Song Reviews For Taylor Swift’s “Red”

So here are some specific thoughts on the songs of Taylor Swift’s album Red. This is meant to be an addendum to the more broad album review posted, so please read that first or in addition to this for the context of these reviews. I reserve the right to write more in-depth song reviews of any of these songs, especially if/when they are released as singles, but these are some general thoughts.

As a general thought on the songs overall, I thought there were too many of them. If you are going to release an album of 16 tracks (and there’s even more bonus tracks), they need to be solid. Instead, Red has some fat, diminishing attention from the stronger tracks. The 3 songs produced by the super pop duo of Max Martin and Shellback (“22”, “I Knew You Were Trouble”, and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) could have been eliminated all together, and this in itself could have elevated Red dramatically.

And yes, for those too lazy to navigate over to the main review, it goes without saying that none of this is “country.”

1. State of Grace

Excellent beginning track, well picked and placed. As I said in my broader review of Red, the album’s best asset is its ability to set mood, and this song is an excellent example of that, and does an excellent job setting the mood for the entire album. “State of Grace”, along with the song “Sad Beautiful Tragic” later on are the best pieces of evidence that Taylor Swift is not your standard pop fare. You would never hear anything like this from Katy Perry. Parts of the song are downright chordy (musician’s jargon for chord changes that aren’t intuitive).

Two guns up.

2. Red

For a pop song, “Red” regales the listener with tremendous depth of composition. The structure of the song gives Taylor’s verses freedom from rhyme so she can pick the most potent words instead of worrying with pentameter. At times the lines of the verses are too long for the music, meaning Taylor must start singing early. But instead of sounding like a mistake, the uniqueness of this structure draws you in, makes you pay closer attention to the lyrics. There’s a guitar solo folks! And it it’s not half bad. Not technically impressive, but tasteful and appropriate to the mood, which leads you into a half-timed chorus which is where if this song hasn’t reeled you in yet, hook pierces flesh.

The vocal/electronico “la da da da” parts in the chorus are a little too obvious, but do their job of making this song catchy throughout. Lyrically “Red” is more mature than the pre-schoolish “ok class let’s match colors with moods” theme that presents itself on the surface. That is the base, but from there the song evolves to be about the biting pain of wanted love not allowed to progress to its fruition. For the first time from Swift, there’s a sexual dynamic to a song, however mild and veiled.

The goal of any songwriter is to make you feel the same emotions they were when they were in the throes of the inspiration of the song, and this is what Taylor does in “Red.”

Two guns up.

3. Treacherous

This is probably the song on Red that I’m most interested in hearing the back story on or an explanation for, though we’ll probably never get it, or at least never get it in an honest form. It’s a fairly sexual song, or at least as sexual as Taylor Swift is willing to get to this point. Your imagination can run wild with “Treacherous”, and that’s what makes it work. The drug-like shot of endorphins the body emits when it knows it is about to do something either wrong or dangerous is where this song dwells, and Swift puts you right back there in that experience we’ve all felt at one point. Once again, her ability to conjure up mood is a strong suit.

Two guns up.

4. I Knew You Were Trouble

This is the worst song Taylor Swift has ever released in her career, and unlike some of her early songs that reeked of immaturity (because she was young at the time she wrote them), this one has no excuse. Taylor Swift knows better now, and she still did it. Just like with the 2nd worse track on this album, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” that she says she wrote it to be purposefully annoying, Taylor Swift may try to play off this track (and the other ultra pop tracks on the album) as irony, but don’t buy it. This is an obvious attempt and pop and R&B radio play.

The greatest sin of this song is Taylor is not being herself. We all know Taylor isn’t a party girl. She’s gone out of her way to make that point about herself many times. If she wanted to do a song just for fun, like say “Stay, Stay, Stay” or even possibly “Starlight” it would be one thing. But we know Taylor Swift and she’s not some club jumper. This song is out of her element, and honestly, embarrassing. And unfortunately, this is one of these tracks where the awfulness bleeds over to the other tracks, diminishing them and the whole Red project by proxy. This song might make her lots of money, but in the long run it will be an albatross around her neck, weighing down her attempts to appeal to both commercial viability and substance, and certainly will be a huge turnoff to the traditional, and even moderate country crowd.

This is club music parody that will even piss off the club music crowd. It feels like her answer to country rap.

Two guns way down.

5. All Too Well

Swift teams back up with co-writer Liz Rose–the woman who co-wrote many of Swift’s early hits from her first two albums–for the longest song on Red, and one I can’t find much fault in, but one I just couldn’t get in to. We’ll see if this song grows on you, but for the moment it’s pretty nondescript. I do like how Swift’s story builds out from a scarf still kept by an ex-lover.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

6. 22

Of the Max Martin/Shellback-produced songs, this is probably the one that is most palatable, and the one that probably started out as something much better in raw song form than the dance club Frankenstein it turned into. Swift has gone out of her way to say that she is not a party girl. I’m sure we’ll get an explanation about how this song is supposed to be ironic at some point, but I’m getting tired of that being the stock excuse every time an artist that wants to be known for substance releases a cash cow song.

I may catch hell for saying this, but I think this song has a little something. What does it have? I don’t know because I can’t quite put my finger on it through the awful production. But I think Taylor might be trying to speak about the shallowness of the young 20’s party life we’re all sold as being so glamorous through popular culture. But instead, Martin/Shellback make “22” a purveyor of it.

1 1/2 of 2 guns down.

