Somewhere, Taylor Swift is having the last laugh. Or at least she should be.
It's barely been six years since the coltish country-pop princess arrived on the scene. But in that brief time, she's gone from ambitious teenage troubadour to unstoppable global superstar. Granted, it hasn't been without hardship. She's been knocked for her suspect singing abilities; mocked for her slack-jawed reaction to award wins; disrespected by Kanye West on live television; and become just as famous for her endless string of celebrity beaus as she is for writing songs to get back at them.
But through it all, Swift has endured, persevered, persisted. And now, at the ripe old age of 22, she's not only one of music's reigning queens; more importantly, she's also grown into one of the sharpest songwriters of her generation. Her fourth full-length Red (available Tuesday Oct. 23) is all the proof you need. Easily her most consistent and commercial disc -- and that's saying something -- its 16-song lineup showcases her most diverse musical menu to date, wholeheartedly embracing pop while flirting with everything from dance grooves and crunching rock guitars to dubstep synths. Meanwhile, her increasingly thoughtful lyrics show she's aiming a little higher than the diary entries and yearbook inscriptions of her youth (though she still finds plenty of time to diss those exes). All in all, colour me impressed.
Bottom line: Clearly, there's more than one side to Swift these days. Here are some new facets she displays on Red:
Pop 'n' Rock Taylor
Swift has never been accused of being a hardcore troubadour. But she's never been less country than she is here. Kicking up her heels on girls' night gems like 22, raising the roof on arena-rockers like State of Grace and Holy Ground, and cutting up on lovey-dovey ditties like Stay Stay Stay, Swift almost puts Nashville in her rear view in her rush for the pop and rock charts. And while purists may balk, she seems more comfortable in these settings than in the twang-pop of her first few albums.
Women like to dance. And judging by some of these songs -- not to mention the input of producers and songwriters like Swedish hit machines Max Martin and Shellback -- Swift has spent some quality time in the club lately. Red balances banjo-pop with Vocorders; We Are Never Getting Back Together sets her latest kiss-off anthem to a stomping beat flecked with loops and murky textures; I Knew You Were Trouble lurches to dubstep grooves. Can a Skrillex hookup be far behind?
OK, she still spends most of her time writing about falling in and out of love with bad boys. But for the first time, it doesn't all read like it was written in a My Little Pony diary with pink ink. All Too Well includes romantic imagery about "dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light." And when she purrs in Treacherous that she'll "do anything you say, if you say it with your hands," she's not talking sign language. Toss in The Lucky One, a look at the pitfalls of the fame she spent years chasing, and you've got an album that sounds like the work of a woman, not a girl.
Swift could have her pick of duet partners. So it's interesting that the two men she shares the mic with here are both from the U.K. Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody lends his Antony Hergarty-style pipes to the sweeping orchestral ballad The Last Time. And Ed Sheeran drops in for the strummy, unvarnished folk-pop charmer Everything Has Changed. Interestingly enough, they also seem like two of the last guys in the world that Swift would date. Coincidence?
Legions of critics (including yours truly) have taken potshots at Swift's substandard pipes. While it's hard to know for sure how much her vocals have been altered in the studio, it does seem she's finding her voice at last. Along with some self-assurance. On ballads like Sad Beautiful Tragic, she croons in an intimate, husky whisper; even on some of the bigger, bolder cuts, she wisely resists oversinging like some AmIdol alum. Sometimes, it's even hard to recognize that it's her on the mic -- which, given her record, could be taken as a compliment.
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