Taylor Swift: Red (Taylor’s Version) review – getting back together with a classic

Swift re-records the 2012 album on which she first embraced synth-pop, tweaking songs and adding others: a mix of saccharine fluff and superb keepers

After Fearless earlier this spring, Taylor Swift reaches the second instalment of her project to re-record (and regain ownership over) the six albums she released for label Big Machine, which were apparently sold out from under her to an old foe. Held up as a classic, 2012’s Red is one half some of the greatest pop songs of all time – I Knew You Were Trouble is the rare pop-EDM crossover that still stands up, the chorus drops hitting like bratty stomps of frustration at her own naivety; We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is a euphoric cheerleader chant so ingratiating you wonder how nobody came up with it before – and one half schmaltzy stuffing, including collaborations with Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody.

It’s the album on which she embraced synth-pop, presumably making its faithful replication slightly easier than the primarily organic Fearless – simply set the controls and go. The new version is more widescreen than the original, which was by no means a wallflower to start with. But revisiting this earlier material there was always going to be the problem that Swift’s voice is richer and more mature than it was a decade ago. She has often wielded her innocence as a weapon, but nowhere more so than on Red, where she used it to rebuke the older man (widely reputed to be actor Jake Gyllenhaal) who broke her heart at 21. The lack of burn and twang here slightly blunts the rabid, deliciously vindictive edge that fuelled the original’s tumultuous depiction of heartbreak, sketched in appropriately vaulting shades of pop, country, balladry and electro-tooled aggression.

The artwork for Red (Taylor’s Version).
The artwork for Red (Taylor’s Version). Photograph: PR Handout

While fans enjoy poring over the granular differences, the “From the Vault” bonus materials – that is, previously unreleased tracks from the Red sessions – suggest how the original album might have taken on a different cast. There is a fair amount of the saccharine stuff among these newly added tracks: another Sheeran duet in the generic intimacies of Run; forays into new sounds in the beachy, skippy pop-ska of Babe; and Message in a Bottle, a Max Martin production that sounds horribly like tropical house via Coldplay and was probably dropped from Red in favour of the melodically similar but much better 22. Mercifully, these tendencies were nipped in the bud – and just two years later, Swift perfected her own gleaming, 80s-influenced take on pop with the album 1989.

The keepers, though, entrench the album’s brutal obsession with time: how long it takes to get over someone; the shelf life of any young woman’s appeal; the pitiful plight of emotionally frigid ex-boyfriends forever doomed to stagnate in their obsessions with status over love. Better Man (a Swift song previously recorded by country band Little Big Town) is a richly filigreed Nashville ensemble number about defying the demeaning expectations of an older man by actually daring to leave him. She still misses him, she admits, before donning the Swiftian velvet gloves: if only he’d been less of a schmuck, well, they might have stood had a chance.

If that bloke underestimated her youth, Swift, then in her early 20s, was also acutely aware of her novelty fading. “People love an ingenue,” she sings on Nothing New. It’s a rueful, softly strummed vignette from a night of drunk paranoia, during which she feels crushed by time passing and her self-knowledge evaporating with it, and anticipates the cruel turnover of young women in the public eye. The original lyrics imagine her one day meeting a teenage star who has “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” – but by re-recording this archival track as a collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers, a younger songwriter, noted fan and fellow lowercase girl, she defies that culture of replacement and rivalry. Bridgers, too, may be Swift’s best duet partner (albeit in a catalogue of often baffling pairings), her lovely hangdog shrug a great foil for Swift’s irrepressible brightness.

Nothing New articulates observations that Swift wouldn’t make publicly for years to come – not until the overexposure of the 1989 era, and several public missteps, briefly made her a pariah – and you wonder (other than the fact that it’s thematically similar to The Lucky One) whether the people she worked with thought its incisive lens beyond the scope of what a Swift song could be at that time. That much could be true of the biggest selling point of this re-recording: a version of the already epic All Too Well expanded to honour Swift’s original 10-minute draft, every verse restored (in addition to the straightforward re-recording of the shorter version).

It’s one thing to faithfully re-record a beloved album; it’s another risk entirely to mess with the song generally considered the Swift ur-text, one that eviscerates her slick ex in a series of ever-more climactic verses that never resolve to a chorus, just a shuddered realisation of how vividly she recalls his disregard. (“You call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest” may be her most quoted lyric.) One new line early on feels jarringly out of time: “You were tossing me the car keys / ‘Fuck the patriarchy,’” she sings. The official lyrics sheet makes clear that she’s quoting someone else, but you can’t hear the quote marks, and that sort of punchy, boilerplate feminist retort wasn’t common currency at the turn of the 2010s when she wrote this song.

That’s the only stumble: the other new verses double down on melodrama mixed with piercing observations of the emotional vampire who stood her up on her 21st birthday; who couldn’t call what they had love “‘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”. By that point, she sings that her body is withered by shame, and then a later verse makes clear the physical toll of his treatment as Swift, who has been open about experiencing disordered eating, describes herself as a “soldier who’s returning half her weight”.

It is a supreme public flogging, but the elongated recriminations also act as a form of life support, keeping the affair alive to finally understand exactly how its blood used to beat. “Missing him was dark grey, all alone,” Swift sang on the album’s title track. Red (Taylor’s Version) adds satisfying hues of deep, gothic black.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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