***1/2 (out of four)
If you've written off Taylor Swift because she's a “country” artist or because her audience is largely teenage girls, you can start paying attention now.
The official promotional pitch for her new album, “Red,” points out as much: She's enlisted a series of noted pop producers, helping her land a number one single (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) and trade in pickup trucks for Maseratis in her lyrics. Swift has always been a singular songwriting talent, though, and the real step forward on “Red” is her increased maturity and thematic refinement. While 2008's “Fearless” perfectly played with a sort of grandiose, teenage idea of Love, the formula began to wear thin on follow-up “Speak Now,” which applied the language of high school crushes to highly publicized gossip mag subjects. Critics have called out Swift's lyrics for skewing young and reinforcing outdated ideals of romance, and, to be fair, one can't write honest songs about being a teenager forever.
The broad-appeal, guitar-driven power pop of “Red” offers a thoughtful solution to attempting to grow up while also catering to a younger audience. Standouts like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “Higher Ground” are straightforward pop anthems that have serious emotional backbones and employ touches of deft lyricism. Operating with subtlety, detail and a refreshing lack of cynicism, Swift cuts across age lines. She describes a post-breakup phone call as “so casually cruel in the name of being honest” on killer ballad “All Too Well” and pithily expresses the rush of infatuation on “State of Grace.”
Sure, these are mostly songs about falling in and out of love, but, with the exception of a few maudlin missteps toward the end (including an annoying duet with the guy from Snow Patrol, of all people), they aren’t obsessive. Instead, the music brims with optimism and heightened emotion that help create pop with real significance.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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