Retrospective: State of Grace

I’m ducking for cover with this one. Granting the wide spectrum of my tastes, am I really including the gaudy pop star Taylor Swift in this scope of retrospectives? To the derision of many, I’m sure, yes. But bear with me. While there’s no denying that Swift represents the off-putting showy aspects of pop rock — glimmering outfits and troupe dancers, cheered by an embarrassing fanbase — there’s more to her than meets the eye. I found this out when I clicked on a youtube video of “22” in a friend’s Facebook feed, and got better than what I expected. Intrigued, I downloaded the album Red, listened to the whole thing, and from then on thought twice before dismissing musicians on the basis of who listens to them.

Red (2012) was swift’s fourth album, and her turning point as she began fusing country (the worst music on the planet) with alt rock, heartland rock, dubstep, and dance. The result was a texture that glowed with vital purpose. Gone were the sunny lyrics of her country efforts (don’t listen to any of her first three albums), and in their place narratives of brokenness and frustrated communication that yield something better. The texture wouldn’t last; in subsequent albums it gave way to pure pop and dance with little of Red‘s depth. But for a red moment in time, Taylor Swift was worthy of her accolades.

The lead song “State of Grace” was more than just worthy; it’s a slice of swirling perfection. “State of Grace” remains an unusual song for Swift, and she’s never tried anything like it since. I imagine she didn’t dare, as it would be like David Bowie trying to write another “Heroes”. Miracles come once. Swift’s miracle draws on alternative and post-punk influences, and the usual comparisons are U2’s “A Sort of Homecoming” and The Cranberries’ “Dreams”. Frankly I hear U2’s “Mercy” more than those, the throwaway song that was — for whatever insane reason — cut from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. But “State of Grace” isn’t mere recycling. It’s better than its influences, transcends them into a piece that spells a pivotal before and after moment leading to “brave wild love”.

Forced to see the world through a lens of pain and imperfection, and accepting her own shades of wrong, Swift obtains a state of grace — the “worthwhile fight” amounting to something genuinely “good and right and real”. She sings as if presenting a heavenly court case, howling passion, coming down at the right intimate moments, and then soaring upwards again. The pre-chorus, or lift, draws out each part at the end:

And I neverrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Saw you comi-i-i-i-i-ing
And I’ll neverrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Be the sa-a-a-a-ame

That pre-chorus is the essence of “State of Grace” and elevates it to the heights few songs obtain. Whoever entered Swift’s life impacted her like eschatology. The lift underscores the dramatic moment by drawing out each passionate line, as the troupe dancers supplement with background howls. It’s the best part of the song, but the whole thing is majestic.

So there you have it. My defense of Taylor Swift, or at least one of her albums, and its lead track which is — in all truthfulness — one of the best songs in pop history. I’ll stand by that forever.

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

I’m walking fast through the traffic lights
Busy streets and busy lives
And all we know
Is touch and go
We are alone with our changing minds
We fall in love ’til it hurts or bleeds
Or fades in time

And I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

You come around and the armor falls
Pierce the room like a cannon ball
Now all we know
Is don’t let go
We are alone, just you and me
Up in your room and our slates are clean
Just twin fire signs
Four blue eyes

So you were never a saint
And I loved in shades of wrong
We learn to live with the pain
Mosaic broken hearts
But this love is brave and wild

I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

This is a state of grace
This is the worth while fight
Love is a ruthless game
Unless you play it good and right

These are the hands of fate
You’re my Achilles heel
This is the golden age of something good
And right and real

And I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

This is a state of grace
This is the worth while fight
Love is a ruthless game
Unless you play it good and right

🎶

From the album Red, 2012.

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