Red (Taylor’s Version)

Taken in 2013 on the Red tour.

That sounds familiar, I said to myself as I got out of my car on Saturday, November 13. I had just listened to the entirety of Red (Taylor’s Version) the day prior. The song on the radio was “Message in a Bottle,” a veritable bop from Taylor Swift’s latest album, released on Friday, November 12. I couldn’t believe the radio was already playing a song from the vault, but it’s really no surprise considering the mega promotional tour Taylor is doing to back Red (Taylor’s Version).

Even before Taylor came out with her new rendition of Red, the original recording was destined to go down as one of her best albums ever. I can say that confidently even while acknowledging she has many years left to produce quality tunes. But in Red (Taylor’s Version) (hereafter referred to as Red TV), we have Taylor Swift’s greatest album of all time.

Red TV pairs the 20 tracks that had been previously released as Red (Deluxe Version) with 10 new-ish songs from the “vault,” as she likes to say. I say “new-ish” because “Ronan,” “Better Man,” and “Babe” had all been released in various forms previously. With Red TV, Taylor really does us a solid: she could have released the 10 songs from the vault as its own album and called it a day. The vault songs on their own would be catapulted into the top three albums Taylor had ever produced, by the way. Instead, with the steadfast hands of Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner on production, she recorded the entirety of Red (Deluxe Version) as well and gave us categorically improved versions of those tried-and-true songs from a decade ago.

In listening to Red TV, there is nuance both in the backing music and Taylor’s vocals. On “Treacherous,” a delicate ballad, the opening strum of the acoustic guitar sounds more crisp and clear than ever, while Taylor’s vocals follow in a similar vein. Much like the rest of the songs from Red (Deluxe Version), this new rendition of “Treacherous” is far superior to the ham-handed sound of the original recording.

I will say her new rendition of “22” lacks something for me, which may be the sheer vim we heard in her original recording: the sound of a 22-year-old singing about the glory of being 22. On its whole, Red TV paints a picture of a tragic love affair with an inward-looking, unavailable lover (rumored to be Jake Gyllenhaal), and I hadn’t previously pieced together that Taylor exalts turning 22 because her 21st birthday was such a disaster given her lover’s callous disregard.

Another thread I hadn’t worked out from listening to Red (Deluxe Version) but now see clearly is the shame and embarrassment Taylor felt from not being “seen” by her lover. Specifically, he didn’t think she was funny. This is an exceptional revelation—and Taylor knows it—because she is obviously hilarious. Her dry wit as evidenced by late-night talk show interviews, her quirky videos and commentary about her cats, and her live-performance banter is obvious to anyone who follows her. I’m flummoxed—but not at all surprised—by the irony of someone who carries a “fuck the patriarchy” keychain finding himself unable to believe a funny woman is funny. Just something to consider.

One last overarching observation: Taylor has said herself that Red TV has “like 14 genres” of music on it, which I think is a fair assessment. Through listening to this masterpiece of an album, I’ve realized that she doesn’t once use her “triumphant key change” on any song. You’ll recall “Love Story” and “Mr. Perfectly Fine” featuring a sudden key change in the last chorus of the song. While this type of key change is clearly a remnant from her country roots, her specific use of it has represented a turning point in the narrative, one where the protagonist (she) has finally arrived. Taylor brings out the triumphant key change on “Betty” on folklore but there’s no sign of it on any Red TV song. Perhaps this intentional omission of a familiar device is because there is no triumph in a love lost, the central theme of Red TV.

Let’s turn to the 10 stellar songs from the vault that Taylor gifted us with Red TV.

In the Rolling Stone review of Red TV, the writer argues that one or two of the album’s songs presage the narrative approach Taylor took on folklore, but I’d say that her penchant for detail and story-telling has been evident in her music from the start and is, to use a phrase, “burning red” across Red TV (“Stay Stay Stay,” “The Lucky One,” “All Too Well,” and “Starlight” are just a few examples). Taylor recorded “Ronan,” a biographical song about a four-year-old boy who dies from cancer, for a fundraiser and her gift for textured detail in songwriting is on full display. As a mother of an infant daughter, this song just hits differently for me now. I can’t help but sob from the very first stanza. Her ability to translate the human experience—one she hasn’t lived herself—is unparalleled here.

For whatever reason, Taylor originally gave “Better Man” to Lady A (lol at them stealing that name for their band, you may know them as Lady Antebellum) and not-so-secretly I think I prefer that version. In Taylor’s rendition, the slowed-down song features more flair and nuance within lines. Realizing “Better Man” is a Red era song really gave it new meaning for me.

Boy do I love “Nothing New,” and honestly I can’t believe she withheld this song from us for so long. But I’m kind of happy she did because we got Phoebe Bridgers singing on it. This simple, moody, and perfect song about the revelations of growing older and more familiar to those around her features some of the most profound lines Taylor has written. Chief among them is, “How can a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22?” Can you believe Taylor produced that line at such a young age? Such profound wisdom rarely comes to a songwriter in their entire career much less at the beginning of it.

