Taylor Swift has come a long way since the release of her first single, “Tim McGraw,” in 2006. Four albums later, the singer strays from her country roots to embrace her pop sensibilities on Red. While the 16-track album at first listen sounds predominately pop, its hidden gems — like the stripped down “Sad Beautiful Tragic” and country tinged album closer “Begin Again” — remind us that the country singer-songwriter is still there.
In the album’s liner notes, Taylor shows her growth from a fairytale wishing teen to a mature woman. She’s gone through pain and heartache and she lets us know that it will all be unveiled in her latest release.
Though Red is without a doubt Taylor’s most pop album to date, it’s her ballads that showcase her staying power. The poignant “All Too Well” impresses with sweeping piano parts and Taylor’s emotive vocals, while her collaboration on “The Last Time” with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody recalls the power of her unexpected partnership with the Civil Wars on Hunger Games track “Safe & Sound.” “The Last Time” begins with a haunting piano introduction alongside striking vocals from Gary before slowed marching band like percussion and string features join in. Taylor’s deeper and wavering vocals enter harmonizing impeccably with Lightbody.
While the standout “The Last Time” demonstrates Taylor’s maturity, her duet with Ed Sheeran “Everything Has Changed” continues to display her versatility. Spot-on harmonies and foot-stomping rhythms further flush out the track alongside memorable string interludes.
Taylor has said that her dream has always been to write with Max Martin. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (which broke chart records) was written with Martin and Shellback and the trio join forces two more times on the LP. First, it’s the ever-catchy “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Straight up pop, the song picks things up with a heavy bass beat and plenty of guitar fuzz. This marks a transformation for the singer, as it’s a track easy to imagine being played in a club. The songwriting team gets back together with the Avril Lavigne and Ke$ha-esque “22.” With a heart pounding drum beat the sing-along anthem is as pop as they come.
The title track embodies hints of steel guitar, cello and fiddle accompanying Taylor’s vocals. Easy to envision in a live setting, the anthemic track will no doubt come to life on her next tour. Meanwhile, “Treacherous” recalls Taylor’s country roots with delicate strums of an acoustic guitar and her whispered singing.
Red begins with thumping drum beats and gritty guitar on “State of Grace” before Taylor’s familiar vocals are heard. Delicate yet assertive Taylor tells the tale of never seeing love coming. “Love is a ruthless game/ Unless you play it good and right,” she sings, later admitting that she’ll “never be the same.” The album comes full circle with beautiful album closer “Begin Again.” Singing of finding love again, the hopeless romantic dives right in, even if she is a little guarded.
“I’ve been spending the last 8 months/ Thinking all love ever does/ Is break and burn and end/ But on a Wednesday in a cafe/ I watched it begin again,” she sings.
While the innocent “Tim McGraw” singer is long gone and grown up on Red, Taylor teaches us all that it’s the moments we go back to that make us who we are. And that’s not always a bad thing.
-Annie Reuter, CBS Local