Reimagined and revived, Swift breathes new life into her magnum opus
This generation’s finest songwriter, Taylor Swift reclaims Red, her career-defining set which saw the then-21-year-old defy expectation and reach across the aisle to pop music. The set’s original 16 tracks detailed crushing heartache, celebrating youth, and navigating rising tide waters of human pain in its purest form.
Taylor Swift can paralyze you with a single phrase. “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath,” she plunges a lyrical dagger, straight into the jugular, with the long-teased 10-minute epic “All Too Well,” penned with Liz Rose. How such a deeply-profound, razor-sharp lyric, which she’d originally written more than a decade ago, wound up on the cutting room floor is the next great American mystery. That’s the curious quandary with Swift’s songwriting, though. She writes such excruciatingly-detailed, soul-pulverizing passages that some brilliant lines are bound to be trimmed.
With Red (Taylor’s Version), as with the previous Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the storyteller outfits the original compositions (first forged with industry stalwarts Max Martin and Shellback) with updated vocal performances and more meticulous arrangements, the instruments feeling warmer and more human. When the drums crash into the ears with “State of Grace,” crinkling like bowling pins scattered into the gutter, a sensational tingle ripples down the spine. Swift’s vocal, as she curls strengthened vocal cords around lyrics like “mosaic broken hearts, but this love is brave and wild,” pours as volcanic rock down the countryside. Long gone are the red-hot emotions which once informed her vocal twirls and eagle-eyed sweeps. Instead, as a grown ass woman now, she trades out skin-grafting ruthlessness for richer, more nuanced takes.
Artist: Taylor Swift
Album: Red (Taylor’s Version)
Label: Taylor Swift
★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
That’s what’s most remarkable about Red (Taylor’s Version). She’ll be 32 next month and has lived an entire lifetime since she first put pen to paper. Her scars are still there, shimmering like diamonds in the way she bellows “losing him was blue like I’d never known / missing him was dark gray, all alone” with the title cut or somberly, reverently coos “words, how little they mean, when you’re a little too late” over acoustic guitar on “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” witness marks stamping out pivotal times in her life. When her pain stung the deepest, there was a visceral approach in how she relayed her tales of boys and break-ups, but she peers through time, simply reflecting on her youth, reckless and sweet. Most people will have gone through at least one (probably more) terribly devastating split in their 20s, only to find themselves laughing at how silly it all was. And that doesn’t discredit the younger you’s feelings. It reframes them as photographs, all jagged around the edges and yellowed and faded by time’s swift hand. It’s nothing to be ashamed of ー it just… was.
VIDEO: Taylor Swift “Red”
Other such hushed performances as “Treacherous” (“I can’t decide if it’s a choice, getting swept away / I hear the sound of my own voice asking you to stay,” she wrestles) and “The Last Time,” a clawing and electric piano ballad with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, still smack squarely in the chest, colorfully pastel musical setpieces arising as the precursors to folklore and evermore. Later, “Begin Again,” with its aromatic coffee house scent, sprouts up with ripened insight, as if Swift is playing narrator to her younger self and steps into the camera’s gaze mid-movie to deliver a bit of emotional exposition. “I’ve been spending the last eight months / Thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end,” she details with striking finesse. The words “break,” “burn,” and “end” feel both weighted with barbells and light as feathers, only fluttering away on a crisp autumn breeze. Her keen observations once sliced into her soul, and now, they exist as faint memories, ghosts passing through her mind from time to time.
That’s another thing about a songwriter’s work. Songs like “The Moment I Knew,” in which she bottles up the moment she realized her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal was over (he ghosted her on her 21st birthday), and the criminally underappreciated “Come Back…Be Here” are polaroids. In frame, the anger and the sorrow and the regret pop like sprays of golden sunlight, etched around seemingly happy, glowing faces. But with anything at all, time has a way of softening the edges and bleeding out the colors. Swift is likely no longer hurt or even bothered about what happened a decade ago. Now, she’s a vehicle to impart her well-earned, triumphantly-fought wisdom to the next generation.
“I Knew You Were Trouble” still hits hard into the dubstep pavement. It was a daring move, stylistically, for the genre-curious artist at the time, who’d only dreamed of such a game-changing combination and released remixes of her country songs up to this point. More than any other track on the record, it confirmed she really could conquer it all 一 and if dubstep flanked with indie guitar didn’t do the trick, nothing else would. Nothing else would work if Swift’s most ambitious ideas could work as nothing more than on-paper fantasy. “Now I’m lying on the cold hard ground,” she sings in between throaty shrieks: “Oh, oh-oh / Trouble, trouble, trouble.”
VIDEO: Taylor Swift “22”
Elsewhere, “22,” a once juvenile throwaway, is now enrapturing, begging the listener to disengaged from the pressures of adulthood and get a little messy. Once you hit your 30s, something almost spiritual shifts inside of you 一 perhaps there’s a deeper appreciation for the foolhardiness to which you were once beholden. Or maybe it’s lamenting squandered youth in some way. Or better yet, it’s grasping onto feeling young when the world tells you 30 is over the hill. Youth really is wasted on the young. “I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22,” belts Swift at the top of her lungs. Her words burn your ears red. And you totally, finally get it.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” carries the same effect. Never quite as musically or lyrically interesting as the rest of the record, the plucky, sleepover anthem morphs into a necessary emotional reprieve. It’s loose and giddy and intoxicating. Swift bouncing across the hook “we are never, ever, ever getting back together / you go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me” is a woman basking in her commitment to self-love, setting up important boundaries in her life and severing those ties which are just way too harmful these days. Swift was trying to tell us something, and we just didn’t listen. It’s a very adult conceit nestled in fuzzy pajamas, hot coco, and lipgloss. We couldn’t see the forest for the trees, but the message is far more discerning, and dare I say, profound 10 years later.