Sugarland originally recorded “Babe,” and I definitely prefer Taylor’s version. She sounds great and this somehow upbeat take on a melancholy topic could be a single.

As soon as I hear the first bars of “Message in a Bottle,” I can’t help but dance. This is the boppiest bop on all of Red TV; yes, I’m looking at you “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It’s crazy to me her team didn’t put this song on the original album because it could have easily been the lead single. Fast forward to 2021 and it is, I guess!

All of the vault songs on Red TV are top-notch, but this particular stretch of songs is probably the strongest. Next we have “I Bet You Think About Me,” sung with country singer Chris Stapleton. The hefty country tune draws a sharp-as-a-knife contrast between the worlds of Taylor and her lover who she paints to be an elitist (“Mr. Superior”). Her takedown of him is vicious yet I can’t stop singing along. My favorite part of the song is the outro where she goes in strong, using the literary device synecdoche when she sings, “I bet you think about me in your house with your organic shoes and your million-dollar couch” to represent the whole of the hollow poseur she sings about. I also love that she acknowledges he probably thinks “oh my God, she’s insane, she wrote a song about me” – LOL of all LOLs.

Across her ouevre, Taylor has declared 2 am as her hour of inspiration (“Last Kiss” and “I Wish You Would” are two examples), yet on “I Bet You Think About Me” and later on “Forever Winter,” she assigns 3 am as the hour to observe other characters in her songs. Something about the wee hours of the morning gets her.

“Forever Winter” is so well-written and definitely a bop, but it’s a sad story about someone who’s contemplating suicide. I hear The Beatles in this song.

“Run” is another duet with Ed Sheeran, purported to be the first song they wrote together. It’s melodic and delicate and puts their beautiful intertwining harmonies on full display. Somehow I’m reminded of a recent Harry Styles song when I listen to this one.

I think “The Very First Night” also has single potential. Instead of recalling the emotionally painful part of their love affair, this song focuses on the happy moments Taylor owes to the relationship she had with him. This one has country-pop crossover—the hallmark of Red—written all over it.

Last but certainly not least is “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” which is being called Taylor’s “magnum opus.” There are a lot of reasons why that’s the prevailing sentiment about this one, and it’s evident Taylor is most proud of this song, and this specific version of the song, judging by her repeated performances of it (as well as the short film she directed which portrays on screen the vivid imagery deeply embedded in the lyrics). She said that “All Too Well” was her favorite song from this album, and despite never being a single or a song that had a video, it became regarded as her best song of all time by fans.

I’m impressed and amazed by the level of detail and cinematic quality she imbues into the new stanzas of this song. Yet I feel it’s slightly meandering, where the original “All Too Well” had a very clear narrative structure: exposition where the premise of their relationship is established; a climax where the love disintegrates (“Maybe we got lost in translation / Maybe I asked for too much / But maybe this thing was a masterpiece ‘til you tore it all up … And 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 lying here / ‘Cause I remember it all, all, all too well”); and a clear denouement that’s evident in the pared-back instrumentals and lyrics focusing on picking up the pieces. In contrast, the 10-minute version walks deeper into the abyss of pain and torture her lover inflicted on her.

One of the greatest joys of listening to the “Taylor’s Version” albums so far is seeing Taylor’s songwriting process up close and personal. It’s clear she’s fascinated by certain phrases and wants to articulate them in her work. For example, on “Mr. Perfectly Fine” from Fearless (Taylor’s Version), we get her first use of “casually cruel,” which is such a sharp observation that would later make its home in “All Too Well.” On the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” we hear her invoke Shakespeare’s “all’s well that ends well” (“They say that all’s well that ends well / But I’m in a new hell every time you double-cross my mind”). She would later bring this idea back in “Lover” but in a more positive light (“All’s well that ends well to end up with you”).

Across her albums, Taylor has called on her relationship with her dad (“The Best Day,” “Mine,” and “cardigan,” among others), but it’s on this 10-minute version of “All Too Well” that we get his voice: “But then he watched me watch the front door, willing you to come / And he said, ‘It’s supposed to be fun, turning 21.’” I find it interesting that Taylor chooses to bring her father into the song, rather than her mom, with whom she has a strong and deep relationship. This feels intentional as a means to illustrate the power grab her lover forged by winning over her father—and everything that goes with that—early in their relationship.

Some of Taylor’s greatest lyrics occur across this song. Among my favorites is

And there we are again, when nobody had to know

You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath

And then there’s the final verse, which is radiant in its brilliance:

And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punch line goes

“I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age”

From when your Brooklyn broke my skin and bones

I’m a soldier who’s returning half her weight

And did the twin flame bruise paint you blue?

