Fair warning: I’ve had this album for barely 24 hours now, so even though I’ve listened to it at least 3 times through, these are first impressions that are apt to change as the album gets lived with a while.
RED is a somewhat schizophrenic album, evenly divided between songs in the vein of what she started out with (“Old Taylor”) and the pop-tastic stuff she’s been giving us a taste of for the last month or so (“New Taylor”). This new musical direction has been dissected and scrutinized, with many taken aback at what seems to be her rebirth as a pure pop star without the “country” qualifier that has been attached to her since day one. After a few listens, I can confirm that the difference between the new stuff and her old stuff has not been overstated—they’re pretty different. There is, however, a fair number of her familiar country-sounding songs on the album for those who like that stuff exclusively. Maybe that is why the album is so long; at 16 tracks, it’s large enough to accommodate every conceivable audience.
With that said, you can tell that Taylor’s heart is more in the pure pop side of things these days and she’s now equipped with plenty of arena-ready songs that are cut from the same cloth as previous Max Martin-produced megahits by artists like Britney and P!nk. Taylor is careful not to clump these songs together on the album, but sometimes there’s only one slow, ballady thing between 2 dancey, dubsteppy things; it’s as if she was impatience to get back to them. These future hits represent the kind of broad-appeal music that will be associated with Taylor for this album cycle, and it’s the new norm until she makes her “return to her roots” country album, which might be as early as the next one, depending on how much she takes the inevitable backlash to heart.
Whatever initial skepticism you might have, the poppy stuff is actually pretty good and very listenable. They definitely make the biggest impressions during the initial listens. They are just as good as other stuff you hear, some even have a familiar air about them, like the Katy Perry-cadenced “I Knew You Were Trouble.” My favorites so far are “Red,” “22,” and, of course, “We Are Never Ever…”
As for the slower stuff, I have to give them some more time to make an impression. The ones that are grabbing me now are “Begin Again” and, unsurprisingly, “Everything Has Changed,” her collaboration with Ed Sheeran, which is a song approximately everyone else on the planet likes (it’s #1 on iTunes). To be honest I was more wary of these duets (there’s another one with the Snow Patrol guy) than I was with the pop direction. Letting in an audible male presence seemed like an undesirable intrusion into Tay’s decidedly girl-centric (and unabashedly girly) world. But the two men she allowed to make an appearance on the album are such sensitive and epicene fellows that the uncompromised girl POV we’ve come to expect from Taylor’s music is barely disturbed.
I was thinking of how to wrap up an assessment of RED, what I could say to encapsulate the sound and quality of the album. Then it hit me:
RED sounds like a new Jenny Lewis album.
More accurately, it sounds like a new album from Rilo Kiley, the band Jenny Lewis used to front. The similarities between Jenny and Tay are actually kind of astonishing. Not only does Tay sound like Jenny at times throughout the album (especially on the song “Stay Stay Stay”), they really are similar singer/songwriters. Jenny always wrote about the whole relationship spectrum—dating, love, break-ups, regret, sorrow, glimpses of happiness—just like Taylor always has. And Jenny’s songs always had the same kind of passion and heartcraft that Tay puts into hers. Also, there was definitely a country vibe to a lot of Rilo Kiley songs (see “More Adventurous”).
There are, however, two notable differences between them. 1) Jenny’s willingness to put a sexual element into her songs that Taylor is nowhere close to having. (Even though they share a title, Rilo Kiley’s “15” is very different from Tay’s, to say the least.) And 2) Jenny employs a fair amount of irony and sardonicism in her work. I think it’s clear by now that Taylor does not have one ironic bone in her body. She is at full earnestness, all the time.
You would think these two temperaments would result in very different sounding music. But…but!....here’s the big revelation: It turns out that Jenny’s irony and Tay’s sincerity don’t sound all that different. I think a big reason for that is because Jenny’s irony is tempered with a healthy dollop of sincerity and Tay’s sincerity is set to the same kind of catchy beats that ironic songs (like “Billionaire” for example) are set to. In any event, they somehow meet in the middle. I invite you to compare these two songs: Rilo Kiley’s “Breaking Up” and Taylor’s “22.” Not only are they very similar-sounding, I think they could both be performed by the other artist in the exact same style as the original and it’d still make perfect sense.
Another area these two artists are similar is the evolution of their sound. Rilo Kiley had a country flavor to a lot of their early stuff, then they went for a more “pop” sound on their fourth album, Under The Blacklight. (Their 4th album! What is RED? Tay’s 4th album!) Taylor had more than a slight country influence; she was a bona fide country artist on her first album. Even though Taylor had a lot more “country” to shed from her music than Rilo Kiley, they still managed to meet in the middle. It’s as if the release date of RED turned into the answer to one of those classic word problems they give in middle school math classes:
Question: If Rilo Kiley heads east out of Los Angeles on foot, and Taylor Swift gets on a bullet train heading west out of Nashville, when will they meet?
Answer: October 22, 2012.