VIDEO: Taylor Swift “All Too Well”
In the years following Red’s initial release, the perception of Swift and reception of her work began to sour. The promo cycle for Reputation, largely a deconstruction of salacious tabloid headlines and the court of public opinion, was devoid of any interviews; in fact, the singer-songwriter hid away from the world for an entire year. In listening to “The Lucky One,” rumored to be about Kim Wilde, who stole away from the spotlight to become a gardener, there’s an earnest sorrow oozing from the seams. Swift knows all too well what it’s like to be battered and bruised by those who once rallied in her corner. “It took some time, but I understand it now,” she sings with a penetrating heaviness.
Like a great storyteller, Taylor Swift saves the ten-layered cake for the last course. “All Too Well” (10 Minute Version) further contextualizes her relationship with and breakup from Jake Gyllenhaal. Alongside a short film, starring Stranger Things and Fear Street’s Sadie Sink (as young Taylor) and Dylan O’Brien, of Teen Wolf fame, (as 30-year-old Jake), the 10-minute saga lays out the entire span of the relationship with wonderfully clear illustration. “And I was thinking on the drive down, any time now / He’s gonna say it’s love, you never called it what it was,” she peels back the layers, revealing pussing (emotional) sores underneath. “’Til we were dead and gone and buried / Check the pulse and come back swearing it’s the same / After three months in the grave / And then you wondered where it went to, as I reached for you / But all I felt was shame and you held my lifeless frame.”
Swift litters more rich and provocative passages throughout the 10-minute performance. Among her most astute, fang-toothed lines: “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath,” she punctures the air from the room. Later, with the fifth verse, she goes full-on savage, exposing, “And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punch line goes / ‘I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age’” (Jake Gyllenhall’s current girlfriend is 25, and they reportedly started dating in 2018, which would have made her 22…)
VIDEO: Taylor Swift “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”
Swift’s strength as a songwriter has always been her willingness to be vulnerable, carving out her own heart and squeezing it onto paper. Red (Taylor’s Version) 一 featuring additional songs “from the vault” like the moody, Phoebe Bridgers-starring “Nothing New” and the synth-throbbing “Message in a Bottle,” alongside songs she originally wrote but were cut by other artists including “Better Man” (Little Big Town) and “Babe” (Sugarland) 一 maps out her entire life then with blinding brilliance. Much like her personal life, the artistic achievement lies in being totally “all over the place,” directly excavating “a fractured mosaic of feelings that somehow all fit together in the end,” as she reflects in new press materials.
“Happy, free, confused, lonely, devastated, euphoric, wild, and tortured by memories past. Like trying on pieces of a new life, I went into the studio and experimented with different sounds and collaborators,” she continues. “And I’m not sure if it was pouring my thoughts into this album, hearing thousands of your voices sing the lyrics back to me in passionate solidarity, or if it was simply time, but something was healed along the way.”
Red (Taylor’s Version) is Taylor Swift healed from and no longer haunted by her past. It’s a glorious treasure trove of musical trinkets that are a little worse for wear, but emerge as priceless relics that you can never replace. Even twinkling moments like “The Very First Night,” recapturing her naive lovesick spirit, and the windy, horn-basted “Forever Winter” flesh out her artistic presence. While these album leftovers, in particular, don’t quite strike the same emotionally probing depths as the rest, “I Bet You Think About Me” does, firmly grasping the remaining tattered threads of her anger and hurt. “I don’t have to be your shrink to know that you’ll never be happy,” she admonishes with blunt force. Now, that’s the Taylor we’ve come to know. Rinsing generously in Swift’s country roots, the arrangement is baked with a bluesy, supple filling, and the addition of Chris Stapleton is a downright genius decision.
Swift’s work here has been greatly sculpted by her pain then 一 but now, it is far more than an artistic statement. She’s a woman, once scorned, and retreads that time in her life as a proclamation. She has once again been betrayed, as her masters are now owned by private equity firm Shamrock Capital, which bought them from Scooter Braun, and her re-recordings are, more importantly, a turning point. With an industry which continues to undercut women, it’s an empowering maneuver. It’s that final chess move when you trap your opponent in checkmate. Reportedly, Braun and numerous investors believed Swift was bluffing when she revealed she’d be re-recording her entire back catalog. Well, she called their bluff and raised them two (out of six) studio re-releases.
If nothing else, Red (Taylor’s Version) chips away at the patriarchy. As Swift marches through her past to recenter her future, Britney Spears was recently released from her conservatorship, a stranglehold set-up by her father Jamie Spears that has stolen 13 years of her life. Both powerful, talented women and undeniable icons fell prey all the same. Maybe now is finally the time women regain what they’ve rightfully earned. They deserve at least that much.
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