As a teenager, Taylor Swift hit paydirt with a song about being a teenager; "Fifteen" distilled the storm and stress of pre-adulthood's crushing loves as well as any song — pop, country or otherwise — of the past decade. Now, having long outgrown the one-horse towns that dot the landscape of Fearless and looking out from her penthouse over the "big ol' city" she envisions herself someday inhabiting on Speak Now, on Red Swift delivers a twentysomething's song about being a twentysomething.
As sure a hit as has ever left Swift's prolific pen, "22" opens with the sort of jumpy, major-chord guitar progression that could start off a late-'90s pop-punk tune, soon driving headlong into a stomping dance beat and an opening line that marks a departure from her previous material both in its insouciant tone and in its noticeably electronic production.
"It feels like a perfect night," Swift talk-sings with a nasally, mischievous, borderline-Ke$ha smirk, "to dress up like hipsters and make fun of our exes."
Funny enough, she could top off that "hipster" costume by slipping on the oversized plastic-frame glasses she wore to play the part of nerdy outcast in the video for "You Belong to Me" — how times change. Indeed, by the time we reach the confetti-cannon of a chorus that anchors "22," producer-collaborators Max Martin and Shellback have dialed in enough sweeping, uptempo synthesizer to bring this party in the U.S.A. to a frenzied peak. Nothing about this song is interested in going "Back to December" — everything is this night, this moment.
"I don't know about you / But I'm feeling 22" aren't the most profound words Swift has ever sung into a microphone, but she sounds like she's having fun, and the song's ebullience is utterly infectious. Not to mention how well it conveys the linsey-woolsey twentysomethingness of it all: "We are happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time," Swift sings. And then admitting, perhaps, a penchant for courting trouble — sure to yield potential hit-song fodder one way or the other — she sings hungrily, "You look like bad news / I gotta have you."
The trio of songs bearing pop maestro Martin's touch — "22," the lead single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and the decidedly Britney-esque "I Knew You Were Trouble" — veer farthest and most thrillingly from Swift's signature sound, gaudy and plastic where she has more often been tasteful and understated. Country purists (whatever that means) who've hung on this long might finally take their leave. Either that, or Carrie Underwood is auditioning Moog players right now.
Of course, the closely observed balladry Swift is known for is also fully on display, and she pulls from her binders full of men for wintry breakup litanies like "Treacherous" and "Holy Ground." She overplays her hand sometimes, though, as in "All Too Well," where an ex-lover holds onto an old scarf because "it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me."
Less a stylistic departure than the electro-dance jams, but as much (or more) a sign of artistic growth, are two duets — the Civil Wars-y "This Is the Last Time," with Gary Lightbody, and the delicate "Everything Has Changed," with British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran. It's jarring, at first, to hear anyone else's voice so high in the mix on a Swift record, much less the dude from Snow Patrol, but the performances are solid, and the dual perspectives both deepen the material and mark an improvement over songs like Speak Now's interminable mope "Dear John."
Swift's songwriting has so often focused on either the first kiss or the last caress, but here she lingers a bit more on the difficult stuff between, and the songs are better for it. And while she's still not above knocking one of her exes down a peg or seven, she's also turned some of the criticism on herself: "You've got your demons," she sings on "Sad Beautiful Tragic," "and darling, they all look like me."
Red may not succeed as an exorcism for Swift's vanquished lovers, but as a rangy pop record, deliriously fun at times and haltingly introspective at others, it's awfully good.