A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift: Album #4 (“Red”)

Well, with the surprise announcement that her eighth album (“Folklore”) is dropping tomorrow, it seems like as good a time as any to drop my reviews for “Red”!

Overall, “Red” is a great album with great tracks, but I think sometimes fans focus on the standouts and forget some of the forgettable tracks. It is a great album, but it’s also an uneven album, resting in the long shadows of #TS3 (“Speak Now”) and #TS5 (“1989”) on either side. And yet, buried within rests the greatest song ever recorded by Taylor Swift.

“Red” (released 2012)
“Dancing ’round the kitchen in the refrigerator light…

“State of Grace” (8/10): In this effective album opener with a great rolling beat, we’re far from the epic pageantry of the end of #TS3, instead crashing into a world of busy streets, traffic lights, pain, and shades of wrong.

“Red” (8/10): I like the song as a whole and “driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street” classic middle-era Swift imagery, but for the first time in a couple of albums her vocal tone flirts with whininess.

“Treacherous” (9.5/10): The song’s worldview is deeply at odds with my own beliefs about interpersonal relationships (no–we aren’t “just skin and bone trained to get along”; yes–it is a choice to “get swept away” into the arms of a lover), but that aside, the haunting chorus (which occurs late enough in the song that you could mistake it for a bridge) really elevates the power of this track.

“I Knew You Were Trouble” (8/10): This song brings a harder edge musically than anything prior, signaling the country-Taylor era has reached deep twilight and the full transition to pop-Taylor is nigh.

“All Too Well” (10/10): Unfortunately, I won’t give this one higher than a 10. But for this song, and this song only, I will break my one-sentence-per-song rule. So many Taylor Swift fans consider this to be her best song. They’re right.

“All Too Well” is a sonic and lyrical masterpiece. First, the sound–from the soft intro and the gentle chord that concludes it, to the subtle lack of resolution in the ending, and everything in between, every instrument and note works purposefully yet carefully to create emotion. And oh does the emotion build, and I love how it catches the listener by surprise. Suddenly you’re no longer in the sweet passion of young love, but instead caught in a maelstrom of betrayal. And in that maelstrom Taylor drops maybe her most powerful lines ever: “Then you call me up again just to break me like a promise! So casually cruel in the name of being honest; I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lyin’ here, because I remember it all too well…”

That lyric is great, but I fear we ignore so much other great wordplay and imagery here. That little town street; getting lost upstate; autumn leaves; the embarrassing childhood photo album on the counter; the scarf in the drawer; and one of my favorites, dancing ’round the kitchen in the refrigerator light… the lyrics deliver punch after punch right in the feels.

I so much enjoy every 10/10 Taylor song, but hearing this one is like moving up to another level, like entering another dimension. It’s the perfect fusion of country Taylor and pop Taylor. Not every song can or should be this, but here in this song, Taylor produced her greatest work so far–and the thing was never even released as a single!! Perhaps someday she’ll top this, but for now, it is the absolute pinnacle and showcase of Taylor Swift’s art. Speak Now may be the better album on balance, but Red has the best song of them all.

“22” (8/10): “Happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time” is such a perfect way to describe being 22, but Sydney diminished this song for me when she pointed out that Taylor often slurs the word “22” so badly that it sounds like “swimsuit.”

“I Almost Do” (5/10): One of the most unremarkable and forgettable songs in about two albums.

“We Are Never Getting Back Together” (7.5/10): I thought I liked this one more than I do, but after listening again, I think it’s almost a prototypical example of a Taylor song that I like OK enough but wouldn’t seek out when I’m looking for a song to play.

“Stay Stay Stay” (7/10): Taylor goes all in for playful and cute with this one, and it generally works.

“The Last Time” (9/10): I might be in a minority by giving this one a high score, but I like Swift and Lightbody’s voices together and the strong bridge kicks it up a notch.

“Holy Ground” (6/10): It’s the poster child for an OKish song that’s nobody’s favorite song.

“Sad Beautiful Tragic” (2/10): This lengthy, anemic, and exhaustingly repetitive song makes even “Last Kiss” look energetic.