Just between us, did the love affair maim you, too?

‘Cause in this city’s barren cold

I still remember the first fall of snow

And how it glistened as it fell

I remember it all too well

Red TV is an incredible feat of songwriting and I’m so glad Taylor gave it to us.

She’s Just a Dime Store Cowgirl, but It’s Not All She’ll Ever Be

Kacey Musgraves has experienced a meteoric rise–not just in country music, but contemporary music as we know it. She’s toured with Willie Nelson and Allison Krauss; she’s been to a ton of festivals, exposing her music to new audiences across America; and on her current press tour for Pageant Material, her latest record that dropped last week, she’s hit up the likes of NPR and even Pitchfork has reviewed the singular album.

Before Pageant Material came out, I anticipated a great record–and it’s far better than “great”–but part of me wondered if Musgraves would have enough of her “signature” material to draw from to top Same Trailer Different Park, her beyond-outstanding album that earned her a few Grammys. If she’s been out on the road all this time, would she still have the ability to incisively critique small-town living in the South that made Same Trailer so incredible? The answer is a resounding yes.

The first two songs quell that anxiety. “High Time,” the opening track, sets the musical tone for the entire record: throw-back country sounds like pedal steel, whistling, strings, and even some hand-clapping. The artful lyrics reassure us that she’s back to who she is at the core:

Been missing my roots
I’m getting rid of the flash
Nobody needs a thousand-dollar suit just to take out the trash

“Dime Store Cowgirl,” a standout on the record, chronicles the emblems of success she’s achieved with her trademark wink-wink-nudge-nudge elocution (“I’ve had my picture made with Willie Nelson/Stayed in a hotel with a pool”). Yet the heart of the song reminds us that she’s grounded, despite her achievements, and the bridge punctuates this idea: “I’m happy with what I got, cause what I got is all I need/Just cause it don’t cost a lot, don’t cost a lot, don’t mean it’s cheap.”

Overall, the record is about the human condition–you could probably this say about a lot of music–but there’s something special about Musgraves’ perspective. She takes the platitudes we’ve all come to know (“You can take me out of the country/But you can’t take the country out of me”) and even shares with us some of her own (“Life ain’t always roses and pantyhose”). Some may call this approach simplistic, but I call it brilliant. Musgraves writes lyrics that roll off the tongue and lodge themselves in your brain because they’re made up of completely natural language. They’re rife with detail and imagery and convey big ideas. She’s probably one of the best lyricists out there today.

“Pageant Material” and “This Town” are two examples of Musgraves’ masterful writing and powerful commentary. From the first verse, you may think that “Pageant Material” is a self-deprecating tune about Musgraves’ inability to live up to Southern beauty standards (“I ain’t pageant material”), but it’s actually a critique of the ridiculousness of pageants:

God bless the girls who smile and hug
When they’re called out as a runner up on TV
I wish I could, but I just can’t
Wear a smile when a smile ain’t what I’m feelin’
And who’s to say I’m a 9.5
Or a 4.0 if you don’t even know me

She ends the song with a punch: “I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.” In a way, the title “Pageant Material” refers both to what Musgraves isn’t (the first-level meaning of the song) and the stuff that gave her inspiration to write her critique: literal material about pageants and what they represent to and perpetuate in Southern society.

At face value, “This Town” sounds like a paean to deep South small-town ways–and maybe that’s what it mostly is–but, on the flip side, it reveals Musgraves’ highly evolved point of view:

We finally got a flashing light, they put it in last year
And everybody got real happy when the grocery store got beer

I don’t know many country songwriters today who are able to simultaneously describe something in detail and stand back to critique it. My favorite lyric in the song does just that, as well: “What goes around comes back around by Friday’s football game.”

The thoughtful “Somebody to Love” could have gone by a different title because it isn’t a love song; it gets at that human condition theme that runs through the record. “Die Fun” lends insight into Musgraves’ “live in the moment” mantra. “Family Is Family” is a hilarious and very pointed tune that moves along at a clip (“Family is family, in church or in prison/You get what you get, and you don’t get to pick ’em”). And “Biscuits” feels like a “Follow Your Arrow”/”Trailer Song” redux.

The last song I’ll mention is “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” which some publications have suggested contains a dig at Taylor Swift. I’d like to correct and clear up this misperception. If you listen to any of the lyrics to this song, it’s abundantly clear that it’s about the Country Music Establishment, and even conservative life and politics at large:

I don’t need a membership to validate
The hard work I put in and the dues I paid
Never been to good at just goin’ along
I guess I’ve always kind of been for the underdog

Favors for friends will get you in and get you far
Shouldn’t be about who it is you know
But about how good you are

The irony of the song is its thorough country feel. A slight back beat of the drum, an acoustic guitar that strums along, and a pedal steel cutting up a line behind the vocals.

