TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Taylor Swift's new album "Red" sold over a million copies when it was released last week, making it the best-selling debut album since 2002. Our rock critic Ken Tucker says the country singer is making a more concerted effort to move into pop music territory. Here's Ken's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "22")
TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters and make fun of our exes, ah, ah, ah, ah. It feels like a perfect night for breakfast at midnight, to fall in love with strangers, ah, ah, ah, ah. Yeah. We're happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time. It's miserable and magical, oh, yeah. Tonight's the night...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Taylor Swift has, until now, spent much of her career capturing in song the feeling of firsts: a first crush, a first kiss, a first break-up, a first flash of angry revenge. Now in her early 20s and with three albums behind her, she was stretching her professional rookie-in-romance status to the breaking point. How good it is, therefore, to hear the musical and lyrical leaps into full adulthood she's making on her new album "Red."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED")
SWIFT: (Singing) Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street. Faster than the wind, passionate as sin, ending so suddenly. Loving him is like trying to change your mind when you're already flying through the freefall. Like the colors in autumn so bright just before they lose it all. Losing him was blue like I'd never known. Missing him is dark, gray, all alone. Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you've never met. But loving him was red.
TUCKER: Swift knows how to work an image. She's intentionally not subtle about pushing red as the color of passion, the color of warning, of danger, of her lips on the cover, of the department store logo she does a commercial for. She also uses red as a jumping, clever lyric writing talking about feeling blue, experiencing ambivalent gray moods.
She knows how to enliven clichés to make them efficient shortcuts in clear, concise compositions.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER EVER GETTING BACK TOGETHER")
SWIFT: (Singing) I remember when we broke up the first time, saying this is it, I've had enough because, like, we hadn't seen each other in a month when you said you needed space. What? Then you come around again and say baby, I miss you and I swear I'm going to change. Trust me. Remember how that lasted for a day? I say I hate you. We break up. You call me, I love you.
(Singing) Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh--ooh. We called it off again last night. But ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, this time I'm telling you, I'm telling you, 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, ever getting back together.
TUCKER: The most obvious difference between "Red" and her earlier albums is Swift's sure, confident move into a mainstream pop sound. So confident that she's willing to cede a bit of quality control by collaborating on the songwriting here and there, such as on the song I just played. That's the hit single "We Are Never Ever Getting Together" co-written with Swedish pop hit machine Max Martin.
When Swift started out, country music was the perfect place for her since it accommodated the way her songwriting tended towards storytelling, and country music places intrinsic value on the subjects of heartache and friendship in a way that most current pop music does not. But Swift is canny about the way she's intensified her sound to match the intensity of her feelings about being hurt in love or feeling strengthened by surviving, transcending that hurt.
Just listen to the sharp hooks and bold beat of "I Knew You Were Trouble."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNEW YOU WERE TROUBLE")
SWIFT: (Singing) Once upon a time, a few mistakes ago, I was in your sights. You got me alone. You found me. You found me. You found me. I guess you didn't care and I guess I liked that. And when I fell hard you took a step back without me, without me, without me-e-e-e-e. And he's long gone when he's next to me and I realize the blame is on me.
(Singing) 'Cause I knew you were trouble when you walked in. So shame on me now. Took me to places I'd never been. Till you put me down. Oh, I knew you were trouble...
TUCKER: "Red" is, with 16 songs, certainly not a perfect album. There are a couple of bland duet ballads, one with Ed Sheeran and the other with Gary Lightbody from the band Snow Patrol. But even in those contexts it's the guy's vocals that are the more pallid. For all the once and future criticisms of Swift's voice, its very thinness works in her favor.
In the ballads it enhances the images of fragility in the lyrics. In the faster, louder songs it operates like a rock singer's instrument. Think of Neil Young's high pitched whine or Exene Cervenka's theoretically bad voice in the punk band X. Like all good pop artists, Swift continues to evolve in a manner that both challenges her die-hard fans and invites those who dislike her sound to give it another listen. For all her accessibility, she merits and holds up to close scrutiny.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Taylor Swift's new album "Red". You can watch a video of her song "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Richard Russo's new memoir "Elsewhere" about his mother and the vanished world that shaped her. This is FRESH AIR.