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Re-recorded in meticulous detail, along with a dozen songs cut from the 2012 original, Taylor Swift’s most pivotal album has still more to say about growing up and moving forward.
Just beyond the bounds of normal human awareness lies a realm governed by a benevolent blonde whose songs are sacred texts. In wormholes on Tumblr and TikTok, you’ll discover a new language of signs and symbols, and a bounty of messages waiting to be decoded. Nail polish colors hold secret meanings. Halloween costumes are harbingers. Lost scarves are mythologized like lost arks.
This is the Swiftiverse. Is Red (Taylor’s Version) really trying to exist anywhere else? The second of six albums that Swift is remaking from scratch to regain financial and legal control of her catalog, it’s built on the well-founded belief that her fandom will consume anything spun by her hands—even lightly retouched versions of songs that came out less than a decade ago, plus a fistful of contemporaneous unreleased tracks for good measure. Leave it to Taylor to turn a business maneuver into a sweeping mid-career retrospective; leave it to Swifties to receive the songs, the merch, and the short film as gifts, glimpses into their idol’s secret history handed down as rewards for their devotion.
Originally released in 2012, Red was the clear nexus between where Swift’s career started and where it was heading. After a three-album progression away from country, she revealed the extent of her pop ambition, calling in producers Max Martin and Shellback—Swedish heavy-hitters who had sent Britney Spears and P!nk up the charts—to cue the synths and drop the bass. (“Message in a Bottle,” the first song Swift wrote with the pair, is among Red (Taylor’s Version)’s new offerings; its abundant polish nearly makes up for its dearth of personality.) Red was also where she began to seek source material beyond her own biography; the character studies (of Ethel Kennedy on the lightly ditzy “Starlight”; of a Joni Mitchell-esque elder on “The Lucky One”; of a mother who loses her young son to cancer on vault track “Ronan”) point in the direction of folklore, where, years later, the gulf between Swift and her narrators would widen.
Like Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the first of Swift’s re-recordings to be released, Red (Taylor’s Version) stays true to the original. Hunting for subtle differences between the old and the new feels like a game of Where’s Waldo?, and sometimes just a test of headphone fidelity. Various instruments are slightly louder or quieter in the mix; a note or two might have been tweaked in the melody of “Sad Beautiful Tragic”; the “wee-ee”s on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” are even more cloying than before. A notable exception to this trend of sameness is the bonus track “Girl at Home,” formerly a prim, strummy ode to girl code, freshly remade with producer Elvira Anderfjärd (a Max Martin signee) as a burbling, bottom-heavy synth-pop joint.
If you haven’t listened to Red, recently or ever, it’s well worth your time; in its ecstatic, expressive vocals, tart humor, vivid imagery, and tender attention to the nuances of love and loss, you’ll find everything that makes Taylor Swift great. But the real draw for her main audience, who already know Red like the back of their hands, is the new material. Some of it is new only in the sense of being newly attached to this album or newly reclaimed by Taylor: “Ronan” was a one-off charity single in 2012; Little Big Town recorded “Better Man,” a stolen rearview glance on the drive away from toxic love, in 2016; and the venom-laced air kiss “Babe” was released by the country duo Sugarland in 2018. Most anticipated is an extended cut of a classic: “All Too Well,” a Red track with an outsize presence in Swift lore.
A slow-burn account of sunsetting love, long since codified as an exemplar of Swiftian storytelling, the original version of “All Too Well” was the product of Swift and co-writer Liz Rose’s extensive edits to a 10-minute demo. Now, Swift has dug up the lost verses. Not all of them are additive; Swift’s beyond-her-years analysis in the final verse feels disconnected from the in-process pain of the version that we know, and when she opens up the song for its subject’s input (“Did the love affair maim you too?”), she undermines the definitiveness of her own account. The extra bulk dilutes the original’s walloping crescendo, making it harder to locate the emotional climax. Still, it’s surreal to see the stuff of lesser writers’ dreams—“You kept me like a secret/But I kept you like an oath”—abandoned, until now, on the cutting room floor.
Some of the vault tracks feel like they were left off of Red because they weren’t up to snuff; see the garish cheer of “The Very First Night,” the too-obvious hook of “Run” (“like you’d run from the law”). Much more compelling is “Nothing New,” a somber acoustic ballad squarely in the wheelhouse of guest star Phoebe Bridgers, which grapples with the music business’ famously fickle relationship to young women. These same anxieties—about being chewed up, spit out, and replaced—surfaced on “The Lucky One,” but here, instead of projecting them onto another character, Swift inhabits them in her own voice. “Nothing New” was written by Swift in her early 20s, a time when she was deeply scared of alienating her audience. I wonder if she withheld it out of fear that it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy—that by exposing her disillusionment, she’d dull her own shine.
Swift has an unfortunate habit of relegating female guests on her songs to the background; just ask Haim, Imogen Heap, the Chicks, or Colbie Caillat. Bridgers, meanwhile, makes off with a full verse and chorus to herself. In light of the song’s subject, this feels significant: By inviting a popular younger artist who has studied her textbook to share her stage, Swift suggests that there’s ample room for them both. But things get eerie on the bridge, when she begins waxing prophetic about the young woman who will eventually take her crown. Trading lines with Bridgers, she sings:
I know someday I’m gonna meet her, it’s a fever dream
The kind of radiance you only have at 17
She’ll know the way and then she’ll say she got the map from me
I’ll say I’m happy for her, then I’ll cry myself to sleep
Just this year, a 17-year-old Olivia Rodrigo released her breakout smash, then borrowed liberally enough from Swift to grant her two writing credits—one of them retroactive—on her debut. Swift is too smart not to know that some of her listeners will make this connection. Whatever; she owns it. Ownership is, after all, this project’s raison d’être—ownership of master recordings, but also of personal and artistic history. You have to admire Swift’s pluck in standing so resolutely behind hers. Red, often lauded as Swift’s best album, is not perfect; it contains some of her great masterpieces (“Holy Ground,” “22,” “All Too Well”), but also some duds (while reviewing this record, I got through “Starlight” for maybe the first time since 2012). Red (Taylor’s Version) may be a commercial endeavor first, but that doesn’t mean it lacks an underlying artistic statement: that sometimes we must revisit our past, both the flattering and the less flattering bits, in order to get to our future. Swift won’t have any trouble finding companions for the road.
Buy: Rough Trade
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