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Taylor Swift makes a grown-up move on 'Red'

The pop star has prided herself on writing her own material. But on her new album, she is happy to collaborate with other pop heavyweights. Maybe it's another sign of maturity.

October 18, 2012|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • Taylor Swift performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Taylor Swift performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival at the MGM Grand… (Kevin Mazur / WireImage…)

During the 13 months that Taylor Swift canvassed the globe on her 2011-12 "Speak Now" tour, she was joined onstage by a steady parade of celeb musician friends and admirers: Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber in L.A., Usher in Atlanta, Brooks & Dunn's Ronnie Dunn in her home base of Nashville, Selena Gomez and James Taylor at Madison Square Garden in New York.

On the surface, the guest appearances were simply a bonus for fans — a little something to generate extra sparks, Twitter and water cooler buzz about those shows.

But the move seems to have had an unanticipated side effect on the star — and her new album, "Red."

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"I reached a moment in making this album where I just wanted to get into the studio with people who do things differently than I do and see how they do it," said Swift, 22, during a recent break in rehearsals in North Hollywood. "It was really more of an experience decision. I really never want to get stuck making the same album more than once."

Taylor Swift: An Oct. 21 Taylor Swift profile said that her 2010 album "Speak Now" was the first album in more than 5 1/2 years to sell more than 1 million copies in its first week. It was the second: Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter III" sold 1,006,000 copies in its first week in June 2008. The article also said that Swift's "Fearless" album was the top seller of 2008, and that her recent single "We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together" was No. 1 for two weeks on the Billboard 100 pop singles chart. "Fearless" was the biggest-selling album of 2009, and "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" logged three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100. Additionally, the story said that Swift had received the Hal David Starlight Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. She got that award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

"Red," Swift's fourth album, is an unapologetically big pop record that opens new sonic vistas for her thanks to collaborations with pop-world heavyweights including Max Martin and his frequent songwriting and production partner Shellback, Ed Sheeran, Jeff Bhasker and Semisonic singer Dan Wilson. "Red" will be released worldwide Monday.

The new alliances manifest in the big-beat pop chorus of the album's first single, "We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together," which she wrote with Martin and Shellback, who produced it. The title track, her essay on a best-of-times, worst-of-times relationship, opens over a simple banjo accompaniment but quickly kicks into rock overdrive with pounding drums and a throbbing bass line. The song "22" applies a strong dose of Auto-Tune to mechanize her vocal over what sounds like programmed electronic drums. And she's gained considerable attention for the peppery syncopated rhythms in "I Knew You Were Trouble," and the hints of dubstep she, Martin and Shellback weaved into her tale of yet another star-cross'd romance.

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With only the most fleeting traces of the country music with which she launched her career, the album creatively too takes her deeper into the pop world than "Speak Now," for which she proudly wrote all 14 songs single-handedly. It became the first album in more than 51/2 years to sell more than 1 million copies in its first week of release when it came out two years ago. It has since sold more than 4 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.

On the floor of the rehearsal studio, Swift displays the same fire in the belly and intense drive she exhibited at 17, shortly after the release of her 2006 debut album, "Taylor Swift." But there's a new authority in her voice, perhaps culled from her transition over the last half decade from a wide-eyed ingenue to one of the biggest pop stars of the new millennium.

More obvious to the outside world than all of that is the increasingly sophisticated — and refined — fashion sense she's developed as a top-rank model and cover girl. During the rehearsal she wore a casual knit long-sleeve sweater mini-dress with black and horizontal white pinstripes, tan and brown stylized saddle shoes. The delicate gold chain around her left wrist was offset by girlish, turquoise blue nail polish. Her once curly blond hair was straight and pulled into an efficient, unfussy ponytail. The bangs scattered across her forehead framed her delicate blue eyes.

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"One of the things I'm proudest of is that I feel like every one of the three albums I've put out so far stand alone in one way or another," she said, sitting on a couch in a small room off the rehearsal hall. She'd been working with her seven-piece band and half a dozen dancers ahead of their VMA show performance of "We Are Never, Ever ...," which that recently brought Swift her first No. 1 hit on the Billboard 100 pop singles chart.

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