The best track on Taylor Swift’s Red is “Starlight.” Buried in the last third of a sixteen-track album, it boasts the most Swiftian lyric: during the violet hour of a past that might exist, dreams become flesh to the accompaniment of a song on the radio. It’s a trope as old as rock itself; elders like Springsteen, Roxy Music, Donna Summer, and Madonna, of course, but Saint Etienne’s recent Words and Music devotes a song cycle to the way in which nostalgia is the caulking that binds courtship and music. Hell, Swift’s first hit “Tim McGraw” is part of the lineage. As power chords and four on the floor pounding evoke the Robert “Mutt” Lange who helmed Shania Twain’s blockbuster albums and the Corrs “Breathless,” Swift spins her own breathless yarn about she and her boy sneaking into a yacht club party pretending to be a duchess and a prince. “Don’t you dream impossible things?” he asks, like the guy in The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” or in the dread-infused “To Wish Impossible Things.” All Swift can say is “Oh, what a marvelous tune!” as a piano tinkles beneath the beat. The fact that the song is reportedly about Robert and Ethel Kennedy demonstrates the fungibility of Camelot: Bobby skipping stones on the water dreaming impossible things like putting poison in Fidel Castro’s cigar or removing Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
Swift’s record company might release “Starlight” as a single. Every song on this multimillion dollar project, on which dozens of livelihoods reportedly depend, could be a single, as new rules set by Billboard indicate; every song was designed as a multiformat crossover sensation. That’s the trouble. By themselves, absorbed and loved on an iPod, songs like “Red,” “22,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “Stay Stay Stay” register; heard en masse their details congeal into a kind of hypertrophied perk. The most sinister culprits happen to be helmed by the costliest help (Max Martin, Shellback, Jacknife Lee). There are gestures of altruism: a nullity of a duet with Gary Lightbody of unknown-on-these-shores Snow Patrol, presumably because no one deserves to sleep on the cold streets. Besides the ukelele-anchored trifle called “Stay Stay Stay,” in which she shows a rare talent (for an American) of making a smirk resonate like a smile (she even kids herself: “I was expecting some dramatic turnaway”), the best song after “Starlight” is a banger called “Holy Ground,” which I swear sounds like a pop version of an Easter-era Patti Smith rumbler. The guitars strum while a synthesizer squiggle urges Swift to go tribal and onomatopoetic while she imagines that the city is “ours” — the name of another Swift hit. Like Neil Young’s catalog, hers is all one song. The trouble is the ephemerality of breathlessness, not least when stimulants induce it.