It's rare these days for a record to receive a formal introduction, the kind of welcoming message that once graced the back of LP sleeves, preparing potential listeners for the journey ahead.
A salute, then, to Taylor Swift, who has embraced the idea on this, her fourth album. Swift's love life is much gossiped about in the US and the new record is inspired by particular romances: "the 'red' relationships", as she puts it in the CD booklet's revealing prologue. "The ones that went from zero to a hundred miles per hour and then hit a wall and exploded. And it was awful. And ridiculous. And desperate. And thrilling."
The Nashville-schooled singer is rather less tempestuous musically, although she continues to carefully edge free of her country origins. The 2010 album Speak Now introduced hints of indie rock and regular pop and on Red she furthers that shift via some eminent new collaborators.
All are from Europe, which cynical onlookers might suggest is a calculated attempt to widen her fan base beyond the US heartlands. But it works. On the indie front, the young English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran co-wrote and duets on the cinematic Everything Has Changed, while Gary Lightbody from the Irish stadium rockers Snow Patrol does likewise on The Last Time, an epic, string-laden ballad.
More incongruous are the three tracks co-written by Max Martin and Shellback, the Swedish duo responsible for Maroon 5's dancefloor statement Moves Like Jagger. Awash with tinny urban beats and sassier-than-usual sentiments, these are suitably catchy but could have been performed by any number of less able US pop stars. A knowingly witty lyric from their co-authored lead single, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, perhaps explains the urge to produce edgier work. "Find your peace of mind," she berates an errant ex, "with some indie record that's much cooler than mine."
Swift was renowned for writing all of her own material on previous releases and the many self-penned efforts here suggest that the 22-year-old is perfectly capable of broadening her approach without outside help. The album opener, State of Grace, is an impressive driving rocker; The Lucky One marries punchy pop with some mature lyrical ideas; and the title track deals amusingly with the madcap affairs she mentioned in the prologue. "Loving him," she concludes, "is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street." Those of us who haven't sold 22 million records will just have to take her word for it.
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