7. I Almost Do

A good song, though probably a filler track on the album. Not from a sonic standpoint, but from a songwriting standpoint, this is one of the more “country” songs on Red in the way it works out from a lyrical hook. The problem is the “I Almost Do” hook really doesn’t bite like it needs to to make the song memorable on an album the contains such wild mood swings and contrast, and the music isn’t much help. But there’s nothing wrong with “I Almost Do”, and Taylor does a good job communicating that unsettled frame of mind when you’re not quite over a lover, but you’re beyond the point of knowing it will never work.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

8. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

The 2nd-worse song of the Shellback/Max Martin-produced tracks, and probably the 2nd-worse song Taylor has released in her career. Don’t buy into the idea that this song is bad to be ironic, it’s just bad. And releasing it as the lead single was another unfortunate miscue.

“We Are Never Getting Back Together” is as saccharine as any Taylor Swift selection, and rivals any of her songs for being the most pop. From an artist that has shied away from voice enhancements and digital treatments, there’s something automated going on here, though I’m not confident enough to level the charge of Auto-tune. “We Are Never”¦” is ultra-catchy, I mean I was humming this dumb thing hours after Taylor’s fluffy presser had gone off air; so catchy that any type of redeeming creative content in the song is rendered benign.”

1 1/2 of 2 guns down.

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9. Stay Stay Stay

See now, if this was Red‘s fun foray into the pop world, what a completely different feel the whole project would have had. This is a silly song, but that’s okay. Taylor is 22-years-old and doesn’t want her music to be all doom and gloom. This is the first of two songs (Starlight being the 2nd) that I hear a lot of 80’s pop influence in. I was under the impression that the ship had sailed on the whole 80’s resurgence, but either apparently I am wrong, or apparently Taylor is keeping it alive. Some people will complain that there’s nothing country about it, and that goes without saying. The bass guitar and song structure are fun.

It’s harmless.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

10. The Last Time

There is a long-standing tradition of duets in country music, and I think it is very telling that for both the duets on Red, Taylor reached out to the rock world, and to the British Isles; about as far away as you can get from country without being obvious. This may be just as solid as a piece of evidence that Swift’s heart is truly not into country as anything. This is what she listens to, Snow Patrol and other bands like them, not the contributions from country, or the greater American roots world. Nothing against Gary Lightbody, or even this song. It’s a solid contribution to Red, and a great duet. Lightbody is tasteful in the way he comes in and compliments Swift’s style and her ability to set mood instead of trying to make his own mark. It may be a little bit too emotional and moody, but it’s one of the better tracks on the album.

It’s also fair to point out that Swift has a pretty good track record when touring to pick openers from the 3rd, or even 4th tiers of musical acts on their way up the ranks, instead of trying to find acts just below her that may bolster the ticket. I think that came into play with her duet pairings as well. A duet with Jason Aldean, or Big Machine’s new toy Tim McGraw may have garnered more American interest in this track. But instead she went with a dark horse, though it may be one that will help her open up new commercial avenues in the European market.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

11. Holy Ground

This is a pretty innocuous track with an obvious background vocal track meant to make the song catchy, but instead it just comes across as rehashed from another popular songs whose name is on the tip of your tongue. Another filler track that could have been left off, but certainly not as evil as some of Red‘s other offerings.

One gun up, one gun down.

12. Sad Beautiful Tragic

Possibly the best song on the album, and possibly the best song ever by Taylor Swift.

Two guns up!

13. The Lucky One

Songs on the emptiness of the celebrity lifestyle like this have been done so many times before, but this is not a bad version of it, and a song outside of the regular Swift grooves of writing about love.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

14. Everything Has Changed

A mild track that relies too much on catchy phrasing in the chorus and doesn’t really do the duet concept justice. Near the end Taylor is forced to go way above her comfortable singing register, and even though she pulls it off, it feels strained. With some exceptions, Taylor does a good job on Red–a better job than she did on Speak Now–of staying in her vocal comfort zone and not exposing her vocal weaknesses through composition. How many stories have you read recently about Taylor singing out-of-tune? This is a demon she’s mostly slayed, but with this song, she gives a slight reminder of her vocal limitations.

One gun up, one gun down.

15. Starlight

Not as evil as the Shellback/Max Martin tracks on Red, but a close runner-up that is only saved by some of the retro elements and creative layering Swift and long-time producer Nathan Chapman cram into this confusing song that seems part dance club soundtrack, and part Pat Benatar 80’s revival routine (especially the way Swift inflects the way she says “moooved”). There seems to be a love story here, but the music sort of distracts you from it. You’re not sure if you’re supposed to just feel the groove and start dancing, or pay close attention to the words. It stars off sounding like pacifier-sucking glitter club music, until Taylor’s acoustic guitar comes in and she starts singing about the summer of ’45. Then you feel like you’re transported to a discotek circa 1984 blasting power pop. Did I hear a little Rush “Tom Sawyer” synth too?

I don’t know, it sure is catchy. I’m not sure if this is another instance of music producers run amuck, or if Taylor and the producers were as confused as the song sounds like they were to find a clear direction for her demo track. Just as the 2nd song on an album is almost always reserved for what the label believes to be the album’s best song, the next-to-last is usually reserved for the weakest, and that’s probably where “Starlight” belongs.

1 1/2 of 2 guns down.

16. Begin Again

“Though on the surface this song is positive and about renewed love, Taylor Swift still gets her characteristic jabs in at old flames: “He didn’t like it when I wore high heels, but I do.” “He always said he didn’t get this song, but I do.” “I think it’s strange that you think I’m funny cause he never did.” But overall, it portrays the seldom seen, other side of Taylor Swift in a sweet little song that works, but probably isn’t a world beater or a mega hit waiting in the weeds.

“Many are wanting to tout how country “Begin Again” is. But let’s be honest, it’s only country when compared to Taylor Swift’s other works. On that sliding scale yes, with some steel guitar and mandolin (though fairly down in the mix and dilluted with strings) this is the Johnny Paycheck of Taylor Swift’s lexicon. But in the grand scheme of things, it is still solidly pop country.”

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

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