I think some of these idiot reviewers are latching onto the line “another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me.” Big Machine is Taylor’s record company, but since when is Taylor part of the “good ol’ boys club”? “Big machine” more likely refers to the idea of living up to certain standards to become accepted–in country music and by Southern ideals. Anyway, don’t listen to the haters! Musgraves has admitted there’s a bit of dig embedded within this song, but surely it’s not toward Taylor Swift.

If you liked Same Trailer and Kacey Musgraves’ witty observations, you’ll enjoy Pageant Material. If you’ve never heard of her, you should definitely give this record a listen anyway.

Even better things are on the horizon for Kacey Musgraves. She may feel like she’s a dime store cowgirl, and I do believe she’ll always stick to her roots, but she’ll always be much more than that to me.

1989 by Taylor Swift

IMG_0040After my initial listen of 1989, I realized why Taylor Swift released “Shake It Off” as the first single off the album. On its own, “Shake It Off” signals a shift in her priorities and sound, and can be categorized as the “Mean” of 2014. When heard in its context, the song represents the melodic center of the album. The other songs radiate out from “Shake It Off” in various shapes and gradients of the pure pop sound imbued in the track. With this at its center, 1989 is not only a departure from her supposed country roots, but also serves as a revolution in pop music as we know it.

The album begins with a surrealist, synth pop number called “Welcome to New York.” The rhythmic sway of the song makes it ideal for walking down any avenue in Manhattan, and the inspiring, optimistic lyrics warm any jaded New Yorker’s heart (let’s not comment on her NYC ambassador appointment). “Welcome to New York” sets the tone—both lyrically and melodically—for the rest of the album. When she sings, “The lights are so bright but they never blind me,” it suggests that she is perhaps less star struck by this city than we (read: the media) like to believe.

IMG_0042

On 1989, Taylor experiments with form. The second track, “Blank Space,” is a brilliant piece of commentary on the media’s portrayal of her so-called boy-obsessed public image. She sings in the chorus,

Got a long list of ex-lovers

They’ll tell you I’m insane

‘Cause you know I love the players

And you love the game

Jessica Valenti has already picked up on the sheer intelligence of this song, which you can read here, and the masterpiece of a video is below. However, one of the things that struck me the most about this song is the extremely long chorus. The above passage is the first part of the chorus, with a second part that follows. On the third track, “Style,” a paean to a past lover whose name shall remain undisclosed, she includes a similarly long chorus, composed of two parts, and doesn’t even have a real bridge. As she did with “All Too Well” from Red, which did not have a chorus yet told an elegant story, Taylor has masterfully played with the structure of her songs and has transformed what we may have considered possible for a pop song.

In another genius move, Taylor includes a song called “Bad Blood,” which sounds like it’s straight off a Katy Perry album. And, interestingly enough, the song is rumored to be about the sexy songstress. Its deep beats and clever lyrics make it feel applicable to anyone who may have done you wrong in your life.

One of my personal favorites is “I Know Places,” which seems appropriate for the new Hunger Games film, as other reviewers have suggested. The fact that “I Know Places,” a superb track, lands at number 12 on this album truly demonstrates the tremendous caliber of the finished product. The final song, “Clean,” is an excellent bookend, as she sings about letting go of past hurt and finally breathing (living) again and its sound slightly contrasts to the opening song, which shows the progression of this work of art.

IMG_0041

On the deluxe edition, she offers three additional tracks with a handful of voice memos that reveal her songwriting process and prowess. “New Romantics” is the clear winner of the deluxe tracks, with its incisive commentary on society, and the voice memos are fascinating.

If you’re not one of the more than one million people who bought her album last week, become one of the next million this week. 1989 is Taylor’s best album to date, and I can’t wait to see her continue to evolve.

“x” Marks the Spot

Fingers sliding across guitar strings and a simple note or two begin Ed Sheeran’s latest album, x, on the song “The One.” The regret-tinged love tune sets the tone for Sheeran’s tour de force. You see, in Sheeran’s latest album, he raps, sings in falsetto and gets you moving in your seat with tracks like “Sing” but, by and large, the material he covers centers on his struggle to maintain a romantic relationship while pursuing his dreams.

In the April 2013 Vanity Fair cover story, Taylor Swift addresses the double standard when it comes to writing songs that are often about love.

For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated—a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way—that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.

Swift hit it on the head when she called it sexist. Case in point: Ed Sheeran. His songs are nearly solely devoted to love and his experience with it, and nobody remarks about his penchant for writing about his “feelings.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s clear that Sheeran appreciates women, when he writes lyrics like “You look so wonderful in your dress/ I love your hair like that/ The way it falls on the side of your neck/ Down your shoulders and back” in the lovey-dovey “Tenerife Sea.” But, overwhelmingly, he draws inspiration from his feelings, too.

taylor swift and ed sheeran

taylor swift and ed sheeran

Though the subject matter may be similar, x is a departure from his debut, +, in terms of influences and tones. Justin Timberlake and John Mayer, to name two well-known artists, are all over this record in spirit. And Sheeran owes a lot to hip hop, as he brings together folk-pop and rap on every other song. His chart-topping single “Sing” is right for the club, due to its dance-inducing rhythm and sway, yet features acoustic guitar strums all over the track. With this song alone, Sheeran has single-handedly transformed a genre.

