"This is the golden age of something good," Taylor Swift sings on "State of Grace," the opening track of her Red album, and though she says the song is about the promise of a new relationship, it's difficult not to add additional import to the line — especially after hearing her fantastic new record in full.
Because this is an album she's spent her entire career building toward. Each hit she's scored, every award she's won and all the high-profile breakups she's endured have led to its creation. Red is, in every conceivable way, her bid for artistic freedom, not only her most mature and accomplished album, but also her most unapologetic. No longer content to be shoehorned into country, she fully embraces her pop side, working with Max Martin and Shellback on a trio of tracks. Not concerned with being cool, she disses hipsters and writes songs with dudes like Ed Sheeran (though she does have Arcade Fire pal Owen Pallett conduct the strings at one point). And undeterred by her age, or her critics, she fully shoulders the load, writing each of Red's 16 songs and — very prominently — taking a "creative director" credit in its liner notes.
In short, this is her album, on her terms. Her songwriting has grown by leaps and bounds, most notably on the standouts "All Too Well," a heart-wrenching breakup tune that is almost certainly about her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal — mentions of a scarf he kept "Because it reminds you of innocence/ And it smells like me" and lines like "[You] used to be a little kid with glasses/ On a twin-sized bed" make it easy to play amateur detective — the deceptively simple "I Almost Do" and the aptly named "Sad Beautiful Tragic," a hushed, intimate number that (really genuinely sort of) recalls Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You" with its winsome vocals and blurry keys overlaid over a somber acoustic guitar.
And while songs like that will undoubtedly satisfy the purists, Swift's forays into pop might be somewhat more difficult to digest. And yet, they're equally strong. "I Knew You Were Trouble," her much-discussed exploration of dubstep, burns bright on keening keys and wooshing, whomping electro; "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" is the best kiss-off on an album full of 'em; and "22" provides a moment of levity, a song that promises "Everything will be all right/ As long as we keep dancing like we're 22" and features Taylor doing her best cool-kid impression ("Who's Taylor Swift anyway? Ewww") while the finest in electro-pop whirls and curls around her.
Save for a few moments — "The Lucky One," which is about some famous forebearer of hers who ditches celebrity for a simpler life and "Starlight," a song made for joyous, exuberant dancing — Red is almost entirely about the subject of love, but Swift has never explored the topic with a keener eye or a sharper wit. And there are some instances where the album tends to drag, like the morose "The Last Time," which almost feels too heavy for Swift to lift, or the silly "Stay Stay Stay," which probably should have been demoted to bonus-track status. But with a running time of 65 minutes, that's to be expected — and it's nitpicking, considering the quality of the rest of the songs here.
It is interesting to note that, for all the relationship drama crammed onto the album, Red opens and closes with a pair of songs, "State of Grace" and "Begin Again," that are very much about the promise and hope of new love. And given how hands-on Swift was with every facet of its creation, I'm reasonably sure this was not a coincidence. In her final lines, she sings, "I've been spending the last eight months/ Thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end/ But on a Wednesday/ In cafe/ I watched it begin again," and you don't have to be a genius to infer what she's getting at: The show goes on.
And that's a fitting way to wrap up the album of her (still young) life. She's been through the wringer, she's been judged and criticized and dismissed, but she's emerged with a boatload of great songs and a defiant streak that's bound to serve her well for the foreseeable future. Red may be the beginning of her golden age, but really, it only sets the stage for things to come. And I'm willing to bet we'll be amazed by what's next.