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.

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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!

You Are Never, Ever, Ever Gonna Believe Taylor’s New Single

taylor swiftTaylor Swift is a woman of great feats. She’s sold out football stadiums all over this country and arenas spanning the globe. She’s taken country by storm with her self-titled album and broken through the moody rock barrier with “Eyes Open.” She’s completely transcended industry labels without losing a fan along the way, as artists who are perceived to be “sell outs” often do. And now, with the advent of her latest single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Taylor has mastered the art of the pop song.

Last night, in a webcast (attended by more than 70,000 fans), Taylor revealed the release date (October 22, 2012) and title (Red) of her next album. She also debuted her new single, which has already hit #1 on iTunes.

“We Are Never” starts with clipped acoustic guitar and, as her vocals tune in, a heavy back beat swells. Right off the bat, the song sounds different. It isn’t country. It isn’t rock. It’s a well-crafted pop song. A “Call Me Maybe” with true staying power.

Taylor’s personality shines through the lyrics. She peppers the song with “like, ever” and nearly raps the stanzas, so quick is her locution. By the time the chorus locks in, you’re hooked. And the chorus sings:

We are never ever ever

Getting back together

We are never ever ever

Getting back together

You go talk to your friends

Talk to my friends, talk to me

But we are never ever ever

Getting back together

(Like, ever)

After hearing the chorus the first time, you’re ready to sing along when it comes back for a second and third appearance.

The true Taylor is especially revealed during the second stanza:

I’m really gonna miss you picking fights, and me

Falling for it, screaming that I’m right, and you

Would hide away and find your piece of mind, with some

Indie record that’s much cooler than mine.

At the bridge, she lulls you in with a sweet lullaby-like line and then promptly switches to her speaking voice to say, “So he calls me up and he’s like, I still love you, and, I’m like, I’m just, this is exhausting, you know, we are never getting back together. Like ever.”

The song primes you for hand waving and foot tapping as the lyrics whisk by with intentional middle school-esque hyperbole.

It’s the perfect pop song and I can’t wait to see it climb up the Billboard chart.