And some may be surprised that Sheeran veers on the adult matters of sex, drugs and alcohol, but I’m not. The beginnings of these subjects were all over + and, though he may have toured with squeaky-clean Taylor Swift, that has no bearing whatsoever on his freedom to write about his reality.

For listeners who are familiar with +, “Take It Back” resonates as a new manifesto that picks up where “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” left off. Ever aware of his unique physique, Sheeran begins the third verse with:

I take it back now

Now I don’t ever want to be perfect,

Cause I’m a singer that you

Never want to see shirtless

And I accept the fact that someone’s gotta win worst-dressed,

Taking my first steps into the scene,

Giving me focus

In his rap, he reminds us he’s still on the rise—and, judging by his quick ascent, he’s surely onto something. The second song on the album, “I’m a Mess,” features a repetitive swell as the outro, much like “Give Me Love” did on +. In my opinion, the rise and fall of these outros makes for successful, memorable and rhythmically clever songs.

For me, the first 13 songs are winners, but the final three could have been omitted. x is a long album, and Sheeran may have benefited from using the final tracks as bonus ones, rather than cobbling them in with the rest of the very strong, very incisive songs that precede them.

All in all, x is definitely a success for Sheeran. Recently, Taylor Swift encouraged her followers to buy Sheeran’s new album with a photo of him snuggling with her cat, Meredith, on Instagram. Swift exposed the softer side of Sheeran with that post, but it’s something any listener of x will also witness through his poignant songs.

Taylor Swift Live!

Last night, I saw Taylor Swift perform at the Newark Prudential Center. She was incredible! Ed Sheeran opened for her, and he was spectacular, as well.

taylor swift and ed sheeran

taylor swift and ed sheeran

They played together on “Everything Has Changed” from the back of arena, near where our seats were located. It was a mind-blowing experience!

I took a video, too, of her performance of “Mean.” Check it out below and enjoy 🙂

In Defense of Taylor Swift

taylor swiftSomeone asked me today what Taylor Swift means to me. An odd question, sure, but I thought about it. Basically, I told her that I perceive Taylor to be a great role model for girls. One that should be admired, and one whom I personally admire. I was surprised that I didn’t have something less generic, more unique to say to her.

It’s articles like this one in the New York Times (in Sunday Styles, no less) that get under my skin. They say she dates too many men, that she’s a cradle robber, that she’s on the decline. Though, my greatest fear is that the article is correct in alleging that there is a robust backlash against Taylor happening as we speak. There is, and I wish it wasn’t so.

I know many of you read this blog to find out what restaurants I’m visiting and what I think about them. But, to me, this blog serves another purpose. It’s a defense of Taylor Swift.

That may alienate some, for certain, but it’s the way I feel. Taylor is an extremely gifted young person, who writes music from the heart. And, in stringing together simple words into memorable phrases, she touches so many lives.

So, the  magazines that she graces the covers of don’t sell as well as those with Lady Gaga plastered upon them? So, CoverGirl didn’t renew her contract? So what, New York Times!

She’s a genuine, grounded individual who has her whole life ahead of her to do great things. An ardent supporter of arts education, she already donates significant chunks of cash to charitable organizations that help young people. And, by virtue of her music alone, she influences the minds and hearts of many.

No matter what happens in the media–whether she dates another 10 famous men and sees each relationship crash and burn–I still believe in her. And I will continue to believe in her, no matter what.

I hope you will continue to support me by reading this blog.

 

Background Vocals and Intricate Instrumentals on “Red”

taylor swiftI’ve exercised restraint in posting about Taylor Swift’s new album, Red. Truth be told, it’s one of my favorite albums–ever. The lyrics are intriguing, the music is upbeat and … swift. And the songs just make me want to sing along, all day long.

In my many listens, I’ve noticed that Taylor Swift creatively uses background vocals to enhance the richness of certain songs. On her previous albums, Taylor begins and ends the songs with the same elements throughout–the same vocals, the same instruments, the same chorus. On Red, she ventures into a more complex world of music, rewarding the listener for sticking with her for the entire song.

Case in point: the opening track, “State of Grace,” begins with a drum, a guitar, a bass, and Taylor’s beautiful voice lilting lyrics over the pounding beats. As if the song weren’t intense enough already, she throws in background vocals singing “oh oh oh oh whoa” in the second instance of the chorus, thus making the song pop even more.

