Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Taylor Swift

  • Taylor Swift [Big Machine, 2006] Choice Cuts
  • Fearless [Big Machine, 2008] A-
  • Fearless: Platinum Edition [Big Machine, 2009] Choice Cuts
  • Speak Now [Big Machine, 2010] A-
  • Red [Big Machine, 2012] A-
  • 1989 [Big Machine, 2014] A-
  • Reputation [Big Machine, 2017] ***
  • Lover [Republic, 2019] A-
  • Folklore [Republic, 2020] B+
  • Evermore [Republic, 2020] A-
  • Midnights [Republic, 2022] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Taylor Swift [Big Machine, 2006]
"Tim McGraw," "Picture to Burn" Choice Cuts

Fearless [Big Machine, 2008]
"You have to believe in love stories and prince charmings and happily ever after," declares the 18-year-old Nashville careerist. You can tell me that's worse than icky if you like; I believe in two of the three (prince charmings, no), and I think it's kind of icky myself. But I'm moved nevertheless by what can pass for a concept album about the romantic life of an uncommonly-to-impossibly strong and gifted teenage girl, starting on the first day of high school and gradually shedding naiveté without approaching misery or neurosis. Partly it's the tunes. Partly it's the musical restraint of a strain of Nashville bigpop that avoids muscle-flexing rockism. Partly it's the diaristic realism she imparts to her idealized tales. And partly it's how much she loves her mom. Swift sets the bar too high. But as role models go, she's pretty sweet. A-

Fearless: Platinum Edition [Big Machine, 2009]
"Jump Then Fall" Choice Cuts

Speak Now [Big Machine, 2010]
The 14 songs last upwards of 67 minutes, some 4:45 apiece; they're overlong and overworked. And I believe what I read about their origins in the romantic and other feelings of America's Ingenue for identifiable major and minor celebrities, which may thrill her fanbase but means approximately nothing to me. Even in their overwork, however, they evince an effort that bears a remarkable resemblance to care--that is, to caring in the best, broadest, and most emotional sense. I even like the one about Kanye West--including when I remember that it's about Kanye West, which usually I don't. A-

Red [Big Machine, 2012]
So if Stephin Merritt can make a big deal out of 69 love songs, why can't Taylor Swift make a fairly big deal out of 16? His being formally savvy in his pop-polymath way and hers being formally voracious in her pop-bestseller way? Need either deal be autobiographical? One hopes not in both cases, although verisimilitude has its formal aspects for bestsellers. Swift hits the mark less often than Merritt--65 or 70 percent, I'd say. But one could argue that the verisimilitude requirement forces her to aim higher. I like the feisty ones, as I generally do. But "Begin Again" and especially "Stay Stay Stay" stay happy and hit just as hard. That's hard. A-

1989 [Big Machine, 2014]
The NYC tourist jingle everybody hates on to prove they're not her shills is my favorite thing here. Having emigrated to Manhattan myself, albeit from Queens, I think it's silly to demand sociology from someone who can't stroll Central Park without bodyguards. I note that even from a limo you can tell that the "everyone" here who "was someone else before" includes many immigrants of color. And I credit its gay-curious moment even if she ends up with a banker like her dad. All that said, however, there's a big difference between Swift's Manhattan and the one I can afford only due to real estate laws as vestigial as the family grocery that just closed up across the street, and you can hear that difference in the music. In principle I'm down with the treated hooks and doctored vocals with which Swift makes herself at home. Freed of Nashville's myth of the natural, she echoes and double-tracks and backs herself up, confides with soft-edged subtlety and fuses the breathy with the guttural. But I have less use for the cyborg with feelings she's playing now than for the gawky 15-year-old she created on Fearless--the one who was a hundredth as talented and a tenth as self-possessed as the 18-year-old who imagined her, the one who gathered an audience of country fangirls Nashville didn't know existed. That fifteen-year-old obviously isn't much like me. But she's more like I was when I got here than the cyborg will ever be, or most bankers either. A-

Reputation [Big Machine, 2017]
It isn't that she completely sounds like a pop star, it's that she completely identifies as one ("This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things," "Call It What You Want") ***

Lover [Republic, 2019]
It's not just that Swift knows even more about having lovers, the concept here, than she does about being a star, the concept of Reputation. It's that for female pop fans with their own lives, not just unfortunates ensnared by the vicarious vagaries of celebrity culture, lover is a more relatable concept than star. A romantic history as footloose as Swift's comes easier to a gal with unlimited access to desirable men. But even so there are millions of women who manage serial relationships, and this one's for them. Swift has earned the right to assemble "a love letter to love itself" more ways than anyone can count, including a romance with a British actor I wouldn't know from Joe Jonas that is now well into its record-breaking third year. I wish the tunecraft here retained the lightness of the mean yet hopeful "I Forgot That You Existed," an opener that seems to promise a keyb-based pure pop of Motownish allure that does not in fact ensue. I also wish I hadn't learned that the romantic pied-a-terre of "Cornelia Street" is actually a mansion with a pool. But Swift's formidable skill set has seldom served more likable or admirable ends. A-

Folklore [Republic, 2020]
Since her actually existing life doesn't interest me, the news that these songs break her autobiographical mold signifies for me only insofar as I wish the two I find touching as well as admirable were the reminiscences they pretend to be: the childhood memory "Seven," which I bet is, and the teen memory "Betty," which I assume isn't. As someone who's loved kids since he wasn't one himself, I'm pleased that these two tunes are at least not adult, hence not about Swift the professional wonder--the one who made National headman Aaron Dessner rich for life just for helping her do what she's been doing forever: manufacturing yet another bunch of melodically fetching, lyrically deft pop songs that are fine as far as they go. The only one I can't stand anymore is the striking "The Last Great American Dynasty," which reminds me all too much of Taylor Swift the showbiz plutocrat. B+

Evermore [Republic, 2020]
The theory that this second album of manifestly unautobiographical Aaron Dessner-etc. collabs in six months is by definition less inspired than the one they put out in July isn't what I hear here, which is that they kept going because they were just getting their groove on. Oddly, the song I noticed first is the one I now like least--the super-hooky but pat police procedural "No Body, No Crime." I mean, who needs hooks when melody is a given? So instead try "Champagne Problems," in which he's all set to ask her to marry him the same night she's all set to ditch him. Or the future Christmas classic "'Tis the Damn Season," a cheating song about the Taylor who got away. Or "Cowboy Like Me," in which she turns out to be the cowgirl after all. Or "Marjorie" with Swift's "Never be so kind you forget to be clever/Never be so clever you forget to be kind." Or "Coney Island" with Dessner's "Will you forgive my soul/When you're too wise to trust me/And too old to care?" Or "It's Time to Go," in which for 15 years "I gave it my all, he gave me nothing at all/Then wondered why I left." Or "Closure," which puts the title in quotes you can hear. A-

Midnights [Republic, 2022]
As textural as anything this tunemaster has ever let out in public, and muzzier as a consequence, Jack Antonoff collab includes a cowrite with her longtime bf, which hints sweetly that many pseudo-autobiographical lyrics to the contrary she does actually have a longtime bf ("Snow on the Beach," "Mastermind," "Sweet Nothing") ***