If you’re here to find out which songs Taylor Swift wrote about which ex-boyfriends — and let’s face it, you are — you should know that it’s not true what they say, that Swift spends much of her mostly-pretty-great fourth album, “Red,” skewering basset-eyed former flame Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s more like she examines him under a magnifying glass in the sun until he spontaneously combusts, like an ant.
The album’s best track, “All Too Well,” is a scathing and sad love song about a romantic interlude already familiar to Us Weekly readers. It deals with a nameless boyfriend who broke up with Swift over the phone — and after she spent all that time looking at his baby pictures that one weekend, and being polite to his sister, Maggie. “You call me up again / Just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel / In the name of being honest,” Swift sings, forlorn and plainly angling for a Grammy in passive-aggressiveness. It’s a wonderful song, practically the Platonic ideal of broken-hearted songs about boys, part of a passel of tracks on “Red” that encapsulates what Swift does better than anyone. She connects with clear, concise, relatable love songs that are thrown like punches and steeped in everyday details about first kisses, phone-tossing fights and rom-com misunderstandings.
Other romantic targets are more closely guarded. Some songs (like the appropriately terrible “I Knew You Were Trouble”) are probably about long-ago ex John Mayer, who was called out by name on Swift’s last album, “Speak Now,” and he says he still hasn’t recovered. If she were any other girl, Swift’s habit of drawing down on old loves like she was Katniss Everdeen with a bow in her hand would be liberating. (She’ll come for you one day, Lesser Kennedy Cousin. And Ethel won’t be able to save you.) If she were a boy, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning.
But when it comes to intimate details, Swift is as chaste as a Jonas brother. She spends most of “Red” managing to have it both ways — untouchable virgin as serial dater. Swift, 16 when she released her eponymous debut and 22 now, has had one foot in adulthood and one foot in unicorns-and-kittens tweenhood for what seems like forever. It’s a fraught enough transition for anyone, and probably terrifying to contemplate when you’ve made your fortune being a girl. “Red” doesn’t attempt to solve, or even address, the widening gulf between Swift’s biological age (she’s old enough to be in grad school) and her emotional age (16, tops). It tries to please everyone.
The album has three kinds of songs: echoey, galloping, almost-grown-up guitar anthems that draw heavily upon U2 and Coldplay; familiar, wise-beyond-her-years mid-tempo ballads that position Swift as the sad, saucer-eyed girl from a Margaret Keane painting; and bratty, adolescent-skewing trifles from what will one day be known as her Unfortunate Max Martin Period. The first two categories account for some of the most solid work of Swift’s career. The songs of the last category are inauthentic and awkward, what a former child star and her much-older handlers think someone her age should sound like.
Martin, the hit-making Swedish producer and songwriter, hovers over “Red” like one of those cartoon shoulder devils. His one-size-fits-all pop songs have served the likes of Katy Perry and Robyn well. But Swift’s appeal depends on at least a veneer of authenticity, and Martin does her no favors in this department. He and partner Shellback infect “I Knew You Were Trouble” with a wobble right out of Hot Topic’s dubstep department. It’s gratuitous and weird, done for the sake of saying you did it, and so tentative they might not have bothered. On two other Martin-produced tracks, the sub-Avril Lavigne “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and the even lesser “22,” killer hooks are marred by Swift’s Valley Girl giggles and posing.
“Red” is best when Swift navigates the increasingly porous borders between pop, country and lite-rock. The record-opening “State of Grace” and the slow-burning “Treacherous” are better, more evolved versions of what Swift has always done.
On the Katy-Perry-goes-country track “Starlight,” Swift’s intermittent twang, like the album’s stray fiddles and steel guitars, offers a link to a past that is increasingly in her rearview mirror. Swift seems to have left country music behind, and it would be lovely to think her future is in songs like “The Last Time,” a sweeping, orchestral duet with Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody, whose presence instantly makes her stand up a little straighter and tamp down her ingratiating Swift-isms. It’s mournful and spacious, one of many tracks on “Red” that shows that the more grown up Swift sounds and the farther away from Max Martin she gets, the better off she is. The song is an open doorway, an invitation to an adulthood that might not be all that bad.
If Swift is smart, she’ll take it.
Stewart is a freelance writer.
“Treacherous,” “All Too Well,” “The Last Time”