Taylor Swift, Matraca Berg, Jackson Browne: 3 songwriters, 3 albums

Cover of "Late for the Sky"

Jackson Browne was 25 years old when he recorded his third album Late for the Sky in 1974. I waited 38 years to buy it, and if you already have it you don’t need me to tell you it’s good. The eight tracks last just over 41 minutes and include the title track, “Fountain of Sorrow,” “For a Dancer”, and the suddenly-topical “Before the Deluge”:

Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power
And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused

The record sounds great in the way that only albums recorded in the 70s can: piano, guitar, violin, and soft drums that don’t overwhelm the mix. Best of all, it has a wonderful vibe, sounding spontaneous and loose, almost as if they’re making it up as they go along.

Matraca Berg has been the pre-eminent songwriter in Nashville for over thirty years, co-writing hits for the likes of Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Suzy Bogguss, Deana Carter and Martina McBride. She has a way with a witty lyric and a priceless pop sensibility, but these are sadly absent from her recent solo releases. The latest is Love’s Truck Stop, which follows on last year’s The Dreaming Fields so swiftly you might think her prolific.

The album starts promisingly with its title track, which has a good melody and has been recorded competently, but after track two things descend into the plaintive. The missing pop sensibility is compounded by Berg’s limited voice, which really doesn’t do justice to her own material. You can forgive a weak voice (not everyone can be Trisha Yearwood), but the absence of memorable tunes is an oddity, given her track record. (For evidence that she can bring some jauntiness, I refer you to her 1997 album, From Sunday Morning to Saturday Night.)

Taylor Swift has been accused in the past of having a weak singing voice, but she seems to have found it on her fourth album, Red, which sees her hitting a new peak. I suspect we may look back on Red in decades to come as Taylor Swift’s purple patch. Featuring songs that were written or co-written by Ms Swift, the album alternates between singer-songwriterly numbers in the Jackson Browne/James Taylor vein and pure, exuberant (and horribly catchy) pop-rock, packed full of wit and verve. “And you will hide away and find your piece of mind with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine,” she sings, with a knowing wink to her audience. Yeah, right. There’s nobody on earth cooler than Taylor Swift right now.

She’s been criticised for writing too much about love and relationships, but she’s careful to remind us of her age (“22” neatly updates us from “Fifteen” on Fearless), and it turns out that Jackson Browne wrote a lot of songs about love and relationships too. Actually, she has an extraordinary talent, and like all the best songwriters seems able to pluck words from everyday speech and make them sound musical.

The sounds are modern, it’s all very produced, and every other track is an earworm, like the first single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, which we all hated as soon as we heard it, and then couldn’t get out of our heads. This track deliberately evokes the experience of listening to an online stream, or perhaps using an FM transmitter with an iPod and encountering RF interference. Elsewhere there are a couple of trendy duets and a selection of her stock-in-trade looks back at failed relationships. The best of these is “All Too Well,”

Hey you called me up again just to break me like a promise
So casually cruel in the name of being honest
I’m a crumbled up piece of paper lying here
Cause I remember it all all all too well

It’s a good one, Red, album of the year, and in 38 years time some old git will buy it and maybe write a blog about it.

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