Photo Credit: Beth Garrabrant
Given half the chance, most of us would probably like to completely erase the memory of 2020; a year of illness, upheaval, and isolation. For Taylor Swift, however, the year could hardly have gone better (at least from an artistic perspective). Her indie-folk lockdown albums Folklore and Evermore earned her the critical acclaim that had largely eluded her up to that point and forced even her most ardent critics to reassess their opinion on her.
Now she has begun the arduous process of re-recording her first six studio albums to gain back control of the masters from Scooter Braun’s Big Machine. Over a decade-and-a-half has passed since Swift first burst onto the scene with her self-titled debut, and the re-recording series offers, if nothing else, a chance to finally get people to take her earlier albums seriously. As the critical landscape of the late-2000s and early-2010s – which unthinkingly dismissed anything seen as ‘pop’ or “teenage girl” music – has been overridden by an overdue wave of pop-timism, a critical reassessment of Swift’s first albums has begun to start. No Swift album exemplifies this more than Red; which, having been met with mixed to tepidly positive reviews upon release, is now seen by many as her magnum opus – a modern classic. Red caught Swift at a pivotal moment in her career; mid-transition between her original country styling and the later pure pop of 1989. It remains, to date, Swift’s best attempt at incorporating both sounds simultaneously.
Red (Taylor’s Version) features 20 songs from 2012’s deluxe version of Red, as well as 10 “from the vault tracks” that were written for the original album, but ultimately never made the cut. Perhaps it’s a result of the Antonoff and Dessner co-production, but the 10 vault tracks here sound in many ways as close to the songs of Folklore than they do of 2012’s Red. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, “Nothing New”’s reflections on sexism being released in 2012; the same year where Swift made a point to distance herself from the term “feminism.”
For the 20 original Red tracks, Swift adds a subtle timeless flair to the arrangements but mostly leaves them unchanged (why try to improve on perfection after all?) Swift’s matured vocals suit best the more subdued singer-songwriter numbers here like the Gary Lightbody (of Snow Patrol) assist “The Last Time”, or the heart-wrenching “Ronan” – written about the terminally ill three-year-old Ronan Thompson who died just days before his fourth birthday. Issues arise, however, with the re-recordings of Red’s peppier big hits (“I Knew You Were Trouble”, “22”, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). The subtler instrumentation and matured vocals largely strip these songs of their original vigor. These slight missteps are not nearly enough to take away from the rest of this album’s excellence, but they do raise concerns about how Swift will manage to maintain the original charm of 1989 when it comes time to re-record that album.
The emotional centerpiece of the original Red was “All Too Well” – a deep cut that in the years since its release has come to be seen by many as Swift’s best song to date. The standard five-minute version utilizes form more effectively than any other song on Red; slowly building to a chorus of catharsis of epic proportions. The song moves from hallmark-style sweetness (“I walked through the door with you, the air was cold // But something ‘bout it felt like home somehow”) to aching longing (“I know it’s long gone and that magic’s not here no more”) to uncomfortably visceral utter despair (“Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it // I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it”).
At the time of Red’s release, it felt as though this and countless other songs on here were diminished and consumed by a wider, pervasive, lazy, and sexist media narrative that portrayed Swift as a “difficult woman” who darted carelessly from man to man, writing a scathing song about each after she was done. It’s a testament, then, to “All Too Well”’s greatness that it was able to re-emerge from those sexist swamps years later and finally get the recognition it deserved. The term “pop perfection” is thrown around far too often and carelessly these days, but “All Too Well” is genuinely an example of a song that really is just *that* good.
Now the standard version of “All Too Well” comes with a companion piece; it’s a 10-minute version: an endlessly hyped piece of the Taylor Swift lore that has been mythologized with memes aplenty. Given the larger-than-life status the previously unheard song has taken on over the years, it’s nothing short of a spectacular achievement that it manages to meet and even exceed the expectations raised for it. The first two minutes of the song are identical to the standard version – forcing you to check that you are actually listening to the right version – but then switches halfway through the second verse. “You were tossing me the car keys, ‘f*ck the patriarchy’ // Key chain on the ground, we were always skipping town”, she sings; the rare expletive letting us know we’re seeing a new side of Swift. The line – about a boyfriend who virtue signals his feminism through a keychain, but doesn’t embody these values through his actions – is an instantly disarming one.
The new lyrics consistently reach and exceed the exemplary songwriting standards of Swift’s most well-written work to date, Folklore. Swift allegorizes the failed relationship to a dead body (“Three months in the grave”), unsuccessfully trying to be revived long after the fact (“Check the pulse and come back swearing it’s the same”). Moments later, she extends the metaphor to its disturbing, inevitable conclusion: “All I felt was shame and you held my lifeless frame”; conjuring up a scene as melodramatic and tragically ironic as that of Romeo and Juliet’s ending.
Keeping listeners’ attention across a ten-minute song would be a hard task for anyone, but it’s even harder trying to do it after listeners have sat through an already two-hour-long album of songs they’ve mostly already heard. Yet, somehow, Swift does just that. It’s a testament to her unparalleled world-building; one which conveys largely relatable sentiments with piercing intimacy. Meanwhile, tactically sprinkled across the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” are a handful of immediate attention-grabbing lyrics that make it impossible to look away. These include, of course, the aforementioned “lifeless frame” lyric, but also the searing simile “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath”, as well as the song’s most overt allusion to the relationship’s imbalanced power dynamic (“And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punchline goes // ‘I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age’”).
“All Too Well” – both the original and the extended version – speak both to the once-in-a-generation talent of Swift, in general, but more specifically to the beloved status of Red as a pop landmark. Perhaps controversially, I don’t think Red is Swift’s best work (I think that status still belongs to last year’s Folklore) and yet regardless of where you fall on that debate, it’s near impossible to doubt the artistic merit of this album. Swift’s three LPs released before Red were all strong releases, but it was here where Swift solidified her talents once and for all, and as such made the leap from chart-topper to certified superstar.