Last week Taylor Swift released her newly re-recorded version of her 2012 album Red. I look back on why this ‘happy, free, confused and lonely’ record remains her best work to date.
‘Like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street’: this is how Taylor Swift describes a doomed love affair on Red’s title track, capturing the adrenaline, thrill and the inevitability of disaster in one exhilarating image. ‘Loving him was red’, the chorus repeats, exploiting the title colour’s range of stark connotations; red is danger, passion, anger and love, excitement and fear. And the album, charged with the heightened emotions of youth, lives up to these associations.
But red is also the colour of the trees in autumn, the season Swift references twice in the album. It is a colour that represents ageing, the passage of time, a colour which can only last so long before it’s gone. As Swift moves away from her image as a wide-eyed child star, Red is her coming-of-age album, representing a moment when the anxiety and excitement of youth intermingle with a reflective maturity. The fairy-tale imagery and glittering romanticism that filled her first three records gives way to sharp, modern realism and a tongue-in-cheek wit.
Right from the album’s opening lines, Swift eschews her adolescent idealism, setting the scene in media res in a contemporary urban setting: ‘I’m walking fast through the traffic lights, busy streets and busy lives’. Using the present tense and first person pronoun, Swift grounds the album with this sense of immediacy and bustling activity. ‘This is a state of grace, this is a worthwhile fight,’ the first track’s chorus tells us, positioning the here and now in the spotlight.
Musically too, Red sits at a turning point in Swift’s discography. The hard, driving drumbeat that kicks off ‘State of Grace’, a cleaner and sharper song than any of her prior material, announces a shift towards a more confident sound. Before Swift would shed her country roots altogether on 1989, her 2012 album sees her borrow liberally from the contemporary charts, whimsically flitting between the earnestness of country and the playfulness of the pop music in the early 2010s.
While ‘Red’’s gentle, banjo introduction follows up ‘State of Grace’ with a more rustic tone, the track’s computerised refrain of ‘re-e-e-ed’ cuts keenly through the country jangle. The crisp, woody smoulder of ‘Treacherous’ is juxtaposed with the lurching dub-step chorus of ‘I Knew Were Trouble’. For every wistful, acoustic track like ‘I Almost Do’, there’s an up-tempo Max Martin and Shellback-produced party hit like ‘22’.
It’s easy to find ‘22’ and Red’s even more childish lead single ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ vapid and irritating and I certainly once did. But once you treat these songs as the deliberately goofy and unapologetically fun tracks they are, there’s something liberating about their complete lack of self-seriousness.
That’s not to say there aren’t misfires on Red’s track list; the obnoxiously chipper ‘Stay Stay Stay’ with its clumsy lyrics and twee mandolin could probably have been left on the cutting room floor. But for the most part, variety is Red’s strength. Swift’s expression of youthful emotionality on ‘22’ justifies the record’s wild mood swings: ‘we’re happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time, / it’s miserable and magical.’
Unlike the polished pop of 1989 or the neat intricacies of 2020’s Folklore, Red is decidedly rough around the edges. But this openness, this imperfection is part of the album’s lasting appeal; rather than clean, sealed-off stories and still photographs, Red is a collection of open wounds and living memories.
‘Holy Ground’ whisks you away in its whirlwind recollection of the early days of a romance, before dropping you back down to Earth with the reminder that it’s all in the past. ‘Everything Has Changed’, Swift’s sweet, feather-light duet with Ed Sheeran, captures the very first flutters of love, freezing the moment of world-shifting transformation leaving the past and future unknown.
But by far the most vivid portrait of the past is ‘All Too Well’. Arguably Swift’s magnum opus, the expansive, cinematic ballad tells the story of a relationship right from its tentative, rosy beginnings in the crisp autumn sunlight: ‘I walked through the door with you, the air was cold. / Something ‘bout it felt like home somehow / […] Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place / and I can picture it after all these days,’ through to its devastating conclusion, described with painful, even violent lyricism as the song erupts into its crescendo: ‘And you call me up again just to break me like a promise, / so casually cruel in the name of being honest. / I’m a crumpled-up piece of paper lying here cause I remember it all too well.’
And after the agonising break-up comes the long, empty aftermath: ‘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. / After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own, / now you mail back my things and I walk home alone.’ ‘All Too Well’ is Swift’s storytelling at its best, one scene unfolding after the other like a film, nostalgia enhancing rather than clouding every last detail. While these details are specific to Swift’s relationship, she taps into something universal: the acute pain of remembering.
But after a track list straining with loss and heartbreak, Red concludes with the hope of renewal. ‘Begin Again’ returns Swift to her roots with a delicate arrangement of soft, sliding guitar, mandolin and fiddle, as she reclaims her identity and self-confidence after an unhappy relationship.
Nine years on, Swift has brought about this promised renewal, re-recording the whole album, plus a collection of discarded tracks, on Red (Taylor’s Version), now owning the masters herself. Much like Fearless (Taylor’s Version), released earlier this year, the re-recordings remain faithful to the originals, with just a few surprises for those most familiar with the songs.
Upon revisit, Swift’s wild, passionate, sometimes silly, sometimes serious album remains as raw and openhearted as ever. So if it’s been a while, pull up Red (Taylor’s Version), press play, and watch it begin again.
Listen to Red (Taylor’s Version):