Let's get it clear from the outset, Taylor Swift's fourth studio album Red is about as steeped in the Nashville sound as Beethoven's fifth symphony, though she's become less of a country music singer with every album since her eponymous debut record in 2006. The pop crossover was essentially complete when Big Machine Records brought together Swift and Swedish pop impresario Max Martin, who co-wrote and produced several of the tracks on Red.
Should you not be familiar with Mr Martin's work - he broke through in the mid 1990s penning hits for The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and N Sync, Quit Playing Games (With My Heart? Hit Me Baby One More Time? It's My Life? All of the catchy ones. Since then, his keyboard soaked europop sound has infiltrated the work of Kelly Clarkson (Since U Been Gone), Katy Perry (I Kissed a Girl), Taio Cruz (Dynamite) and Maroon (One More Night). You may have noticed a pattern, and it's a pattern that very much continues on Taylor Swift's latest effort. You could hear a Max Martin song from a mile off, without even looking at Red's album credits, it's clear I Knew You Were Trouble is the handy work of the Stockholm scribe. "Cause I knew you were trouble when you walked in/So shame on me now/Flew me to places I'd never been," asserts Swift on the track, which comes from a very Kelly Clarkson place. It's all silly indignation about getting dumped and crying and realising the jokes on you. It's probably about Jake Gyllenhaal, or John Mayer, or Joe Jonas, or one of the other ones, but who really gives a damn? With some questionable lyrics but a memorable hook and catchy chorus, it's likely to be a forthcoming single and sets the tone for the rest of this pop-infused long player. Swift's solo writing effort State of Grace is bold ambitious song that the 22-year-old has avoided taking to unnecessary popish heights - it rollicks along with an aggressive snare sound and does a sterling job of showcasing Swift's impressive vocal nuances, something Katy Perry et al could certainly take something from.
A frankly impressive start to Red is spoilt by some moments of dismal mediocrity, particularly the title track, during which the Nashville native sings, "Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street." It's a fairly poor soft-rock tune quickly followed by Treacherous, another fairly inoffensive plodder in which Swift uses quicksand as a metaphor for starting up a relationship with another mystery lothario. Whoever this guy is, he's treated poor old Taylor pretty badly; or maybe she really is just that annoying. Anyway, on All Too Well she's "dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light" with him, so, not all bad that.
Anyway, the Max Martin pop bus keeps on trucking with 22, another synth heavy nightmare of a song. Though, it's probably only hellish because it's unlikely to leave your head once it inevitably takes over the airwaves. "Tonight's the night when we forget about the heartbreaks," goes Swift's rallying cry to her girls. Kudos to her for taking a dig at the hipsters, though the track is a little too close to Rebecca Black's Friday for comfort. "It feels like one of those nights! We'll ditch the whole scene, we won't be sleeping!" It precedes another middle-of-the-road plucky number, I Almost Do, which essentially confirms the suspicions that Red is really two albums in one. One side sees Swift cautiously paying homage to her country sensibilities, while the other is the feisty pop-driven commercialism that's - let's face it - guaranteed to bother the upper echelons of the Billboard charts, whoever makes it. The dichotomy is no more apparent than on the clunky transition from I Almost Do to lead single We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. Yeah, you've heard it. It's the song where Taylor tells her pal "So he calls me up and he's like.I still love you, and it's like exhausting.I mean we are never getting back together, like ever." It's got all the classic hallmarks of Max Martin's recent work and is easily the catchiest piece on Red. It became Swift's first single to debut at No.1 on the Billboard chart and it's not hard to see why. When Taylor sarcastically asserts "And you would hide away and find your piece of mind with some indie record that's much cooler than mine," you can almost imagine every single person who bought the single yelling, "Yeah! I hate indie music too Taylor! You go girl." It's hard to criticize a song so obviously targeted at the pop market; is what it is, and should you own Red, it's likely to be the track you keep going back to.
Swift once again assumes control of her acoustic guitar for the remainder of the album, though somebody needs to send out a memo to pretty much everyone in the music industry alerting them to the fact that a duet with Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol doesn't instantly make whatever you create dreamy, magical and worthy of a place on the album. Their collaborative effort The Last Time is a complete waste of time, though Everything Has Changed with Ed Sheeran is hardly better. The reality is, Swift would have been better off swapping both for another of Max Martin's tracks, though one suspects her label were keen on the big name duets, Sheeran in particular.
At 16 tracks, Red is too long, and it's a shame as it spotlights the mediocre efforts, most of which are the neither-here-nor-there acoustic numbers. For all their manufactured gloss, it's actually the tracks that flirt with commercial pop and EDM that come across best over the 65 minutes. It's hardly fair to criticize Swift for wanting to stay close to her country roots, though after making such a definite assault on the pop market, it begs the question: why not go the whole hog?
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