Hearing echoes of master rock storytellers in the pop-country superstar's smash album Red
Taylor Swift's new album opens with heaving drums and vague lyrics. The percussion—near-ponderous, seemingly pulled from a mammoth rock record—lopes along; the guitars ease in and flutter U2-like. Swift, though sounding more confident and focused than ever, lingers in abstraction and cliché for a verse: "We fall in love 'til it hurts or bleeds / or fades in time."
But then something happens: She gets writerly. "We are alone, just you and me / up in your room and our slates are clean / just twin fire signs / four blue eyes." Those are the kind of details that detach from a narrative and stretch over it like clouds, casting shadows that introduce nuance. They have a similar effect on the music itself for "State of Grace," intensifying and unlocking it: Swift's delivery enters a kind of double time, the drums become varied and alive, and the guitars spin bright webs.
Swift, an underrated and overselling pop-country songwriter, has been getting better and better at telling stories through song. On her new, fourth album, Red—which moved a decade-record-setting million copies last week—the 22-year-old seems to have picked up a few techniques from classic, acclaimed masters of narrative rock and roll. There's a critical and cultural bias against artists like Swift, whose bright, booming production and songs about ex-boyfriends can seem juvenile and unserious. But Swift brings intricate craft to seemingly simple pop about the teenage experience.
In an interview with YouTube from 2011, Swift talked of how, when she was a kid, her mother would speak extensively in figurative language. "I grew up just understanding metaphor and just kind of loving that," she said. "How you could take something you're going through and speak about it in a different way that applies how you're feeling to something completely different but connects it."
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The mingling of concrete and abstract detail in "State of Grace" reminds me most immediately, of all things, of Steely Dan: how Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would introduce an image to their songs that could change the entire character of a story. "Glamour Profession," from 1980's Gaucho, begins with their characteristically vague and ominous scene setting: "6:05 / outside the stadium / Special delivery / for Hoops McCann." It's all transparent allusions to drugs until the next lyric lends the scene color, recasting it in a kind of shrapnel grey: "Brut and charisma / poured from the shadow where he stood." The narrative, before a deranged and incomplete puzzle, experiences poetry, which deepens the song and gives it three dimensions. "Glamour Profession" eventually becomes a cascade of disturbed people and events—it's sort of Steely Dan's ultimate dead zone of cynicism. The cascade in "State of Grace," meanwhile, is mostly of worn phrases: "hands of fate," "Achilles' heel," etc. But small, unexpected lyrical flourishes transform their surroundings, like milk pluming in a cup of coffee.
"Holy Ground" recalls another tradition, this time without doing much to disguise itself. The percussion, the cadence, and the electrified air all point directly to Bruce Springsteen. On her earlier records, Swift would often employ the Springsteen trope of escaping a small town and entering the blurry resolution of a city, but the only hints of his city darkness were in "Never Grow Up" ("It's so much colder than I thought it would be / so I tuck myself in and turn my night light on"). "Holy Ground," though, isn't Springsteen in subject. It's Springsteen in style. The song's tempo feels his. There's no real trace of producer Jeff Bhasker, who's worked with Kanye West and fun., except in the drums, which, as in fun.'s "We Are Young," are pure bombast. They're faster here, though, and are insistent enough to act as punctuation for the lyrics, which practically tumble out of Swift and fit into one another strangely, like how early Springsteen rhymed as if by accident of memory. The drums add syllables to the words—"I was / remin / iscing / just / the / oth / er / day" —just as every snare roll divides "Candy's Room" into kinetic fractions.
Most of all, Springsteen and Swift share a sensibility: that a story can be reduced purely to its rising action. There's a central relationship to "Holy Ground," and Swift refers tidily to its end with the lyric, "Well I guess we fell apart in the usual way / And the story's got dust on every page." But the song is focused inflexibly on a single, revelatory moment that happened during the course of the relationship. The second verse begins "Took off faster than a green light—go," and the song builds itself in the shape of this line. The shape resembles ghostly restraint of "I'm on Fire" or "Brilliant Disguise," with intense, variable emotions flickering beyond a fire door. There's no climax; it's a tense framework of expectations and barely contained ecstasy. It's like the seconds right before you run into the middle of traffic. It lasts three and a half minutes.
Ambiguity runs throughout Red, and it works best on "All Too Well." There's even a Chekhov's gun in the first act—a scarf left at a boyfriend's sister's house.
"Holy Ground" also shows off a relatively recent development in Swift's storytelling: ambiguity. Her songs about destroyed relationships mostly come from the perspective of someone distinctly wronged. In 2010's "Dear John," her triumph over a bad boyfriend is stratospheric: She ends the bridge "shining like fireworks / over [his] sad empty town." In a 2011 interview with MTV, Swift described this attitude as a product of age and experience, and she refers to a particularly embittered song from her first record, "Picture to Burn." "Now the way that I would say that and the way that I would feel that kind of pain is a lot different," she said. "It's a lot different as you grow up and you kind of understand that there are different ways of saying things." In "Holy Ground," her way of processing a breakup has become charmingly complicated. In the chorus ("Right there where we stood / was holy ground") she enshrines a moment of mutual discovery, but the moment has passed. Later in the song, a ghostly chorus of "hooray"s drifts into the mix. They make for a frail celebration, commemorating a small, happy instant in a longer, murkier story.
Ambiguity runs throughout Red, most explicitly in the title and expressive waltzing of "Sad Beautiful Tragic." But it works best on "All Too Well," perhaps Swift's finest narrative. There's even a Chekhov's gun in the first act—a scarf left at a boyfriend's sister's house—but its reappearance, during a relationship's messy unravel, is thoughtful and brutal: "But you keep my old scarf from that very first week / cause it reminds you of innocence / and it smells like me / You can't get rid of it / 'cause you remember it all too well." It's an exhilarating piece of writing. A detail snaps into place, and the thrill experienced is half from the detail itself and half from how it refers to a haunted object, like a road sign remembered drowsily and a little too late.
The rest of the track renders the relationship and its dissolution so delicately that I'm both surprised and unfazed to discover myself contemplating it as intensely as I might a Leonard Cohen song. In the center of "All Too Well" is a lyric that's at once intricate, tender, and lucid: "And I forget about you long enough / to forget why I needed to." While not as precisely formed as the lines "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" or "Famous Blue Raincoat," it feels of a piece with "That's all / I don't even think of you that often," or "I guess that I miss you / I guess I forgive you / I'm glad you stood in my way."
This isn't to suggest Swift is operating on the level of Cohen, Springsteen, or Steely Dan. She's a pop musician; her words function less as demonstrations of artistry than they do as practical, inclusive stories. Her nearest lyrical analogue is still Ashlee Simpson's totally under-respected and still-great Autobiography, a collection of observations so specifically teenage that they come out sophisticated and strangely applicable to adulthood. But there are also songs on Red that lack immediate reference. "Begin Again," like "All Too Well," lingers in a cloudy, uncertain space, between the end of one relationship and the start of another. Swift addresses the previous boy by listing contrasts: "He didn't like it when I wore high heels / but I do." But when someone new enters a scene, she preserves the "I do" structure, and it flourishes newly in this setting, like a flower returned from darkness to a sunlit windowsill: "We tell stories and you don't know why / I'm coming off a little shy / but I do." These small, rich differences are derived from the traditions of great songwriters, but they're delivered with such ease that they sound entirely Swift's own.