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Dark ‘n’ Stormy
I never skipped tracks on a Taylor Swift album until her fourth and latest dropped two weeks ago. I didn’t expect to because she rarely misses. A couple of months ago, I saw a girl in unnecessarily large, neon-framed sunglasses driving her car up and down a suburban street, blasting “We are never, ever, ever getting back together” and smiling with vindictive joy. It’s a song that makes me wonder what exactly Swift’s ex did to deserve this missive. That summer hit portended an album full of upbeat melancholy, but the autumnal reality was that Swift doesn’t really want to celebrate being single and free, she wants to wallow in it. Her original songwriting takes a back seat to much-improved vocals and a masterfully engineered symphonic sound inspired by this side of the pond—at some cost to her country lilt and unmatched imagery of desire.
Swift declared at the end of her last album: “And bring on all the pretenders / One day, we will be remembered” (“Long Live”). It sounded like a graduation song, and in a way it was. Red opens with a drenching, forward-looking rock anthem (“State of Grace”), and she no longer calls out guys by name in her songs. That may be because all the songs are about the end of one stormy relationship. At least we can hope it’s about just one guy—the world could have ended only a certain number of times (“Red”, “Treacherous”, “I Knew You Were Trouble”, “I Almost Do”, “The Last Time”, “Sad Beautiful Tragic”, “The Lucky One”, “Everything Has Changed”) in the two years since Speak Now. A song about the almost unbearable weight of memories (“All Too Well”) stands out for reversing the timpani-banging optimism of “Enchanted” on her last record. But, most tracks on Red favour her well executed grab for a new sound, instead of new stories. I wonder why she couldn’t pull off both.
What saves Red from collapsing into despondent pop rock is the way hindsight smooths out the past’s wrinkles. In the effervescent “22”, she’s “happy free confused and lonely in the best way” and ironically defiant on behalf of twenty (or thirty, or forty)-somethings who are upset about, well, nothing really because life’s actually great. In “Starlight”, she creatively weaves together the start of an actual Camelot romance: Ethel meeting a young Bobby Kennedy on the boardwalk and sneaking into a yacht club party.* And before the album closes, she reminds you why she is on top of pop: poetically stringing together emotions, observations, and declarations in places and times that, however imaginary, you want to be real (“Begin Again”). I just wish she did more of it in Red.
*In reality, they probably walked in the front door.
Rahul Prabhakar is reading for a DPhil in International Relations at St John’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.