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.

Oh My My “Mine”

Utterance on an upbeat and a low-key guitar swings in. Whose voice is this? you wonder. Her smooth inflection jogs your memory: this is Taylor Swift. On “Mine,” the first single from Speak Now, Taylor’s maturity shines through—as songwriter, singer, and, well, Swift.

If you aren’t one of the scores who’s already downloaded “Mine,” you can hear it here.

"Teardrops on My Guitar" on 5/15/10

At first listen, it’s clear that “Mine” has broken from the standard Taylor mold. It involves romance and a guy—elements of many of her songs—but beyond that, it tackles uncharted territory. The music feels laidback, bereft of anger or urgency; her vocals are enhanced by background singers (mostly male); the protagonist is pragmatic, collaborative, and without vengeance. Yeah, that’s new Taylor alright.

A relatable story about a more-adult relationship and how one person,
“the best thing that’s ever been mine,” can make a real, stable relationship feel possible, no matter how emotionally vulnerable you are. One of my favorite lyrics is, “Do you remember all the city lights on the water?/ You saw me start to believe for the first time.” There’s a quiet intimacy in this line; a revelation that feels more mature than the less nuanced declarations of love as found in earlier songs.

"Love Story"

Where the fabled “Love Story” concedes that “this love is difficult but it’s real/ Don’t be afraid we’ll make it out of this mess/ It’s a love story, baby, just say yes,” “Mine” tells us how and why it’s difficult, and exposes her vulnerability. After “flashing forward” to her adult relationship with the “Mine” guy, she admits, “But we got bills to pay/ We got nothing figured out/ When it was hard to take/ Yes, Yes/ This is what I thought about” and returns to the chorus where she focuses on what’s good about her relationship. She sings, “Every time I look at you it’s like the first time.” Truth in power of positive thinking? Sure. Instant therapy? Absolutely.

In the bridge, she rethinks a defining line from “The Other Side of the Door,” a landmark track on Fearless Platinum about a frustrating distance between two people who aren’t communicating their true feelings to each other.

And I remember the slammin’ door,

And all the things that I misread.

So babe if you know everything

Tell me why you couldn’t see

That when I left I wanted you to

Chase after me?

“Mine” takes a different approach:

And I remember that fight, two-thirty AM

You said everything was slipping right out of our hands

I ran out, crying, and you followed me out into the street

From “Door” to “Mine” Taylor has made some progress. The guy in “Door” obviously doesn’t and cannot know what she wants because she’s afraid to reveal her true emotion (“I said leave but all I really want is you”), but in “Mine,” her partner understands her vulnerability because she’s revealed herself to him. I can’t say whether Taylor Swift (the real person) has personally changed—I suspect she’s been “Mine”-mature all along—but her perceptive ability as written into this song is brilliant.

She doesn’t need that white horse—because it wasn’t the horse (or the guy with the horse) who could turn her life into fairy tale. Now, she’s found an adult relationship (as further evidenced by the line, “And there’s a drawer of my things at your place”) and is proud of it. “Mine” shows Taylor’s embarked on crafting a new narrative for herself—a story more tangible to most of us.

Speak Now will be available October 25.