“It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters and make fun of our exes.” No, that’s not a quote overheard at Recess production, but rather the first line to Taylor Swift’s “22,” one of the more memorable songs on her fourth studio album, Red. While the song still incorporates obligatory ex-bashing, it doesn’t have much else in common with hits from previous albums. The most obvious difference is that it, like every other song on Red, cannot be considered country. In fact, every track is predominantly pop: some, like “I Knew You Were Trouble,” verge on something akin to a Bassnectar remix complete with quasi-dubstep beats, while others, like “State of Grace,” recall the stadium rock sound of U2. But where are the banjos and acoustic guitars, the southern charm? Listening to Red is like listening to a mellow Paramore or an angsty Ellie Goulding, not a practiced Nashville star.
It’s understandable that in her fourth album Swift might want to try something new. Back when she was 15, she only wrote about high school and boys (and more boys), and she kept up the trend throughout her next two records. Speak Now got especially exciting because it was basically a celebrity burn book in album form, every other song about a Jonas brother, Taylor Lautner or John Mayer. While there’s no lack of love stories in Red, there’s a hollowness about it all, as though Swift has simply run out of ways to describe a break up. Dating a Kennedy apparently hasn’t revitalized her powers of narration: “Loving him was red. Burning red.” This, from the title track, sounds just as boring on paper as it does in a melody.
Of the massive track list (Red features 16 songs), only “All Too Well” recalls the touching lyricism of earlier hits like “Dear John” or “White Horse.” Telling the story of a relationship long gone, it still manages to take up Swift’s typical tropes in an honest, personal way. “You call me up again just to break me like a promise,” she sings, and for once her voice sounds raw and unaltered, not like the computer-edited TSwift cyborg that drones “Reh-eh-eh-ed” in the chorus of the title track.
Red refreshingly features two guest artists, neither of whom is a country singer. Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody sings most of “The Last Time,” which echoes his song with Martha Wainwright, “Set The Fire To The Third Bar,” by blending a steady, driving beat with haunting vocals. The second duet, “Everything Has Changed,” features singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, and it is in this song that we finally get to hear a simple acoustic guitar unmarred by electronic overtones. Both songs are smart additions to the album, serving to break up the painful monotony of the entire second half.
The problem with Red is that most of the songs lack that spark, that fire, that I’ve come to associate with Taylor Swift. Where’s the picture-burning, kissing-in-the-rain wedding crasher whom I’ve grown to know and love? My biggest frustration with the album is that Swift comes off as a jaded grown-up, not the hopeless romantic who chases her dreams or seeks vengeance on all the guys who did her wrong. More often than not, the lyrics are about sitting back and letting life happen: “I can’t decide if it’s a choice, getting swept away,” she croons in “Treacherous.” Red is about being swept through life, going through the motions of adulthood, conforming to ideals of who we’re supposed to be. Swift has all but abandoned her country roots and her endearing naïveté, and even dressing up like a hipster won’t hide the fact that her album is disappointingly mainstream.