Booster Shot: Taylor Swift, Sting Save the Day

Taylor Swift- Red

Tim Van Schmidt | New SCENE


The original idea for this article was: I was going to buy Taylor Swift’s new album and the newest one from The Artist Formerly Known as Kanye West, or “Ye” as he calls himself now, and then review them side by side. I was going to call it: “Cage Match: Swift v. Ye”.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to buy Ye’s record.

I bought Swift’s new record, the 2-CD set titled “Red”, though. This album is “Taylor’s Version” in her ongoing mission to re-record her older music to spite her former record company.

Taylor Swift- Red

I have never heard the previous versions of these songs. In fact, I haven’t heard much of Swift’s music at all — my musical tastes generally lie elsewhere. But that was part of the point — to challenge myself to listen to something different for a change. And if these recordings were her choice, then it must be a good place to start.

I just couldn’t do it in Ye’s case, but that’s another story.

I’m glad I gave Swift a chance, however. You see, both this pandemic thing and the middle of winter have been getting fully on my nerves. A little anger, a little depression — in December I lost a very close friend to COVID — and perhaps a little boredom — it’s all there recently for me.

I realized that I needed a booster shot of music.

First, instead of ordering Ye’s album, I ended up buying a copy of Sting’s latest album, “The Bridge”. I mean, how can you go wrong with a Sting album? But for some reason, it just didn’t go where I wanted it to when I first put it on. Sting’s music is just so refined at this point — you know every song is a Sting song and the studio work is meticulous, even antiseptic. I had to admit that the phrase I thought of at the time was “easy listening”.

Sting- The Bridge

But the first tune on Swift’s “Red” did the trick. “State of Grace” is an up-tempo pop-rock masterpiece of production — custom-made for arena-level excitement. I turned it up. I played it again. I turned it up some more. I got lost in the sonic blast.

This tune hit me at just the right time. Isn’t that the special power of music — to enter the cracks of our experiences and provide a touchstone to emotions and feelings? Swift saved my day with that tune alone.

As “Red” progressed, I found myself taken away by another tune, “Starlight”. It’s about dancing and having the perfect night and I found myself thinking “I want to be made of starlight”. I know, that’s fantasy land but I think that is exactly the point.

By the time I got to the end of the epic 10-minute version of “All Too Well”, slower and much more earnest, I was kind of ready for Sting. Thanks to Swift, I was a little more satisfied and relaxed enough to listen.

On Sting’s album, the songs reflect, perhaps, a more mature sense of lyric writing — there’s more general poetry to the words. OK, there are some big production numbers here displaying plenty of production savvy — and a few weak rhymes. But the songs that made me sit down and listen were the more intimate tracks.

It started with “Loving You”, a smooth, deep, and smoldering song of confession and jealousy. This isn’t “starlight”. This is so much more complicated.

On the next track, “Harmony Road”, I had to chuckle when Sting says “they laughed when they named it Harmony Road” — and I immediately thought of our own traffic-thick Harmony Road.

But then the storytelling began. “The Hills on the Border” tells of a strange and mysterious late-night encounter with “a darkening of shadows/in the shape of a man”. “Captain Bateman” tells the tale of an imprisoned Navy officer who promises to marry the jailer’s daughter if she will free him, but once free, he breaks his vow and suffers “a maiden’s curse”. “The Bells of St. Thomas” surveys the wreckage of a one-night affair on the morning after.

Sting (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

But most intense is when Sting strips the arrangements down to a simple guitar and voice. Both the title song, “The Bridge”, and the traditional tune, “Waters of Tyne”, are riveting tracks, one imagining a bridge “deep inside the mind” and the other a cold river separating two passionate lovers.

These jewels are like seeing a one-man play. It’s not “easy listening”. It’s more like “intensive listening”. Sting takes on a voice, tells a story, and underscores it with finely wrought words. That’s good art.

So, between Swift and Sting I got a lot of what I like about music — some big sounds to blow away the gathering gloom and some tunes to draw inspiration from. I’m boosted. But I wonder how long it will be until I need another shot?

Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Explore his YouTube channel at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt”.

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