Released in October
If you had told me last March when two of my favourite artists, Bruce Springsteen and Van Halen, had just released great new albums that I'd put a Taylor Swift album ahead of theirs' on my 2012 best-of list and it'd be the second best new musical release I'd hear during the year, I'd have looked at you with the same puzzled and slightly disgusted look that I received when I told a couple of buddies of my love of that album, titled Red. The perverse fun I get from the bewildered reactions to some of my oddball musical tastes (including The Spice Girls, Lights, Backstreet Boys, and Hanson, to name just a few) is accompanied by an ongoing battle within between wanting to resist this uncool music aimed at a tween-to-young adult female audience that's totally illogical for me to be listening to as a middle-aged male, and the inclination to simply surrender to any song if it's catchy and makes an impression. The latter impulse always wins out, to the detriment of the hipness quotient of my CD collection...if it's not already completely unhip to still possess a CD collection in 2013.
I'd heard some Swift singles before, seen some of her overly earnest music videos, watched her perform on talk shows and awards shows (usually with rather cheesy stage productions), and was always unimpressed with most of her songs and especially her often shockingly weak live vocals. Swift's infamous off-key duet with Stevie Nicks at the 2010 Grammys only cemented that reputation. Despite Swift's negatives, I became more interested after watching an excellent 60 Minutes piece on the musician in 2011 that revealed her smarts and poise (Swift manages herself), the fact she plays multiple instruments (guitar, banjo, piano, and ukulele), writes most of her own songs, and that she incredibly walked away from an artist development deal with RCA Records as a complete nobody at the age of 15 because she didn't agree with their vision for her career. Fast-forward to late last year and me giving Red a sample listen after being won over by the crafty hooks of lead single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and being completely knocked over by how fantastic virtually the entire album sounded right off the bat.
Red is packed to bursting with 16 tracks, which is almost always going to produce an over-serving of filler. Not so in this case. Only waltzing ballad "Sad Beautiful Tragic" failed to engage me with its meandering shuffle and mopey vibe - otherwise, Red is wall-to-wall pop excellence. Expand that even further with the album's deluxe edition and you can add two more fine original songs to the collection with "The Moment I Knew" and "Come Back...Be Here" (additional track "Girl At Home" amounts to more of an early sketch of the album's title track than a full-fledged finished recording like the other two songs). Red features a wealth of musical variety: there's the driving pop-rock of that title track, "Holy Ground", and "State Of Grace" (with the latter featuring ringing guitar and drum performances that reminded me of both U2 and Keith Urban-as-inspired-by-U2), the slow-building and measured likes of "Treacherous", "All Too Well", "The Last Time" (a vocal duet with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol), and the lovely "Begin Again", plus the highly infectious straight-up pop of "I Knew You Were Trouble" (with a trendy dubstep-style chorus), "Starlight", and first single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together". Incidentally, the fact that Swift mysteriously continues to get nominated and regularly win so many country music awards speaks volumes about the utter meaningless of such "honours", because maybe 0.5% of Red displays any trace elements of that genre. The musical arrangements and instrumental performances from a host of players are a couple of Red's major strengths and they're given a new perspective by a listen to the album's karaoke version that spotlights all of Red's actual music tracks (and not that watered-down facsimile sound inherent in karaoke music) without Swift's lead vocals. Interesting musical choices like the lack of a typically big instrumental chorus on "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" are highlighted (most pop songs would have busted out the louder guitars during the chorus sections), as the song's vocal hook has enough power to win over listeners. You're frequently reminded of Swift's young age with giggles heard on a couple of the songs, her tabloid fodder boy-heavy lyrics, and an occasional stray into territory that feels a little on the "too cute" side (like the still-solid ukulele-anchored number "Stay Stay Stay"), but the woman was barely into her twenties when Red came out, so knocking her for sometimes being a little too lightweight would be slightly ridiculous. Perhaps it's just ridiculous that I can get so much immense enjoyment out of a song like "22" that I'm two decades and a gender removed from being the target audience for, as Swift sings about celebrating the freedom of youth with her girlfriends...but then that's why I've had a lifelong captivation with the mysterious and unpredictable power of music.
Vocally, Swift sounds just fine on Red and aside from the one aforementioned weak song, that's the only other problem I have with the album - there's clearly been some major studio aid from the army of Red's nine producers to achieve that result (Swift is also credited as a producer on eight of the songs). My suspicions are based on the fact that, well, I have ears and have heard Swift sing four or five of these tracks on different occasions live on TV. There's a flatness and lack of presence to her voice in those live settings that simply isn't evident on the recorded versions, so it's not hard to connect the dots. And while vocal touchups and pitch corrections have been commonplace for decades on a lot more albums than you'd probably imagine, methinks Swift's vocal limitations necessitate a lot more technological manipulation than is normally the case. That diminishes the overall respect I have for Red, in a slightly stronger way of how I have a little less respect from music artists who don't write their own material. On that front, Swift passes with flying colors, however. She wrote nine of Red's tracks alone and used co-writers on the other seven and all but one of those tracks are very good to outstanding. I'm hard-pressed to recall the last time I heard an album with 12+ songs on it that had that stellar of a batting average.
Finally, just because I've always been a bit of a buff when it comes to album sales figures, here's some of the enormous numbers Red tallied in its first week of release (all figures, taken from Billboard magazine, are from U.S. sales because they provide the most detailed data):
- Red's first week sales of 1.2 million copies made it the biggest album debut since Eminem's The Eminem Show sold 1.3 million in 2002 and accounted for 19.3% of all albums sold in America that week
- Red had the eighth largest sales week for a release in the SoundScan era (since 1991) and is one of only 18 albums to break the million sales marks in its first week (Swift also became the first female artist to do that twice)
- After just its first week of sales last October, Red had already become the third highest selling album of 2012 in the U.S.