Friday, January 21, 2022

COLUMN: 'Red (Taylor's Version)' is a simple triumph

November 29, 2021
<p>Illustration by Daena Faustino. </p>

Illustration by Daena Faustino.

When Taylor Swift released her fourth studio album, “Red,” in 2012, I was 10 years old with no concept of adult heartbreak or the cost of stardom. What I did know was that I hated Jake Gyllenhaal for what he did to my favorite artist. 

I’m 19 now, with a harsher understanding of the feelings that made “Red” such a visceral experience for fans across the world, but I still feel the same way about Jake Gyllenhaal. In some ways, though, I owe him a bitter thank you note, because this album is to me what "Abbey Road" is to my grandparents’ generation: formative and necessary. 

I spent last Thursday night in the concert T-shirt I got in fifth grade — yes, it still fits — thinking about the version of myself who wore it to Ford Field in Detroit to see the Red Tour live. And when midnight hit and Spotify consequently crashed from millions of fans trying to listen to one album all at once, I felt grown up in a way that I’d never really conceptualized before. 

“Red” had carried me through all of the hardest times in my life up to this point, and setting free the version of it that was stolen from Taylor felt like setting free all of those versions of myself that had leaned so hard on her music to keep going. Hearing the opening to “State of Grace” felt like walking into adulthood hand-in-hand with an older, more empowered version of the artist who provided a soundtrack to my childhood. 

In many ways, the re-recording of Taylor Swift’s masters is a lot like getting older — it requires going back to one’s younger self and rehashing the feelings and problems and convictions that consumed life at that time while recognizing that ownership of your past is an integral requirement for being a whole person in the present.

Sonically, “Red (Taylor’s Version)” is more grown-up, with a more mature sound and Swift’s aged-like-fine-wine vocals, but it still evokes the feeling of being 22 and freshly heartbroken. 

To understand the gravity of a re-released Taylor Swift album, we have to go over exactly what that entails. The original songs, plus the first round of bonus tracks, are accompanied by at least five selections “from the vault” that were considered but ultimately cut from the first release of the album. If we’re lucky, there will be a music video, or, in the case of “Red,” a short film set to the heartbreak classic “All Too Well.” 

On top of all of that, Swift’s management company, Taylor Nation, releases new merch in the run-up to the drop. The drop week itself includes media appearances (see stints on late-night comedy shows and a performance on “Saturday Night Live”) and a social media firestorm that usually only happens during federal elections or natural disasters. For die-hard fans, this is like the intersection of every big holiday, your birthday and winning the lottery. 

When “Red (Taylor’s Version)” was announced in August, the countdown felt unbearably long for the album that arguably marked Swift’s transition from still being in awe of having made it this far to claiming her place as a global superstar with a place in the world’s collective memory. 

Including collaborations with Phoebe Bridgers, Chris Stapleton and Ed Sheeran, Swift has given new life to “Red” by expanding its proverbial reach. This is an artist who can work with anyone she wants, and the result is a version of the album that spans genres and styles while staying thematically consistent.

“Nothing New,” which sees a verse from Bridgers, echoes the stripped-down sound favored by both artists in recent albums “Punisher” and “Folklore,” as the lyrics lament how a person can “know everything at 18, but nothing at 22.” On “I Bet You Think Of Me,” Stapleton’s backing vocals and a twang-ier vibe remind listeners of Swift’s country days, right down to the storytelling lyricism that Swift attributes to her love for country icons The Chicks and LeAnn Rimes. “Run” featuring Sheeran is quintessential “Red,” and has been revealed to have been the first song that Swift and Sheeran wrote together, preceding the fan-favorite “Everything Has Changed.” 

In other tracks from the vault, Swift’s transition from country to pop becomes apparent. “Message In A Bottle” and “The Very First Night” have a similar cadence and lyricism to hits from “1989.” Modifications to the production of “Girl At Home” create a distinctly poppy sound reminiscent of recent Jack Antonoff-made favorites like “Cruel Summer” and “Getaway Car.” If dexterity is the standard for Swift, “Red (Taylor’s Version)” is clearing the bar with room to spare. Balanced by the timelessness of the original tracks, the new songs provide a space for fans to imagine a wider scope for an already-expansive album. 

The album’s closer, a ten-minute, unfiltered rendition of maybe one of the best breakup songs ever written, “All Too Well” encapsulates all of the messy feelings of the “Red” era: Rage combined with sorrow, and the pain of loss with the realization that you deserved better. It also contains some of the most enduring motifs in the minds of fans — we all know that somewhere in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s house, Taylor’s Gucci scarf is floating around, and there’s a red light in upstate New York that was almost run over about 10 years ago by a guy who kept looking over at the girl in the shotgun seat. 

Swift’s new lyrics deal a devastating blow to the ex-who-shall-not-be-named, professing that he kept her “like a secret” while she kept him “like an oath.” The lyric, “I’ll get older but your lovers stay my age,” is a sharp reminder of the age difference between Swift and Gyllenhaal, and certainly doesn’t reflect well on the fact that the 40-year-old actor has been dating a now 25-year-old French model since 2018. 

The biggest reason for the greatness of “Red (Taylor’s Version)” is how simple it is. Without trying to break any records or destroy previous notions, this album has entered the minds of millions of people and become something much bigger than a set of songs about a breakup. It’s uncomplicated in the sense that these are emotions we all feel at different points in our lives, and anyone who listens to these songs will be able to relate to at least one of them. 

If music is supposed to make it easier to comprehend and articulate things that tie us in knots, “Red” is the encyclopedia of heartbreak. It’s a comfort to know that it will always exist in conjunction with the hard and happy parts of our lives. All I know at this point is that if someone important doesn’t show up at my 21st birthday party, there are a few songs for that.

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