In the introduction to Red (Taylor’s Version), Taylor Swift perfectly describes the original album, “Musically and lyrically, Red resembled a heartbroken person. It was all over the place, a fractured mosaic of feelings that somehow all fit together in the end.” Red may have been a mosaic of different styles but the completed design was also a perfectly placed stepping stone from her country origins, paving the way for the retro-pop masterpiece of 1989.
Here we are nine years later, reliving the breakup turmoil through the soundscape of a re-recording that is now an opus of thirty tracks. The needle falls onto the first LP of this four record set, and the goose-bump inducing drums of ‘State of Grace’ begin again. This time it feels like everything is signposting us to the overwhelming finale, a place we know ‘All Too Well’.
Red (Taylor’s Version) is treading the same path as that of her re-record of Fearless (Taylor’s Version). There are subtle changes to the originals; a slight beat change to ‘State Of Grace’, edgier distortion on ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, and more intricate guitar picking on ‘Everything Has Changed.’ ‘Girl At Home’ is given an electro-pop vibe.
As with the previous re-record, the more noticeable change is in the richness and new depth to Swift’s vocals. Here, the maturing lyrical style of her fourth album is enhanced by the more confident vocal and greater tonal range. The joy comes from returning to an album and appreciating the sheer talent of the then twenty-two-year-old singer-songwriter. Do the additional ‘from the vault’ tracks, add shimmer to the mosaic of “happy, free, confused, lonely, devastated, euphoric, wild” emotions?
If the original Red album was like “driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street” then Red (Taylor’s Version) is more about “walking fast through the traffic lights”. The new ‘vault’ tracks are generally more reflective and slower-paced than the original twenty-two songs. They draw their influences from country music of Swift’s previous albums rather than the synth-pop or pop-rock direction that some of the hit singles on Red signposted.
That’s not to say that the new songs are pure ballads. The Max Martin and Shellback collaboration, ‘Message In A Bottle’ is pure-pop, describing the emotions from a new romance. Equally, a pop-bop describes ‘First Night’ which carries a heavy ‘Holy Groundesque’ percussive beat. Neither track does much to strengthen the album.
The slower tracks layer on the feelings and add greater depth. Amongst the ballads, there are several collaborations. ‘I Bet You Think About Me’ is a duet with Chris Stapleton that has both feet firmly planted in Swift’s country past. The lyrics about a relationship between two people from different social backgrounds are delivered with a distinctive twang. On ‘Run’, Ed Sheeran makes a second appearance, on the first-ever track they wrote together. Acoustic guitars frame a sweetly delivered ode to young love.
Of the duets, ‘Nothing New’ adds the most to the album. Phoebe Bridgers accompanies Swift on a poignant Dessner-produced acoustic folksong, complete with soaring strings. In many respects, ‘Nothing New’ feels ahead of its time both in production and lyrics. The track focuses on the insecurity of not being attractive as you grow older; Swift sings “How did I go from growing up to breaking down?”. Bridgers’ melancholic tones are a perfect foil to Swift’s breezier tones.
Of the remaining ‘vault’ songs, ‘Better Man’ and ‘Babe’ were previously recorded by Little Big Town and Sugarland, respectively. Now Swift reclaims her songs. ‘Better Man’ is a perfect fit for the album—a swooning power ballad. It reflects on how a relationship could have worked if her partner had treated her better, with Swift exclaiming “the bravest thing I ever did was run.” The interesting aspect to ‘Babe’ is the Jack Antonoff ’80s sounding production, which nods towards the sound to come on 1989.
The most powerful moments are reserved for the heart-wrenching lyrics of ‘Ronan’. Previously released as a charity single, Swift took some of the lyrics from the blog by Maya Thompson that inspired the song. Raw and honest, the simply strummed tune tells the story of three-year-old Ronan who lost his battle against neuroblastoma cancer.
The subtle production changes on Red (Taylor’s Version) and the ‘Vault’ additions add depth and colour to the emotional journey of breakup and redemption. Yet, it feels like we are being driven ever closer to the true emotional heart of the album. The powerful drumbeats of ‘State Of Grace’ and lyrical pointers “mosaic broken hearts”, “Achilles heel” and “I’ll never be the same” set out the roadmap for the tracks to follow. But, ‘All Too Well (10 Minute Version)’ is the destination.
Anticipated by the Swift fan base for almost ten years, this epic version of the song is a monumental cataloging of a break-up and the emotional fallout that follows. The additional lyrics and run time ratchet up the emotional impact of the song. It evokes such powerful imagery as Swift bears her pain with new lyrics, “You kept me like a secret / But I kept you like an oath.”
The song and the album fade away as Swift sings “It was rare, you remember it”. Those same words apply to this magnificent breakup song. If Red (Taylor’s Version) is a mosaic of feelings, then ‘All Too Well (10 Minute Version) is the emotional glue that enhances and binds this album together.
Words by Andrew Butcher
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