In “All Too Well,” possibly my favorite song on the album, Taylor begins the song with an acoustic guitar playing chords and an electric guitar chiming in with a melody. After the first verse, the patter of a snare drum comes in. What’s unique about this song is that Taylor does not use a traditional chorus throughout. Rather, each verse is followed by the same chords for a “chordsus” but not a true “chorus” since the lyrics aren’t the same each time around.

For example, the first instance of the chordsus goes:

Cause there we are again on that little town street

You almost ran the red cause you were lookin’ over at me

Wind in my hair, I was there, I remember it all too well

In the second chordsus, suddenly an influx of music overwhelms the listener–a male background vocalist sings harmony to Taylor’s melody, with the following lyrics:

Cause here we are again in the middle of the night

We dance around the kitchen in the refrigerator light

Down the stairs, I was there, I remember it all too well

From there, the electric guitar really moves and the whole song seems to explode at the bridge. Her vocals elevate in the next verse and, what the listener gets as he or she continues to listen to the song is an exhilarating experience.

On “Holy Ground,” she does something similar as she did on “State of Grace”–building into the song with interesting background vocals. “Holy Ground” has a fast clip and once the listener gets to the second verse, we hear female singers in the background, enhancing the spirit of the song.

A fan favorite, “Everything Has Changed” that features vocals by Ed Sheeran, also rewards the listener. Undeniably catchy and rhythmically beautiful, “Everything Has Changed” features Sheeran’s harmony to Taylor’s melody on the first chorus. Already filled with background vocals from Sheeran’s charming harmony, the song takes on a new dimension in the second chorus with a guitar playing underneath the chorus refrain, doing its own little pretty thing.

Taylor Swift never did this before–this strategic use of background vocals and intricate instrumentals. After a close listen to her previous albums, I realized that the only other time she may have nearly used background vocals in this way was on the song “Enchanted” from Speak Now. “Enchanted” undoubtedly builds and reaches a climax at each chorus, but it’s the same build over and over throughout the song. It isn’t strategic the way Red plays.

This is just an observation I had about this album that clearly demonstrates a new sense of maturity about Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift’s “Red” – An Act of Maturity

taylor swift

I love the New York Times. Really, I do. Not only is it the world’s leading newspaper, it speaks my language–the language of liberals. As much as it might not want to admit this, it does. However, I’m sometimes miffed by their reviews. They often miss the mark. For a paper as erudite as this one, it seems, their reviewers should “get” whatever they’re reviewing.

Case in point: Taylor Swift’s latest album Red. In a piece titled, “No More Kid Stuff for Taylor Swift,” Jon Caramanica (an expert on pop music, perhaps?) provides a glimpse into what he believes Red is all about.

He erroneously begins the review by stating that Taylor’s sole two subjects are love and heartbreak. Has he not heard “Eyes Open” or “Ronan”? Surely, a New York Times reviewer would do their research prior to stating “facts” all over the place. But, no, not Caramanica. Strike number one against his piece.

To frame his perspective that he’ll later support, he states, “Her growth is largely musical, not experiential.” Here’s where I mostly disagree with Caramanica.

What’s strange about his review is that he actually cites lyrics from Red that support the opposite of his thesis. For example, he picks up on the mini-conversation Taylor has with herself during “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” I believe this aside reveals Taylor’s true sense of humor, which, in turn, shows her evolution from serious country star to someone who’s willing to laugh at herself–an adult trait. Carmanica says, “There is something different in Ms. Swift’s voice here: it’s serious and deep, and also shrewd. She has been through this before. She sounds like an adult.” Right, she sounds like an adult–so how does this prove that her growth is solely musical, not experiential?

Caramanica also cites “I Knew You Were Trouble” as misplaced evidence of his own thesis. Instead of proving that it’s just the music that has evolved, he pins Taylor as someone who has pointed the finger at herself as the “culpable” agent in the rocky relationship she sings about. Isn’t that something an adult would do? Isn’t this self-implication unique to Red? I think so.

Providing insight into previously uncharted territory for Taylor, Caramanica discusses Taylor’s foray into the sensual experience of love. How does this not show her evolution has been experiential?  “On ‘Treacherous,’ written with the pop savant Dan Wilson, she sighs, ‘I’ll do anything you say if you say it with your hands,'” he writes.

Beyond Caramanica’s lyrics examples, there are other lyrics that reveal Taylor’s newfound journey into adulthood. In “The Lucky One,” a piece rife with commentary about being in the spotlight, Taylor sings,

And they still tell the legend of how you disappeared,

How you took the money and your dignity and got the hell out.

They say you bought a bunch of land somewhere

Chose the Rose Garden over Madison Square,

And it took some time, but I understand it now.

‘Cause now my name is up in lights, but I think you got it right.

