If Taylor Swift wants to make a song that sounds like U2 — and she does just that on new album Red — who's going to tell her no? The 22-year-old turned heartache into hits, and then hits into world domination, and now the pop royal can do whatever she wants, country roots be darned.
So on Red's very first track, prickly rocker State of Grace, one of 16 cuts on the Grammy-winner's bloated but ultimately satisfying fourth LP, Swift wanders down a guitar-tingly street with no name, trying to wrap her arms around the world. The lyrics are rote — "I never saw you coming / And I'll never be the same" — but the spacious song is bold regardless: Swift has embraced her superstardom with unjaded optimism and a thirst to evolve.
If she's no longer the shy relatable diary girl, no matter: She is now TAYLOR SWIFT, a beacon of feminine oomph and genuine talent, and there's nothing wrong with that. If you still want to play guess-the-ex with her songs — is this one about a Mayer or a Gyllenhaal? — that's fine, but you're missing the point. This album, most of it written solely by Swift, is about one person and one person only: the maturing blond on the cover.
For all her fame and life changes, Swift is still a fun listen, especially when she's taking chances. Ubiquitous first single We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, produced by Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl hitmaker Max Martin, dominates radio three months after the schoolyard taunt was released. It's as far from Nashville as you can get, but no one seems to feel betrayed. By having the ultimate say in her artistic direction, Swift transcends genre, all things to all walks of life, much like Springsteen or U2. Sacrilege, you say? Nah, just the truth.
The song 22 is a likably goofy Ke$ha jam with a sweet '80s spirit: "You look like bad news / I gotta have you." Stay Stay Stay is downright adorable, a modern update of General Public's pogoing gem Tenderness. That said, some of her chance-taking on Red flops: Current single I Knew You Were Trouble is a mess, all synthy and Britney-lite, with sorta suggestive lyrics: "I heard you moved on / From whispers on the street / A new notch in your belt / Is all I'll ever be." (By the way, Swift is still pretty chaste, PG-rated at her raciest.)
When Swift gets blue — or at least a successful woman's approximation of loneliness — she grabs her acoustic guitar and goes back her rootsier start. Treacherous and Sad Beautiful Tragic are ho-hum. But tricky breakup ballad All Too Well runs five yowza minutes and dissects the memory-game with verve: "Maybe we got lost in translation / Maybe I asked for too much / But maybe this thing was a masterpiece / 'Till you tore it all up." Ooh, there are going to be a lot of surly sing-alongs to this one.
There's a good bit of filler in the album's second half (The Lucky One, Starlight — she can write midtempo fluff in her sleep), but there are also a couple of late-game duets with moody Brits that are as unexpected as they are lovely. Swift and Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody generate bittersweet heat on the cracked paradise of The Last Time, while Ed Sheeran plays shy seducer on the here-we-go romantic waltz of Everything Has Changed.
Red is a daring album compared to safer albums Fearless and Speak Now. And yet she ends the endeavour with a familiar adieu: Begin Again, a lullaby about the twilight between a breakup and a fresh start. It's painful, pretty, the sound of an older woman channeling her younger self.
And therein lies perhaps Swift's greatest strength: For all her commercial savvy and genre jumping, all her money and maturity, she's still able to come off as real. She's always right there with us — whether her heart is truly shattered or not.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.