Stop me if you've heard this one, but Taylor Swift's Red sold 1.2 million albums in its first week, making it the best first week for an album since 2002. It has already sold twice as many total albums in 2012 than the next best-selling album. As many of you know, I've been a Taylor Swift fan ever since I listened to Fearless and her debut album together back in 2008, and this album lived up to my expectations.
Here's some thoughts:
- Popular artists have a tightrope to walk with their new albums: they can't do something too different or everyone will complain. But they can't just repeat what they did last time, or even more people will complain. I think Red succeeds in straddling the line between. One way that Taylor does this in Red is by bringing on co-writers to freshen things up. 7 of the 16 songs have co-writers listed. The big hit "We are Never Getting Back Together" is co-written with Max Martin, the Swedish song-writing genius responsible for a surprising number of girl power pop hits.
- At 65 minutes and 16 songs, the amount of music on this CD is impressive, especially considering Speak Now came out only two years ago. And while I don't think all the songs are the same quality, none of them are poor.
- I disagree with many that Taylor Swift's lyrics are suddenly mature and sexual. Those who state that have been reading her fan sites, not listening closely to her previous albums, and reading too much into this album.
- If you're like more people and consider Speak Now to be break-up album, Red seems to be the post-breakup album.
I prefer the animation version to the one-take.
But this blog is about music, which most reviewers seem to be ignoring, except for caveats that this album is more pop than her others. I agree that the album is more pop, though there's still some country stylings present. Not that the style matters to me, as long as I think the music is effective.
So here's why I think Taylor Swift's writes effective music:
- Melody: she builds her songs out of "hooks" that are memorable and hummable, and has several per song.
- Control of repetition: she repeats her hooks, but not enough that they get boring. She knows when to move to a different section and she's good at varying the melodies on the section return, so that the music is slightly different or has added textures. Which brings me to:
- Instrumentation and texture: She varies the musical texture and timbre of hers songs. For example, she's good at singing with different voice colors for different moods, and even in the same song. She's not afraid to be loud and thick or sparse and soft, even in the same song. She also varies the types of instruments, using banjo, mandolin, electronic effects, and more. One critique on this album: while I enjoy the complex over-dubbed backup singing on Red, sometimes it obscures the words.
One final note: most of Taylor Swift's songs are invitations to ride on her emotions. What I think she's best at is bringing out (or bringing back) strong emotions from the past or present. I'd say that is what makes her music so popular. But it takes both music and lyrics to achieve that effect.
Next week: Songwriting as fiction-writing (or not), which will continue my Taylor Swift discussion.