These lyrics signal to the reader that Taylor has had a revelation about her celebrity. “Yeah, they tell you now you’re the lucky one,” she sings, about herself. She is the lucky one, and she knows it, but uses the story of the ex-celebrity as a cautionary tale for herself and her own trajectory. If this doesn’t show “experiential” maturity, I’m not sure what does.

And the fact that Taylor, a seasoned songwriter in her own right who has had 50 Billboard Top 100 hits, made the adult move to collaborate with her “dream” industry songwriters and producers proves she doesn’t need to take full credit for her songs–an egoless decision and something not many songwriters who have had the success Taylor has had would dare do.

An element of Caramanica’s review that I enjoyed was his observation that country cannot define Taylor and that she’s driving her own terms in the pop arena. “That’s because Ms. Swift is post-gatekeeper: country radio no longer gets to define her, and pop radio has accepted her novel terms,” he writes. I believe this is true, and I appreciate his pointing it out. Taylor Swift has had an unparalleled career–from country darling to pop sensation, she’s struck out with her own style and flair in every album she’s put together.

I also agree when Caramanica writes, “Almost everything here is corroded in some way.” From the musical to the lyrical, Red is filled with less-joyful innuendo than her previous albums.

And, Carmanica’s summary of Taylor Swift’s evolution is apt: “Ms. Swift has come a long way from ‘You Belong With Me,’ one of her biggest hits, in which she was the outsider throwing barbs at the more conventional, pretty, popular girl. ‘I’m listening to the kind of music she doesn’t like,’ she sang, wearing her individuality as a badge of pride. But now that other girl, she listens to Taylor Swift. She might even be Taylor Swift.” It’s true.

So, New York Times–you kinda, sorta didn’t get at the heart of Red, but part of what you said was spot on.

Burning “Red” is Right

Superbly written at every turn, Taylor Swift’s latest single, “Red” (which is also the title track of her forthcoming new album), will blow you away. It’s a combination of country and rock and pop, and the ping of the banjo is undeniably relentless. “Red” will have you tapping your foot and dancing in your seat. And, if you listen closely, you’ll find an entire English lesson’s worth of similes and metaphors to mine.

Though different from “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” her first single off Red, “Red” shares the same forward-moving rhythm that makes “We Are Never…” so catchy. The banjo plucking at the beginning is ghosted by what sounds like a synthesizer sounding fake strings, as My Dining Partner observed. A departure from the true country hit “Begin Again,” her second single from Red, “Red” has a country feel that’s updated to Taylor’s new pop-rock sound.

Now, how great is this song’s lyrics, you ask? So great. So so great.

The opening stanza grabs you like a punch in the stomach:

Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street

Faster than wind, passionate as sin, ended so suddenly

Loving him is like trying to change your mind

Once you’re already flying through the free fall

Like the colors in autumn

So bright just before they lose it all

Taylor Swift infuses a true country-pop song with such golden word-nuggets. Imagine driving an old Maserati down a dead end street–the thrill of it would end so suddenly, as she sings. What I love best about this stanza is the bit about autumn leaves. This sentiment–that they’re so bright right before they lose their color–is especially poignant because it paints a highly articulate picture of what loving him is like. That is, a splash of greatness followed by a fall or emptiness.

And the chorus is outstanding;

Losing him was blue like I’d never known

Missing him was dark grey all alone

Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you’ve never met

But loving him was red

Loving him was red

How true is her portrayal of what these colors feel like? How aptly conveyed are their emotional colors?  Blue = feeling a loss, feeling down. Dark grey = all alone. Red = intense passion that spouts like lava from a volcano. That’s what her love for this individual was like–fiery, impassioned, red. And it’s brilliant.

The rest of the song continues with these ingenious similes and metaphors, explaining the many facets of her love for this person. Now, as alluded to in my review of “Ronan,” songwriting like this makes you wonder what Taylor could do with non-love-story content. Like, what if she wanted to write about lofty subjects like world peace and war? And the human condition? Well, as for the latter, we know she can write beautifully about that (see “Ronan” and “Eyes Open”).

Think of the evolution of the Beatles. They started out writing about love and ended up writing about metaphysics. I’m betting Taylor’s subjects will, over time, evolve, as well. You may think I’m crazy for comparing the Beatles to Taylor Swift, but I truly believe her songwriting ability is of that high caliber. She can do it. I know she can.

I look forward to October 22, the release date of Red. Are you going to download it or buy it in the store? I’m going to Best Buy on my lunch break to get the album, but I’m tempted to download it to my iPhone. Decisions!

“Ronan”: A Revelation of Taylor Swift’s Songwriting Ability

I’ve never cried while listening to a song before I heard “Ronan,” Taylor Swift’s latest single. She wrote this unbelievably poignant song about a little boy named Ronan who died from neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor of the nerve tissue. Taylor learned of Ronan’s story through a blog written by Ronan’s mom. She even credits Ronan’s mom on the song. All of the proceeds from the song will go to the Taylor Swift Charitable Fund.

