Why 'Red' is Taylor Swift's Best Record
Do Personal Opinions on Art Matter?
7/18/17, 2:10 EDT
By John Corry, photo from DeviantArt
I’ve got a bone to pick.
A friend of mine (I will leave HER name out of this) and her ASSHOLE boyfriend have recently displayed to me the darker side of obsessive Taylor Swift fandom when they sent me a text reading, ‘Red is Swifty’s WORST (caps and nickname mine) album’. They’d heard me argue on several occasions for the validity that Red is 'technically' (aesthetically) Taylor Swift’s best album and, as a response to their RUDE and UNNECESSARY statement, I put the record on to be reminded of my thoughts and prayers. Indeed, I was.
For those of you who do not like Swifty’s music or artistic appeal, please stop reading.
It took me several years to come to terms with my love for this shit, but I am not a psychologist. Please consult one if you're finding yourself offended by what music other people like to listen to (and, yes, I see the irony).
First off, the record is full of bangers, albeit some which take a minute to reveal themselves as such. Excepting her debut, all of Swifty’s records are full of bangers, but nowhere else are they as diverse than on Red. On Fearless, probably her best all around artistic statement (although 1989 and Speak Now both come close), the songs flow almost perfectly and are just varied enough, emotionally, to produce a record that is far from emotionally simple or stagnant (though not as varied as those on Red , to be outlined further in a moment). This is how most really good records go: Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, Radiohead’s OK Computer, Mastodon’s Leviathan, Dre’s The Chronic, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. There’s not too much ‘technical’ diversity (as far as the way the music sounds overall, or, more so, where the artist sounds like she/he may have been coming from artistically/emotionally at the time), but that only serves to put the album more into focus, and to turn it into a more direct experience, and therefore, a more understandable and, consequently, likeable ‘a-work of art-ahhh.’
No one can deny that great records are great, but it is rare that they are risky within themselves.
This is because great albums are usually created as full works and not as individual parts, or, more so, (created) with an understanding of the balance inherently drafted within, and between, the two in any work of art. Kid A was certainly a risk when Radiohead made it, both as a whole and in its individual parts, but the record still doesn’t venture very far from its overall mood (which is far from a bad thing (again, it puts it more into focus)). This is because it is very difficult to do that without letting the record completely lose sight of itself, and, in fact, almost serves as a warning that that is exactly what will happen if not taken on a more consciously direct route. That is the risk. I’m ignoring the fact that most artists simply wouldn’t want to do this; sooner or later, something of a ‘transition album’ is likely unavoidable (I would argue that Hail to the Thief is Radiohead’s, though all records and artists are different).
Red not only manages to avoid falling to this fate (becoming distractingly, subconsciously unfocused), but its seemingly conscious emotional bipolar-ness actually helps the record to be a truer Swifty record than any of her other records, given how emotionally up-front and stage-center she’s always been in the emotional aspect of her music (which is most of her appeal). Going from a song like the moody, ‘happy-not-happy’ slow-country with a pop/rock underscore ‘Treacherous’, lyrically about taking risks and enjoying the ride to see where they go, to a song like the dubstep, pop-out-the-ass, and wildly lyrically opposing to ‘Treacherous’ ‘I knew You Were Trouble’ would be fucking ludicrous and fatefully contradictory on almost any other record, even one by Swifty herself, and especially only three songs into the thing. But it works because it follows an equally crazy beginning (and, as mentioned) because of Swift’s aesthetically emotional and bipolar appeal as a whole, and its representation on Red.
Through ‘State of Grace’, ‘Red’, ‘Treacherous’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, Swifty shifts from big-stadium/arena rock, to classic country in a style she’s never done nearly this well, to slow country with a rock tinge, to straight up dubstep, all with almost as many emotional highs and lows as a Radiohead record. This is all then followed by what TRUE Swifty fans know as her best song, ‘All Too Well’, all before at least two more classics in ‘22’ and the melancholy ‘I Almost Do’.
