Like Kanye West, Taylor Swift is a turbine of artistic ambition and superstar drama. So it's no surprise she manages to make her fourth album both her Joni Mitchell-influenced maturity binge and her Max Martin-abetted pop move – and have it seem not just inevitable but natural.
Red is a 16-song geyser of willful eclecticism that's only tangentially related to Nashville (much like Swift herself at this point). The album pinballs from the U2-tinged liftoff of "State of Grace" to the dubstep-y teen pop of "I Knew You Were Trouble" to "The Last Time," a sad piano duet with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol. Swift's bedrock is driving, diaristic post-country rock – see the breakup flashback "All Too Well," where she drops the great image of "dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light" with her ex.
Part of the fun is watching Swift find her pony-footing on Great Songwriter Mountain. She often succeeds in joining the Joni/Carole King tradition of stark-relief emotional mapping: "Loving him is like trying to change your mind once you're already flying through the free fall," she sings on the simile-monsoon title track, where banjos and vocoders make out like third cousins.
But whether she's real-talking Jake Gyllenhaal ("We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together") or fantasizing about crashing "a yacht-club party" that sounds uncannily like the Kennedy bash she attended with her current future-ex-boyfriend Conor ("Starlight"), her self-discovery project is one of the best stories in pop. When she's really on, her songs are like tattoos.