Taylor Swift—“I Knew You Were Trouble.”
I took this for a throwaway at first, but Swift has said she considers it one of the most important songs on Red. I don’t doubt she feels that way, but the music doesn’t back her up. The dubstep trappings are justified by the message, but like other dubstep additions to essentially standard pop songs (i.e., Alex Clare’s “Too Close”) they overwhelm their surroundings and tilt the songs too far into melodrama. There are better ways to achieve the same effect, though I admit they probably seem old-fashioned to anyone under 25. The lyrics are surprisingly thin, as well, as if Swift thought the sudden darkness of the chorus would fill in what she doesn’t say explicitly. It doesn’t, but it was worth a try.
Ellie Goulding—“Anything Could Happen”
Lyrically, “Anything Could Happen” sounds like the soundtrack to an unmade—except maybe in Goulding’s head—dystopian sci-fi film. The references to war, revolution, and possibly aliens; the need of the protagonist to hide her sex; the suggestive clues about panic, personal manipulation and broken trust that make you listen more closely; it all adds to an atmosphere that is disquieting yet hopeful, paranoid yet self-assured. The music, in every way, backs that up. Goulding has absorbed her lessons from Bjork and Kate Bush and no doubt countless others. She makes art rock with a human, pop face, which is rare enough to be celebrated for itself. I just wish her metaphors and allegories weren’t so jumbled, or she threw out a few more clues as to what exactly is going on (that applies to the music as well as the lyrics). I enjoy this, but I’d enjoy it more if I had a better idea of what she’s getting at.
Kenny Chesney—“El Cerrito Place”
I’m not a fan of Chesney’s Southern California country style, but here, for the first minute and a half or so, he hits all the right buttons. That might be because the song actually takes place in Southern California. The image of people dancing over the stars on Hollywood Boulevard and shouting Hallelujah is an indictment of compulsive self-delusion worthy of Nathanael West, and the overall tone of romantic obsession is exactly right. But that’s only the first verse, and there are two more to go. They aren’t terrible, but they come nowhere near the first, and they sound willfully odd rather than meaningful. I’m impressed that Chesney is trying to go beyond himself, but he isn’t there yet.
Zac Brown Band—“Goodbye In Her Eyes”
Just when I was hoping Brown was loosening up a bit, he produces something like this, which is loose only in its structure: it goes on forever. The one pleasant moment is the fiddle solo, which gets interrupted by a mistakenly uptempo middle eight. Otherwise it’s the usual sentiment and earnestness, and a lack of new ideas about how to express them.