“The Lucky One” (6.5/10): A poignant morality tale of the dangers of Hollywood, with themes she would revisit more personally and powerfully three albums later in “The Archer.”

“Everything Has Changed” (8.5/10): Another strong duet between Taylor and a male singer (this time Ed Sheeran), but I think “The Last Time” has just a bit more gravity to it.

“Starlight” (7.5/10): A thematically and musically upbeat song, and it’ll be awhile in the discography until Swift sounds this optimistic about romance again.

“Begin Again” (7/10): In contrast to the sweepingly epic songs that conclude #TS2 and #TS3, Taylor goes for reflectively thoughtful in the conclusion to #TS4; it mostly works, although it’s a track I might admire a bit more than I enjoy.

#TS4 mean = 7.34 (standard deviation = 1.90)

A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift: Album #3 (“Speak Now”)

So now we come to #TS3. And let me warn you upfront: This is my favorite of the albums… maybe, just maybe, my favorite album of all time. So, the scores are going to be pretty high, and yet… my favorite Taylor song is not on this album; that’s still to come.

“Speak Now” (released 2010)
“I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you…

“Mine” (8.5/10): By #TS3 Swift had established her reputation as a storyteller, and this album’s opening song signals that she’s going to play to that strength.

“Sparks Fly” (9.5/10): With Taylor in the pouring rain, it’s like “Fearless” (the song) version 2.0, and it kicks off maybe the best streak of songs on any Taylor Swift album.

“Back to December” (10/10): Some of Taylor’s critics (e.g., my wife…) charge her with narcissism, and yeah, they’re probably right; but in this perfectly-composed song (and occasionally elsewhere), she demonstrates her capacity for self-reflection, regret, and even apology.

“Speak Now” (9/10): The title track of the album seems relatively forgotten these days, and that’s a shame, because it’s a great example of Taylor Swift storytelling (and the giggle in one of the final renditions of the chorus is a great touch).

“Dear John” (9.5/10): It’s quite a feat that Taylor sustains such powerful emotion over the course of a song that runs over six and a half minutes, and she does it with formidable confidence.

“Mean” (10/10): This super-fun song foreshadows track #6 on a future album, when indeed she is living in a big ol’ city and shaking off the hate, hate, haters…

“The Story of Us” (9.5/10): I think this is one of the more underappreciated Swift singles, and although I can see how some might not like the “next chapter” transition in the middle of the song, for me it works and fits with the “love is a story” theme that stretches across her early albums.

“Never Grow Up” (8/10): I intended to rate this one lower, but then I listened to it, and was struck by the simplicity of Taylor with only a guitar for instrumentation; if Speak Now were a concert, this would be the song midway through where the singer sits down on a stool with a spotlight on her and chats with the audience for awhile.

“Enchanted” (10/10): Strong, passionate, sweeping, epic–it’s what I enjoy hearing from Taylor Swift, and on an album full of incredible songs, it’s a standout.

“Better Than Revenge” (9/10): I confess this song is a bit of a guilty pleasure since I don’t think it’s a great idea to revel in revenge 🙂, but my appreciation of it is held back by how Taylor overplays her hand–impugning the sexual character of her targets was a step too far.

“Innocent” (8.5/10): A bit of a sleeper on the album, Taylor’s olive branch to Kanye is sweet–too bad that didn’t last (even if it did spawn one or two good songs later).

“Haunted” (9.5/10): Remember back in “Sparks Fly” how Taylor wanted something that would haunt her when her lover wasn’t around?–well, now he’s gone, and that’s exactly how she feels.

“Last Kiss” (4/10): The only real clunker on the album, this 6+-minute song might have been decent if it had been about half as long; in other words, Taylor doesn’t pull off another “Dear John” with this one.

“Long Live” (10/10): The closing track of #TS3 succeeds where the closing track of #TS2 failed, offering an expansive, epic song that sums up the theme of the album, sticks the landing, and yields one of the best Taylor Swift songs of all time.

#TS3 mean = 8.93 (sd = 1.55)