Review Summary: Reflecting and re-evaluating: Red is an absolute triumph.
Taylor Swift’s ongoing reclamation of her own music is well-documented, but for those who haven’t followed the story since it first unfurled in 2019, here’s a rough approximation of what happened: record executive Scooter Braun purchased the Big Machine label for three hundred million dollars – a haul which included the rights to the master recordings of Swift’s first six albums – after the label previously blocked Taylor from buying them for years. The result has been a domino effect of Taylor’s Version
re-recordings that allow Swift to own these newer versions of her songs; a movement that has been met with support from fans and fellow musicians alike. Some are calling it a turning point in the history of music ownership thanks to the spotlight it’s placing on label contracts, ownership of masters, and right of first refusal for artists. In short, it’s kind of a big deal.
marks Swift’s second such venture, as her version of Fearless
dropped earlier in 2021 and included six new “from the vault” songs that were withheld from the original LP and its Platinum
incarnation. There’s plenty to be said about Swift’s re-recordings – whether they add anything worthwhile or not, if there’s a modicum of in-the-moment magic missing, etc. – but the primary appeal of these Taylor’s Version
LPs is undoubtedly the new songs. Of this album’s thirty-one tracks, the first sixteen are comprised of original tracklist re-recordings, followed by five previously released b-sides. Without glossing over the effort that it took to redo those songs, the interest of longtime fans who are already well-versed in Swift’s discography lies across those final nine songs; eight previously unreleased tracks from the Red
era, and a ten minute version of her renowned hit ‘All Too Well’. It’s these tracks that make Taylor’s version of Red
worth the price of admission, with a few of these castoffs even eclipsing the record’s A-list material.
‘Better Man’ commences the album’s most intriguing run of songs. The track was originally written by Swift for Red
, but was given to Little Big Town when it missed the tracklist’s final cut. ‘Better Man’ proceeded to earn Little Big Town a Grammy in 2018, but here we witness the song in its original form for the first time. The song details Taylor’s escape from a toxic and possibly abusive relationship, with most of its power coming from the conviction in Swift’s voice when she sings lines like, “I see the permanent damage you did to me / Never again, I just wish I could forget when it was magic.” A consistent thread throughout all of these “from the vault” tracks is that Red
has proven itself to be the indisputable peak of Taylor’s lyrical abilities. On ‘Nothing New’ (featuring Phoebe Bridgers), Swift pens lines that illustrate just how far beyond her years she actually was: “Lord, what will become of me once I've lost my novelty? How can a person know everything at eighteen, but nothing at twenty-two?” / “How long will it be cute, all this crying in my room? When you can't blame it on my youth…and will you still want me when I'm nothing new?” The song is a hushed, candle-lit ballad – the sort of song you can imagine that Taylor wrote in the middle of the night, fighting her own thoughts and insecurities about the toll that time takes on young women in the entertainment industry – long before she ever had a reason to worry about someone else taking her mantle. Now almost a decade later – with Swift still riding at the forefront of pop music’s most celebrated artists – it appears that at least her final question has been answered…and it’s a resounding yes
After two heart-wrenchingly introspective songs, ‘Babe’ arrives as something of a standard Swift breakup-bop. The lyrics depict an unfaithful partner (“Her lips on your neck, I can't unsee it / I hate that because of you, I can't love you”) while the song itself is sprightly and upbeat – not unlike Red
’s lead single ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’. It’s not among the best castoffs that her vault
tracks have to offer, but one could see it resting comfortably among Red
’s poppier tunes, and it likely could have displaced a weaker cut like ‘Stay Stay Stay’ for the overall benefit of the album. Alas, it’s still better to have it late than never. ‘Message in a Bottle’ is one of the most dynamic pop songs that Swift has ever composed, sounding like a cross between something from Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion
and Swift’s own 1989
; it’s an absolute banger and serves as an immediate boon to Swift’s catalog. ‘I Bet You Think About Me’ is a fairly humorous – but also very pointed and sarcastic – dismantling of one of Swift’s ex-boyfriends where she laments the personality of an obvious elitist: “You grew up in a silver-spoon gated community / Glamorous, shiny, bright Beverly Hills / I was raised on a farm, no, it wasn't a mansion / Just livin' room dancin' and kitchen table bills”…” I bet you think about me when you're out at your cool indie music concerts every week / I bet you think about me in your house, with your organic shoes and your million-dollar couch.” The cool indie music
line hearkens back to a verse from ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, and across much of Taylor’s version of Red
, it becomes an interesting game to piece together callbacks and references to other songs. With these new “vault” tracks, Red
’s already incredible storytelling becomes even more elucidated.
