Taylor Swift hasn’t become one of the most vital artists of the 2000s just by writing monster hooks. Those certainly help, but it also helps that the 22-year-old singer and songwriter, who was a mere 16 when her debut album was released, comes with enough emotional baggage to make her infinitely more interesting than most of her peers. But she’s not messed up in a Fiona Apple, chewed-down fingernails, clawing-at-scarred-skin kind of way. Swift’s problems are more on par with the average 16-year-old girl.
And while she’s grown older over the course of her four albums, she hasn’t necessarily grown up. Red is the next step toward putting those awkward teenage years behind her. Swift’s last album, 2010’s Speak Now, touched on a few adult issues; the fairy-tale-princess dreams of her first two albums were stored away along with—depending on how “Dear John” should be interpreted—her virginity. With Red, she’s become even more unforgiving of the long trail of ex-boyfriends she’s left behind.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Red’s lead single and one of three songs Swift co-wrote with Swedish pop maestro Max Martin, takes swipes at an ex’s indecisiveness and his record collection. And in “22,” also co-penned by Martin, she and her pals “dress up like hipsters” and “make fun of [their] exes.” There’s more of that ribbing, too. Much more.
Lyrically, it’s the same path Swift has walked since her 2006 debut, just deeper and a little darker. But musically, it’s bigger and bolder than anything she’s ever done in the pop world. And really, there hasn’t been much twang in Swift’s country-pop for years now. Red throws a few songs (“I Almost Do,” “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” “Begin Again”) to her original fan base, but this is a pop album. It’s magnificent at times, but it’s also complicated and sometimes unfocused.
How else to explain the dubstep-inspired “I Knew You Were Trouble”? Or the occasional Auto-Tune that makes her sound like any number of indistinguishable female pop singers? Or the blah duets with British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody? But at 16 songs deep, Red is all about taking some chances. The Martin collaborations are the ones that will cause the most turbulence for her old country fans, but Swift throws plenty of curveballs to make the rest of the album—like the arena-rock guitars that launch opening cut “State Of Grace” and the five-minute-plus slow build of “All Too Well”—an occasionally fascinating work.
The best songs (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Begin Again,” the title track) bridge where Swift has been and where she’s going. She’s no longer a naive teen hanging out at her school locker hoping that a cute boy will glance her way. But she’s not grown up enough to jump into a reckless affair, either. (“I’ll do anything you say if you say it with your hands,” she promises in “Treacherous.”) She still believes in the power of love, and she has more than a dozen new songs bitching about it to prove it.