One would think it was Superbowl weekend. Let’s just say when retailers like Walgreens use their marquis to count down the days until Taylor Swift’s Red is available, it’s a sign of just how much hype has surrounded the release of the latest album by country music’s hottest young superstar.
The pitfall with this much PR, of course is, that there is a huge expectation that the album must live up to. The question is—does it?
That really depends on who you are.
Let’s start by saying that Taylor Swift is in one of those rare, happy positions where she’s already at the top, and no matter what she does, there are going to be millions of people who love it just because of who she is. She can release a mainly pop/rock album under the country genre, and many (not all) country folks will embrace it because, well, it’s Taylor Swift. Likewise, the millions of young girls who relate to her stick-it-to-the-ex attitude (and the millions of young guys who would love the chance of being the next ex) will rush to buy the album (‘cause the label is purposely withholding it from the streaming services), and they’ll sing along with the extremely catchy pop hooks throughout the record. From a strictly production and business standpoint, Red is well-crafted and very nearly flawless, aimed at a target market that will absolutely eat it up. If you’re in one of those target demographics, you’ll love the album; it’s really that simple. In that regard, Red hits its mark.
But there are other groups of people who honestly will find Red wanting. Firstly, we have to shoot straight and say that despite being in the country genre, this is not a country album. Were it not for a stray mandolin or banjo riff here or there, you’d never know a country artist had recorded it. Instead, the album explores and touches on many different forms of pop and rock, from the indie-rock sounds of Snow Patrol (thanks to Gary Lightbody guesting on “The Last Time”), to the U2-reminiscent opening track “State Of Grace,” to (GASP!) dubstep on “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Heck, on the opening lines of “22,” Taylor has inflection in her voice that made me think for a minute I was listening to Ke$ha. Her ventures into pop are nothing new, but this is by far the least country record she’s ever done—and that’s likely to disappoint a few die-hard country fans.
Likewise, there will be those who bought the hype and expected this to be the album of Taylor Swift’s career—and many of them will also be disappointed. Granted, she’s set the bar high for herself, and if Red were her debut, it would be highly impressive. There are certainly some radio hits on this record besides the uber-catchy “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” but I’m not hearing a lot of songs with the impact of “Mean” or “You Belong With Me.” For those who are not starstruck over Taylor Swift, they will be left wondering what the hype was all about.
So where do I stand on it? I’m taking a more thoughtful look at Taylor Swift’s talent and her career so far, and on a positive note, I’m impressed with some of the growth in songwriting on the album. Part of the genre-hopping that occurs is no doubt because Taylor engaged a number of co-writers for the record, and in that regard, it’s taken her out of a rut—and I think that’s good. Likewise, while there’s still a lot of I’m-mad-at-my-ex-boyfriend content, there are other times when she sings and emotes more like a young adult on songs like “All Too Well” and “Sad Beautiful Tragic.” While some might feel this record is all over the map, Taylor certainly did not phone it in on this one. She stretched herself creatively and musically here, and that’s admirable. She’s extremely talented, and it still shows up on the record.
That said, I really would like to see Taylor Swift go even deeper as an artist, to reach even further toward her full potential. Teenage-romance-gone-bad songs played well for her as a teenager (and will still sell her some records), but now she is 22, and those songs seem a little beneath her at this point. I don’t even care if she stays true to the country genre; I just want to see her show some more growth. In that regard, while there are some fine moments on Red, there are other times when I feel it’s just catering to her audience. Admittedly, my feelings are mixed, not because of what the album is, but because of what I know Taylor Swift can still become.
So the reality is, where you stand on Red will ultimately depend on how you view it. If you’re a fan just looking for more great music from your favorite artist, you won’t be disappointed. If you think Taylor Swift is capable of more, you might be a little disappointed—but probably not by much.