Much ado has been made about the fact that sweet-as-pie country gamine Taylor Swift recruited Max Martin—a man with a Eurodance streak a Chunnel wide and an uncanny gift for crafting massive pop hits for everyone from Britney to Pink—to help produce her fourth album. But it’s at least as relevant (and arguably more telling) that Red’s liner notes include Swift’s protracted reflection on a poem by Pablo Neruda. Oh, the exquisite anguish of young heartbreak.
While this collection finds the Nashville-approved prodigy making assured, deliberate steps to map out her artistic identity beyond teen/twang crossover success, it’s also a strikingly sophisticated attempt to talk about relationships—not just the falling-into part, but the regretful bits that get lost in the couch cushions. Love may be well-trodden ground in pop music, but good lord, Swift explores this territory like a practiced sherpa, meandering through nuances that are lost to her chart-topping peers.
Forget finding love in a hopeless place; here, Swift’s country pedigree serves her well, compelling her to capture the mundane, profound details of life in sharp focus: a boyfriend dons a football helmet to defuse a heated fight (the Rilo Kiley-ish “Stay Stay Stay”), and moving on triggers a flurry of painfully vivid vignettes of a trip to an ex’s hometown (“All Too Well”). If Swift seems terribly naïve at times…well, she’s 22. And she grounds her flights of earnest melodrama in arch self-awareness—her post-breakup club night in “22” is as much a parody of crass twentysomething hedonism as it is a dumb-fun dance-pop anthem.
Red is overburdened with weepy ballads, and at 16 tracks, it’s bloated. But self-indulgence is an early-adulthood ritual. Heck, it took Neruda 20 poems (and a song of despair) to cover what he wanted to say about love at 19.
Playlist picks: “State of Grace,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Stay Stay Stay,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”