“You don’t know about me, but you want to,” sings Taylor Swift on “22,” one of the more delirious pop gems on her new album Red, due out on Big Machine Records. She’s right: The national obsession with Swift’s personal life shows no sign of slowing. Swift’s signature heartbreak anthems are inextricably connected to the famous men she dates, which makes the guess-the-celebrity game that the media plays with her deeply confessional songwriting much more fun than deconstructing, say, the latest Katy Perry song.
But even as it informs her music, Swift’s romantic life is probably the least interesting thing about her. What’s still the most compelling feature of the Taylor Swift industrial complex is the dexterity with which she translates the minute specificity of her experience into songs that resonate with millions of diehard devotees — not in the predictable way, with generalities and abstractions, but with finely rendered details that betray a writer’s nerdy touch. In a world of pop stars, Swift is a memoirist who sings. That would be interesting even if she were dating civilians.
This tendency is less obvious on Red than in any of her three previous studio albums, but Swift has learned when to withhold her verboseness and when to use it. The explosive chorus in lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is all Max Martin‘s Swedish shellack, as simple a hook as any on the radio. (Compare the minimalist spunk of that chorus, built around the simple repetition of “We are never ever ever getting back together,” with the chorus on “Mine,” the lead single from Speak Now, which contained the tongue-twisting mouthful “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.”) Likewise, on the sunny-but-rueful “I Knew You Were Trouble,” the chorus lyrics are just spare enough to make room for that dubstep wobble to explode.
Red packs a handful of polished pop songs like “Together” and “Trouble,” and even the figurative language-heavy title track, with its electro stutter on the chorus, feels smooth and shiny as any of her previous work, which received its country-pop-rock luster courtesy of Nathan Chapman. On Red, Swift teamed up with a crew of the industry’s most reliable hitmakers, including Martin, Shellback and even Jeff Bhasker, who (ironically) helmed much of Kanye West‘s critically acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
It’s Swift herself, though, who leads the charge on diversions into sonic experimentation that wouldn’t fare as well on the radio, and they feel even more exciting. “State of Grace,” with its layers of reverb and galloping backbeat, evokes Coldplay and U2; and that latter influence is clearest of all on “Treacherous,” those aching guitars referencing “With Or Without You” as Swift sings about sex for the first time since alluding to poor Abigail’s bygone virginity in “Fifteen.” “I’ll do anything you say/If you say it with your hands,” she sings in “Treacherous,” her voice rising to a threatening power: “I will follow you, follow you home,” she cries, over and over again.
Red has more than a few surprises, and the most startling song on the album is “Holy Ground,” produced by Bhasker: A storming drum beat brings a sense of urgency that Swift’s sprawling soft-rock productions have rarely had. But the lyrics are classic Swift, with a couplet that’s brilliantly tight and so obvious it seems like it should have been the hook in a thousand pop songs already: “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.” Equally luminous is “The Lucky One,” a meditation on fame (presumably inspired by Joni Mitchell, who Swift is slated to portray in an upcoming biopic) that marries a ’60s girl group rhythm with lyrics about the vicissitudes of celebrity, performing a nifty third-act trick of turning observation into introspection.
If some of those flirtations with other genres sound less like Swift, there are ballads, too, that sound more quintessentially Swift than anything she’s ever recorded. Both collaborations — with Ed Sheeran on the acoustic strummer “Everything Has Changed,” and with Snow Patrol‘s Gary Lightbody on “The Last Time” — are effective, and the not-gonna-call listlessness of “I Almost Do” breaks up the pop nicely. And yet, it’s the tense “All Too Well” that hits the hardest: Swift drops the devastating image, “We’re dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light,” before reaching an almost hysterical unraveling with the despondent cry, “I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here.” It’s dramatic, but with Swift, it always is. That’s a good thing.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: If “22″ is released as a pop single and given the proper promotion, it’ll be a worldwide smash. Not only is the hook ironclad and the spunky production made for radio, she nails twentysomething angst with the lyric “We’re happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time / It’s miserable and magical.” It’s better than a thousand indie records that are much cooler than hers.
Pops Like: All the Taylor Swift songs you’ve ever heard, grown-up and better than you remember them.
Best Listened To: In Hyannis Port. (Nashville works too, though.)
Full Disclosure: I’ve been saying for years that Taylor Swift is the best songwriter of her generation, and Red does nothing to dissuade me.
— Sam Lansky