Taylor Swift 3 stars
A platinum artist many times over, singer Taylor Swift seems to be on top of the world at age 22. Shes decided to date a younger Kennedy, she has earned millions, and she has touched the lives of generations with her delicate lyrical sensibility and songs of love. Shes a near-constant hot topic on the Internet whose existence is more closely watched than just about anyones on the planet. And on Red, shes easing into this role.
This is Swifts fourth album since her breakout debut in 2006, and its the most consistently surprising of the lot even if it reveals an artist whose success has most definitely gone to her head. Completely aware of the scope of her fame, Swift is more often the teacher than the student in her new songs, and in this role shes offering lessons on the importance of musical versatility while continuing her laser-beam focus on the emotional workings of her heart.
This versatility is the albums most striking characteristic. Beginning with the aspirational rock song State of Grace, which sounds like a U2 cover circa The Joshua Tree, and moving through dance pop of the Max Martin-produced I Knew You Were Trouble to the soft-rock gem The Lucky One, Swift seems to have crossed some sort of emotional threshold.
Absent are the tentative questions of a young woman trying to process life and love through song, and in their place are the assured words and music of a star who feels like she has learned a lot about life and wants to share her knowledge. Its no accident that she name-drops Pablo Neruda in the first sentence of an introductory Prologue in the records liner notes.
This two-paragraph essay sets the tone for the sentiments to come. This album is about the other kinds of love that Ive recently fallen in and out of, Swift writes. Love that was treacherous, sad, beautiful, and tragic. But most of all, this record is about love that was red.
Red is a big record that reaches for Importance and occasionally touches it, filled with well-constructed pop songs Taylor-made for bedroom duets. If Everything Has Changed, a powerful collaboration with British singer Ed Sheeran, or the mandolin-driven romance Treacherous, were automobiles, theyd be parked in an Audi or BMW showroom sleek, solid and built for comfort. There are no bumps on Red. Only clean, perfectly rendered American popular music.
But to toss one of Swifts better similes back at her, the pop fodder on Red at its worst feels like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street. Much of the records expansion is in sound rather than structure even if half of Red will still work perfectly well on commercial country radio playlists. Whether its the harder rock of State of Grace or the Hallmark-ready treacle of I Almost Do, at times Swift feels like a mere cypher for the music that surrounds her. To mix metaphors, she occasionally resembles a flawless mannequin upon which any number of fashions look fabulous.
In this context, to call Swifts sonic expansion a brave move is to credit her with accomplishing something more artistically significant than simply shifting toward the center of her demographic. By setting rural music alongside more urban sounds of the moment, Swift is arguably just responding to a pop world in which country singles might please her base, but certainly doesnt expand it.
But thats the cynics view, and Swift on Red has little time for cynicism. Rather, shes striving for something much more grand and accomplished.
Swedish House Mafia 2 1/2 stars
Like a snippet of a hit song in one of their fast-moving DJ sets, the dance-music megastars of Swedish House Mafia are leaving us almost as soon as they arrived. On Nov. 16 the Stockholm trio which started affecting Top 40 charts in 2010 with the Pharrell Williams collaboration One will launch its so-called One Last Tour, a global trek scheduled to play the 35,000-capacity Los Angeles State Historic Park next March.
You can understand the groups early retirement as a going-out-on-top maneuver. (Surely thats how Swedish House Mafia understands it.) But might Axwell, Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso be going out too early? Until Now, their second full-length, comes just as a growing crew of dance producers including Avicii, Zedd and Calvin Harris, who this week supplanted Swedish House Mafia at the top of Englands singles chart are moving successfully into pop.
And nothing about this vocal-heavy set suggests an aversion to pop. In Calling (Lose My Mind) Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic works his sensitive-dude falsetto over surging synths, while a remix of Coldplays Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall somehow boosts that tunes earnest effervescence. Dont You Worry Child, featuring John Martin, is even more immediate, with a throbbing keyboard riff and a lyric about meeting a girl of a different kind. It sounds more like a beginning than an end.