Now, why is this song so incredible?

It’s truly a revelation of Taylor’s songwriting ability. She has mastered the key to great writing: using details to craft a story. Taylor very carefully builds the narrative of a typical child’s experience that transforms into heartbreaking sadness. The first two stanzas of the song focus on the elements of a happy, healthy childhood:

I remember your bare feet down the hallway

I remember your little laugh

Racecars on the kitchen floor, plastic dinosaurs

I love you to the moon and back

 

I remember your blue eyes looking into mine

Like we had our own secret club

I remember you dancin’ before bedtime

Then jumping on me, waking me up

Yet Ronan’s childhood was plagued by illness, which is hinted at in the third stanza: “You fought it hard like an army guy”–“it” being his neuroblastoma, obviously, but the listener doesn’t quite know the severity of Ronan’s condition or the tremendous lost felt by his mother until the fourth stanza (the first stanza after the first instance of the chorus):

I remember the drive home when the blind hope

Turned to crying and screaming why

Flowers pile up in the worst way

No one knows what to say

‘Bout a beautiful boy who died

And it’s about to be Halloween

You could be anything you wanted if you were still here

I remember the last day when I kissed your face

I whispered in your ear

And then the song launches into the chorus again.

The fourth stanza is where the listener realizes that Taylor Swift truly understands the magnitude of this boy’s illness and its effect on his mother. She alludes to his funeral with that one line (“Flowers pile up in the worst way”) without saying “It was so sad to attend his funeral.” And that terrible feeling of not knowing what to say when “a beautiful boy” has died — she hits the emotional target square on the head. Then, it’s when she mentions Halloween that the listener’s heart truly breaks. She captures the agony faced by the mother who realizes that her son would have probably loved nothing more than to dress up on Halloween and collect candy, in the way that all children do.

Taylor Swift truly comprehends the loss that the mother has faced. Her deep-rooted understanding is further established by the bridge:

What if I’m standing in your closet trying to talk to you

What if I kept the hand-me-downs you won’t grow into

And what if I really thought some miracle would see us through

What if the miracle was even getting one moment with you

Through her miraculous grasp of the human condition, Taylor is able to lock herself into the mindset of the mother and ask the questions any parent who has experienced such a loss would ask. Again, it’s the details that make this bridge so affecting: the closet where all of his clothes and belongings are; the clothes the mother had from previous children or other family members’ kids that Ronan will never wear–these small details are what make the song so great.

My Dining Partner asked me why Taylor Swift doesn’t write more songs like this. In his estimation, “Ronan” is one of her greatest songs. “Maybe if she had different life experiences, she’d write different (read: better) songs,” he said. I think, with the advent of “Eyes Open” and now “Ronan,” it’s abundantly clear that Taylor Swift is one of the greatest living songwriters today.

And by the way she sings “Ronan,” it’s clear that her voice is but a mere vehicle for this tragic tale. There aren’t any flourishes of her voice, no riffs on the last gasp of the chorus. It’s just her simple voice, the guitar and a drum.

I cried my eyes out the first two times I heard “Ronan,” and I’m afraid to go back and listen to the song again, for fear of bawling uncontrollably. I don’t know Ronan’s mom personally and I never will, but I understand her plight–something I, myself, have never experienced and hope to never experience–because of Taylor Swift.

Here is a video of Taylor Swift singing “Ronan” at the cancer benefit from Friday night:

The full lyrics (as I heard them) are listed here:

“Ronan”

I remember your bare feet down the hallway

I remember your little laugh

Race cars on the kitchen floor, plastic dinosaurs

I love you to the moon and back

 

I remember your blue eyes looking into mine

Like we had our own secret club

I remember you dancin’ before bedtime

Then jumping on me, waking me up

 

I can still feel you hold my hand, little man

How even the moment I knew

You fought it hard like an army guy

Remember I leaned in and whispered to you

 

Come on baby with me

We’re gonna fly away

From here

You were my best four years

 

I remember the drive home when the blind hope

Turned to crying and screaming why

Flowers pile up in the worst way

No one knows what to say

‘Bout a beautiful boy who died

And it’s about to be Halloween

You could be anything you wanted if you were still here

I remember the last day when I kissed your face

I whispered in your ear

 

Come on baby with me

We’re gonna fly away

From here

Out of this curtained room in this hospital grey

We’ll just disappear

Come on baby with me

We’re gonna fly away

From here

You were my best four years

 

What if I’m standing in your closet trying to talk to you

What if I kept the hand-me-downs you won’t grow into

And what if I really thought some miracle would see us through

What if the miracle was even getting one moment with you

 

Come on baby

We’re gonna fly away

From here

 

Come on baby with me

We’re gonna fly away

From here

You were my best four years

 

I remember your bare feet down the hallway

I love you to the moon and back