Taylor Swift is infamous as the superstar who’s perpetually in shock when she wins awards. But it’s instructive to remember that those “Who, me?” moments have taken place at the CMAs as often as the VMAs. Swift has become the biggest pop star in the world even as her songs, and her image, still wink at country. Her fourth album Red, meanwhile, is colored by a handful of songs in which she throws herself headfirst into radio zeitgeist: dance beats, careful dollops of dubstep and an overall glossy sheen courtesy of the production duo Max Martin and Shellback.
These moments are also where the album shines. In songs like “22″ and “I Knew You Were Trouble” she finds considerable chemistry with her mainstream-pop hired guns. These are bright blasts of tight songwriting where Swift exhumes and examines relationships that could leave some with whiplash, describing them as shifts in color (from red to blue to grey, hence the album title) or falls from flying high to the “cold, hard ground.” In response, she’s come back at her punchiest (“It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters/ And make fun of our exes,” is likely aimed at Jake Gyllenhaal), with songs that suggest Swift can indulge her curiosities and come out the other side with some of her best work.
Yet, the album feels like a growing pain. Soft, meditative ballads like “Treacherous” and “All Too Well” are fine songs, but they are her bread-and-butter, and Swift has done them better on previous albums. Peppered in between the outsized pop tracks and songs like “State of Grace” and “Holy Ground” that deftly nick Snow Patrol-style arena rock, they feel slight – even a little musty. The album’s sequencing feels like a playlist on shuffle – some new Taylor here, a little old Taylor there – which is a problem that has not plagued her in the past. Still, Red contains a multitude of gems, and leaves open the possibility that there’s a classic album waiting for Swift to uncover within herself as she grows and wrestles with both her life and her sound.