One notable difference between the songs that made Red
’s final cut and these new b-sides is the instrumental complements. The aforementioned ‘I Bet You Think About Me’ features backing vocals from Chris Stapleton and has a harmonica that hits its backdrop like a welcome country breeze. On ‘Forever Winter’, we get brass woodwinds providing a majestic flair to some of Swift’s most confident sounding verses, including the touchingly romantic “He says he doesn't believe anything much he hears these days / I say, ‘Believe in one thing, I won't go away’”. How much of this was originally written into the songs and how much of it was touched-up recently is unknown, but even if the latter is the case, it’s evidence of Swift’s growth and maturation as a producer. This is perhaps never more evident than it is on the gorgeous ‘Run’, which sees Swift and Ed Sheeran intertwine vocals in a way that is infinitely more alluring than what they did on 2012’s acoustic ditty ‘Everything Has Changed.’ On ‘Run’, their harmonies almost reach Justin Vernon levels of transcendence, which makes sense considering Swift’s recent collaborations with Bon Iver. All of this leads to these newfound Red
gems sounding just as sleek and beauteous as their A-side counterparts, and in some cases they manage to sound even better.
As Red (Taylor’s Version)
winds down to the penultimate ‘The Very First Night’, we get another vintage Swift pop tune, succeeding in the same vein as a ‘Starlight’ or ‘Holy Ground’ – catchy vocal melody, basic upbeat percussion, and little more. It’s not enough in itself to make hardcore Swifties rush out and purchase Taylor’s Version, but it’s a serviceable bop that does nothing to detract from the experience. A song that does
make the experience worthwhile in every perceivable facet is the ten minute rendition of ‘All Too Well.’ Some might call it the full or complete version, as it adds impeccably written verses throughout to an already damn near flawless song. Anyone who loves the original version of ‘All Too Well’ can advocate for its lyrics and the poignancy of Swift’s delivery, and would likely cite both as key factors in the song’s success. It’s not a flashy pop song or an endearingly rural slice of country, but merely Swift laying it all on the line emotionally for five (now ten) absolutely devastating minutes. On this fully fleshed out variation, we’re presented with additional verses to add to that atmosphere of longing and heartache, culminating in the knockout blow “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath.” The song – a towering breakup ballad – feels like the ultimate Taylor Swift song: it’s representative of everything she’s ever made a career out of doing, expressing these commonplace emotions in uniquely uncommon
ways. It’s the ideal way to close out Swift’s version of Red
, taking her best song and truly making it her own
again, right on-theme with the entire mission of these newly re-recorded albums. It’s brilliant on all levels.
I was admittedly far too harsh on Red
at the time of its release. I criticized the album for its inconsistent approach, demanding that it pick a direction between country and pop, and ultimately bashed the release as naïve and childish. In the spirit of reflecting and rewriting, I’m owning up to that 2012 review and saying that I was the immature one. So much of evaluating music requires empathy and the ability to place yourself in the shoes of an artist. Looking back, Swift’s observations about love and life at age twenty-two were simply amazing. Just the way she so vividly captured forbidden lust and temptation on ‘Treacherous’ still wows me in ways that I somehow missed all those years ago, while brilliant observations about the downside of stardom on ‘The Lucky One’ proved her wise beyond her years. It’s as Taylor recites on this album’s spoken message to her listeners: “Musically and lyrically, Red
resembled a heart-broken person. It was all over the place, a fractured mosaic of feelings that somehow all fit together in the end. Happy, free, confused, lonely, devastated, euphoric, wild – and tortured by memories past.” Sometimes maturity, in music or in life, is simply about recognizing where you’re at – even if it’s a total mess – and mapping out a plan for where you ultimately want to arrive. Red
captured Swift in the center of that storm, a process we all endure in early adulthood, and she handled it with more wisdom and grace than I think I ever could. Red
– both in its original form as well as with these welcome additions – is an absolute triumph. That's my
new version, and I'm sticking to it.