Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Taylor Swift makes it plain from the outset of her fourth album, "Red," that no genre can hold her talents.
Though most still classify her as country, she comes out of the box here with a full-on rocker, "State of Grace," whose huge pounding drums and Edge-like guitars recall vintage U2. Seriously. The title track quickly follows, and it's a pop-rock tour de force, with a gigantic chorus, soaring vocals and one of her catchiest melodies ever.
Two songs in, and Swift's metamorphosis into an all-purpose pop titan is already complete.
She won't be 23 until December, but there aren't too many songwriters currently operating that are this accomplished and gifted. In fact, her songwriting is the main reason she cuts so effortlessly across genres - her songs are so perfectly constructed that the style in which she chooses to sing them matters little.
She moves effortlessly from those arena-friendly opening tracks to shouty, Katy Perry-type thumping pop on "I Knew You Were Trouble" and the delightful confection "22," and quieter confessional singer-songwriter drama on "All Too Well" and "I Almost Do."
Not everything works. Her duet with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, "The Last Time," drowns in a sea of instrumental slush and telegraphed giant emotional gestures. "Everything Has Changed," the album's other duet, features up-and-coming British songwriter Ed Sheeran and fares much better by taking a lighter, less forced approach.
The monster hit "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" is quintessential Swift, with its stomping chorus, touches of humor and catalog of twentysomething relationship woes. It's a hoot from start to finish, and preferable to obvious melodramatic ruminations such as "Sad Beautiful Tragic."
Thankfully, she also drops the whispered morose affectations on "Stay Stay Stay," a deft, winsome tune with an irresistible melody and a light touch that Swift should use more. "That's so fun," she giggles at its conclusion, and she's right.
With the exception of occasional banjo passages, no overt country instrumentation appears on "Red" until fiddle, steel guitar and banjo crop up on "Begin Again," the marvelous ballad of hope and renewal that closes the album. Swift has jumped headlong into the pop-rock maelstrom on these 16 tracks, and for the most part, she emerges unscathed and victorious.
If you can, pick up the expanded edition available through Target. It has three extra songs, plus three acoustic/demo versions of "Red" tracks. The excellent "Girl at Home" could easily have fit on the album proper, and the demo version of the title track, "Red," has an energy and joy that rivals the full-blown album version.
- Sam Gnerre