In many ways, “Red” is Taylor Swift‘s first adult pop album. Where her self-titled debut and 2008’s “Fearless” were the works of an accomplished teenage singer with a gift for confessional songwriting and soaring melodies, parts of the often-exceptional “Speak Now” felt like a tiresome game of Guess the Celebrity (“Better Than Revenge,” “Innocent,” “Dear John”) with passive-aggressive lyrics better suited for a note passed in junior high.
“Red” puts Swift the artist front and center with big, beefy hooks that transcend her country roots for a genre-spanning record that reaches heights unseen since Shania Twain’s “Up!” – a 2002 release so tireless in efforts to people-please it was released with two discs’ worth of pop and country takes of its 19 songs. Much of “Red’s” first half, for example, is Swift swinging for the pop rafters and rarely missing – even if she runs the risk of alienating her country core in the process.
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As she settles into her superstar persona at the age of 22, Swift has made it clear that she is never going to be pigeonholed, and will always strive for relatable transcendence. “Red” is her most interesting full-length to date, but it probably won’t be when all is said and done in her career.
Which songs on “Red” are worth the most replays? Check out Billboard’s track-by-track review of Taylor Swift’s latest album.
1. State of Grace
When Swift sings, “And I never saw you coming,” is she singing about a guy, or about the sweeping sound of this opening track? With absolutely gigantic drums, chiming guitars that recall the Stone Roses or the Cure, and syllables that stretch to untouched lengths of time, “State of Grace” eloquently and effortlessly extends Swift’s genre reach.
After the no-holds-barred arena rock of “State of Grace,” “Red’s” title track returns Swift to her tire swing, and she spins a yarn about a past romance with colorful (ahem) imagery and breathy intimacy. The song hinges on the electronic “R-r-red” that punctuates the chorus; for some, it’s a deal-breaker, but others may find it a bold detail.
3. Treacherous – “I’ll do anything you say/If you say it with your hands,” Swift sings while groping the pitfalls of dealing with the bad boys. The guitar strum and percussion sit at a steady simmer before flaring up at the finale — an emotional moment to be sure, but one that unfortunately steers away from the hushed, confessional beauty of the verses.
4. I Knew You Were Trouble
Taylor goes dubstep? Another toast to the wild ones that clog Swift’s love life, but the standard songwriting is overshadowed by the electrified stomp of the breakdown, which is a few more bass wobbles away from Ultra Fest. “I Knew Your Were Trouble” is Swift screaming “I’m being experimental!” into a megaphone, and while it’s not as smoothly executed as “State of Grace,” watching Swift try her hand at electro-country is darn entertaining.
5. All Too Well – Just like that, Swift snaps back to her core demographic: “All Too Well” is sumptuous country, with Swift “dancing ’round the kitchen in the refrigerator light” in the memory of a romance that has seemingly been buried in time. The tune would have fit snugly on “Speak Now,” and even touches upon some of the same themes as “Mine,” but on “Red” it serves as a reminder that these songs will always remain in Swift’s wheelhouse.
6. 22 – Arguably Swift’s most blatantly “pop” song of her career, “22” is all about trying to “forget about the deadlines” and embrace only the most sugary hooks available. Underneath the heel-clicking positivity and shiny production sits the line “We’re happy, free, confused and lonely in the best way,” a rather stunning meditation on being in your early 20s that’s flicked off like a piece of pre-chorus lint. Even when she’s having fun, Swift is succinctly communicating conflicting emotion.
7. I Almost Do – Gentle guitar strums soundtrack Swift’s ode to reaching for the phone to reconnect with an ex, but not being able to “risk another goodbye.” Unlike the slices of radio fodder that sandwich “I Almost Do” on the album, the mid-tempo ballad is a slow grower, with shards of ace songwriting presenting themselves over time.
8. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
Swift’s first No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart, and in the context of the album, a welcome reprieve from the heaviness of “I Almost Do.” Swift has never sounded as confident as she has here — not just within the “never, ever” finality of her breakup, but also in terms of the tongue-in-cheek humor that makes her all the more relatable. Indie records may be cooler, but they’re not this gleeful.
9. Stay Stay Stay – Boasting one of “Red’s” most straightforward country arrangements, this track is a plucky promise to “Stay Stay Stay” with a current boyfriend, with a few disses thrown in to those who preceded him (“Before you I only dated self-indulgent takers / who took all of their problems out on me.”) A sillier version of 2010’s “Ours,” the song ends with Swift collapsing into a fit of giggles (“It’s so fun!” she squeals.)
10. The Last Time (Feat. Gary Lightbody) – A big fan of producer Jacknife Lee, Swift wanted to recreate the sounds of the songs he produced in recent years for U2 and Snow Patrol – right down to recruiting the latter’s lead singer for a duet that recalls a more hushed version of Snow Patrol’s “Set Fire To The Third Bar” before building to a dramatic, string-drenched coda.
11. Holy Ground – Another country-rock stomper, “Holy Ground” references a relationship that ran on “New York time” (OMG is that a Jake Gyllenhaal reference?!), and the exhilarating but fleeting moment where “everywhere we stood is holy ground” and she wants to dance all the time (“But I don’t wanna dance / if I’m not dancing with you.”)
12. Sad Beautiful Tragic – Swift has grown fond of somber-toned, folk-sy waltzes in recent years (2010’s “Last Kiss,” for example). “Sad Beautiful Tragic” finds her working her best Hope Sandoval impression on a slow dance number about a dead love affair.
13. The Lucky One – A Hollywood cautionary tale about the perils of fame, “The Lucky One” starts out as a diatribe against celebrity but ultimately sees Swift inspired by the story of Joni Mitchell (whom she’s attached to play in the upcoming film “Girls Like Us”). “You chose the rose garden over Madison Square,” Swift sings of the folk-pop legend, who essentially hung up her recording career nearly a decade ago.
14. Everything Has Changed (Feat. Ed Sheeran) – “I just wanna know you better / know you better now,” Swift and Sheeran serenade each other on this sweet duet about the sudden impact of new romance. Thematically, this is Swift at her most familiar and clichéd, but Sheeran’s tender harmonies lend the song some much-needed depth.
15. Starlight – Every Swift album as of late has one danceable, fists-in-the-air love anthem (“Love Story” for “Fearless,” “Mine” for “Speak Now”) and “Starlight” fills that role for “Red.” Though the song talks about a period where Swift and a beau were “17 and crazy,” it’s hard not to think of her alleged Kennedy wedding crash from this summer when she sings, “Can’t remember what song that was playing when we walked in / the night we snuck into a yacht club party / pretending to be a duchess and a prince.”
16. Begin Again
If most of “Red” finds Swift purging herself of a “significant and kind of damaging relationship,” as she says in this week’s Billboard cover story, “Begin Again” is about finding hope at the end of that tumultuous period. “I’ve been spending the last eight months / thinking that all love ever does / is break and burn and end,” she sings, before the process re-starts on a Wednesday in a café. Featuring a breathy, girlish vocal from Swift reminiscent of her affecting contributions to this year’s “Hunger Games” soundtrack, “Begin Again” ends things on a memorable, hopeful note.