Taylor Swift's "Red," the Grammy winner's fourth album, is a 16-track set that has the singer continuing to step away from her country roots to take on a more rock and pop sound.
The album features songs that are big and stadium ready (she has a U2-like moment on album opener, "State of Grace") and others that are soft and slow.
But while "Red" contains its share of winners, many of the songs lack the colorfulness and vitality the album title suggests, leading to an overall letdown. Lyrically and sonically, the album lacks oomph and feeling: It sounds like we've heard it all from her before (check "Starlight").
Hooking up with some new — and popular — producers seemed like a good move for Swift, who has worked with a supertight group of writers and producers on her first three albums (half of "Red" is produced by her longtime producer Nathan Chapman). Unfortunately, stepping out of her comfort zone doesn't always work.
Max Martin and Shellback, who have helmed No. 1 smashes for Maroon 5, Pink, Kelly Clarkson and others, have given Swift her first No. 1 pop hit with the juvenile-sounding anthem "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," which echoes Avril Lavigne in her teen years.
"22," another Martin and Shellback collaboration, is an improvement, but not by much, with weak lines like: "Everything will be all right if we just keeping dancing like we're 22." The producers fare better on "I Knew You Were Trouble," an adventurous track with Swift taking the bull by the horns, sounding aggressive over an electrified and electronic beat.
Jeff Bhasker, best known for producing the breakout album by fun. and songs for Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Lana Del Rey and others, is behind average songs like "Holy Ground" and "The Lucky One." Swift also works with Dan Wilson, a singer who has co-written two of music's best songs with the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice" and Adele's "Someone Like You." His song with Swift, "Treacherous," is a good one.
The main issue with "Red" is that it sounds empty. There's nothing close to the country-soul ballads like the heart-wrenching "You're Not Sorry" and "White Horse" from her "Fearless" album, or even the emotion — and magic — on songs like "Never Grow Up" and "Enchanted" from 2010's "Speak Now."
She gets close to reaching those touching heights on "I Almost Do" and the album's duets. English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran — and Swift's falsetto — shine on "Everything Has Changed," produced by Butch Walker (Lavigne, Pink, Dashboard Confessional).
On "The Last Time," Swift takes a back seat to Snow Patrol lead singer Gary Lightbody, whose heavy and gravely vocals ride beautifully over the haunting beat, courtesy of producer Jacknife Lee. Too bad there's not more where that came from.