Thursday, January 02, 2014

Taylor Swift - Red

I was all set to dig into Kendrick Lamar this morning, but I just wasn't up for it - so I went with Taylor Swift. And while that could likely seem an insult, I think it exemplifies exactly why she's so popular. Pop music, at it's core, is music that's fun to listen to with lyrics that don't make you think too much.

Red is a great pop album (not a pop album that is also great music - like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, but a great pop album that doesn't try to be more than it is). I was a vocal critic of Swift winning Album of the Year for her second record, an over-the-top, too soon, out of place award if there ever was one. However, the nomination, and potential win, in that category of this album, is certainly deserved.

It's likely apocryphal, but I heard tell that Swedish pop music guru Max Martin made only one note on Swift's first single, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," adding an additional "ever" to the chorus - and for that he was rewarded with co-writer and producer credits. He may have had more to do with production than just that, but it's such attention to seemingly trivial details that make the four Martin influenced singles (the first four released from the album) so popular and omnipresent.

Swift writes her own music and she does it exceptionally well. We know Taylor Swift because she's got a preternatural gift for songwriting and has from a very early age. Most people with her talents would be cooped up in some Nashville cubicle for the rest of their lives pumping out hit after hit for others people, but Swift also happens to be a tall, leggy blond. I suspect that detracts some from the credit she deserves.

On Red, Swift's songwriting has fully matured. That's not to say she can't get even better, but her understanding of rhythm and word choice is top notch. Yes, her subject matter is pretty much what you'd expect a 22 year old rich white American girl to write about, but again, that shouldn't detract from her ability to do it very, very well.

I expect to go into these records not liking what I hear. I already had positive notions about the singles (my favorite is "I Knew You Were Trouble"), but you just don't expect to like a whole album of that kind of thing. I liked it.

There is enough pseudo country flair on the "lesser" tracks to justify at least continuing to pretend she's a pop-country artist. Credit the producers with including the right instrumentation to remind you of her roots, but not enough to pigeon hole any of the tracks.

The production and versatility (within a defined spectrum) is impressive on the album. There are some really good songs - even a catchy little love song, "Stay, Stay, Stay" that breaks the monotony of break-up tunes and sounds like something you could imagine Johnny and June doing without a lot of alterations.

There's a bone thrown to self-awareness and the fleeting nature of celebrity in "The Lucky One" that gives glimpse of perhaps a greater depth yet to come from Swift. And only one real clunker - the final track, "Begin Again" isn't at all bad, it's just so reminiscent of her past work that it seems completely out of place.

There's no real thread uniting the album, other than all the songs are Taylor Swift songs, which could be a problem for Grammy voters. That being said, this is a very good album. She may not win the award because the competition is pretty strong and they gave it to her before, but certainly Red is more deserving than Fearless ever was.

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