent, guilty, wiser, silly, crazy, danceable, sad, happy and most of all intense. Regardless of what shape and size it takes, we all know it is always the same color.
There’s a special surprise announcement on tonight’s 20/20 All Access Nashville with Katie Couric special tonight at 9pm ET / 8pm CT on ABC. She also appears on Katie Couric’s Show during the day. I have it at 4pm ET, but you will have to check your local listings for it. She also will appear on GAC’s Top 20 Country Countdown, CMT’s VJ for a day and there’s even an interview here in Montreal via TVA’s Ça finit bien la semaine. Let’s be honest, if the Princess in Red and her management are saying “big announcement” we’re all going to watch tonight’s special on ABC.
Coming up on the Calendar!
- October 26: Taylor returns to Nashville for the event “Taylor Swift Worldwide Radio Remote” presented by Papa John’s with 72 stations broadcasting live from Music City, including stations from South Africa and New Zealand.
- October 26: She will join Katie Couric on ABC’s Katie at 3pm ET.
- October 26: Part two of Taylor’s interview with Nan Kelley on GAC’s Top 20 Country Countdown at 8p|7c.
- October 26: All Access Nashville with Katie Couric airs at 9|8c on ABC. Includes an interview with Taylor Swift.
- October 26: TVA’s Ça finit bien la semaine has Taylor Swift’s only interview in Québec at 9pm.
- October 30: She performs in Dancing With The Stars on ABC.