This string (of songs) keeps in line with the record’s emotional infidelity which it makes so compelling, both from an emotional and a technical point of view. ‘All Too Well’ is about romantic nostalgia, while ‘22’ is about living in the moment and has almost nothing to do with romance at all (unless it’s a call to not give a fuck about it). ‘I Almost Do’ is about wanting to go back to the 'good ole days' even though you know it’s a bad idea, and yet ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ is about never looking to the past again at all! I can understand why people may say that song alone (‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’) is the reason Red is her worst record (trust me, I was there once), but I would disagree (now). If you can get past its insane cheeky-ness (was it on purpose?), ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ is one of Swifty’s most honest songs–you can hear it in her voice at least just as much as in any other song she’s ever recorded–and it’s passive aggressive as fuck, another oft-looked-over aspect of Swift’s unique, almost spontaneous-yet-somehow-still-subconsciously-focused sense of melody, song structure and lyricism.
Follow that up with the opposing positive ‘Stay Stay Stay’ (her best straight up country EVER, followed by 'Red'), the heartbreaking ‘The Last Time’, the heartwarming ‘Holy Ground’, the super-sad ‘Sad Beautiful Tragic’ and the fact that this bipolar back and forth from song to song continues all the way till the end of the album, and you have the most potent emotional statement of Taylor Swift’s career thus far. And through all the emotional highs and lows, she still ends up at ‘Begin Again’, lyrics implied by the title, after the emotionally opposing ‘Starlight’ following what thematically brings the album together, ‘Everything Has Changed’.
This serves (‘Holy Ground’ till the end of the album) as an ’emotional roller coaster’ (complete with at least a five song rise, a climax in 'Everything Has Changed' and a two song fall) unparalleled by anyone in any genre of music save for Radiohead, Beethoven, Tool, Pac, Mastodon and several others. And this all in the genre of ‘pop’ (which isn’t actually a genre, only a recognition that it’s at least as committed to making money as it is to making a good product), rendering Swift’s music inherently more difficult to contend with in this arena, hence a further reason for my opinion that Red is aesthetically her best record.
Further, no other record of Swift’s has shown such an understanding of how ‘transition records’ could possibly flow emotionally, and no other record showcases her ability to charge straight into it, balls-deep. This is not to mention that the songs on Red are amongst the best of all Swifty’s catalog, perhaps more recognizable as such if understood individually, given how emotionally and technically (flow-wise) complex the album as a whole is (previously examined).
I’ve always said that Swift’s musical career has mirrored that of metal giants Mastodon’s (partly as a joke, but not totally), and that Red was Swift’s Blood Mountain in regards to its musical and emotional diversity, its flow and the songs themselves, and its representation of where the artist had come from, artistically speaking, and where they were headed (this last part most of all). Swifty’s music has always had a poppy side, just as Mastodon has always had a prog-rock/fuck-you,-metal-dicks tinge; it was inevitable that these roots would eventually come out in a more focused fashion (on Swift’s 1989 and on Mastodon’s Crack The Skye), but it’s rare for it to happen so potently over one album. Even rarer is that album’s predecessor (Blood Mountain and Red), the one which introduced the recognized shift, and, therefore, was also the first to tackle the risk, to be arguably just as good, and where the songs are the best, and arguably the most representative, of the artists’ career (Blood Mountain had ‘The Wolf is Loose’, ‘Crystal Skull’, ‘Sleeping Giant’, ‘Capilarian Crest’, ‘Colony of Birchmen’ and cult favorites like ‘Hunters of the Sky’ and ‘Siberian Divide’; Red’s got ‘22’, ‘Stay Stay Stay’, ‘Holy Ground’ and cult favorites like ‘All Too Well’, ‘The Last Time’, and ‘Sad Beautiful Tragic’ ( it also introduced yet another element into her music which I think Swifty has yet to capitalize on: sad, melancholy-yet-hopeful songs (hence my associating of her with Radiohead (kind of)) with interesting time and bpm changes and song structures (see: ‘All Too Well’) that doesn’t happen very often in pop music #ComplicatedMusicMayNotSellAsMuch,ButItMakesForBetterArtAnd,Therefore,People #ChangeTheWorld,ChangePopularMusic #Bitches #FUCKMASTODON!!!(TALENTEDMUSICALASSHOLES!!!!) )).
Of course, there’s also the argument that everyone just has a soft spot for the record which got them into an artist, which Red would likely be for me. But that would render my argument obsolete, so fuck it.
If you’re into the sound, none disappoint.