Taylor Swift Continues to Reclaim Her Catalogue With ‘Red (Taylor’s Version)’
Stories of exploitative practices by record labels have been a recurrent topic for ages, inspiring many impassioned diatribes from disgruntled artists. Taylor Swift has spoken out about her disapproval of Scooter Braun’s tactics. So when her old label, Big Machine Records, sold to Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings shortly after Swift’s departure from the label, she took decisive action, making history with an ambitious plan to re-record her first six albums, in order to gain her own control of the albums’ master recordings. Following the release earlier this year of “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” Swift has proceeded to re-record and expand on her pivotal 2012 album “Red,” with “Red (Taylor’s Version),” ensuring that the new tracks match, or more often surpass, the originals, while including a full album’s worth of unreleased songs from the same era.
“Red” was already a gleaming release that confirmed all the attributes that had carried Swift to stardom while extending her domain to broader reaches. The album’s sixteen tracks resounded with both authenticity and ambition. In her reworking, Swift stays faithful to the original recordings, recreating every detail with a commitment that is consistent with the zeal at the heart of the project. From the triumphant, mobilizing opener, “State of Grace,” through the delicate finale of “Begin Again,” Swift recreates the songs with a passion that is immediately audible. While there was hardly room for improvement in the production, the reworkings manage to slightly exceed the originals in their crisp, panoramic potency. Side-by-side comparisons will naturally reveal slight differences, with the novelty of the reevaluations ultimately proving a treat to fans. The differences are few and far between, coming out in subtleties like a slight extra bite in Swift’s tone on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” While the album’s release has elicited comments about a marked maturity in Swift’s voice, it should be noted that this takes the form more of a more nuanced distillation, sparingly and judiciously applied, than any alteration of expressive capacity.
The new album is doubled in running time by a selection of unreleased tracks that richly expand on and contextualize the core content. “The Moment I Knew” recounts Swift’s 21st birthday party, when her then boyfriend Jake Gylenhaal didn’t show up. The song achieves much of its effect from its direct simplicity. Swift generally manages to pepper poetic insights in her lyrics with a lack of pretension that can keep them under the radar, but here, she is reduced to statements like “You should’ve been here / And I would’ve been so happy,” which capture the immobilizing effect of being dramatically caught off guard. The song draws out the moment panoramically with a refrain of “And it was like slow motion,” and adeptly utilizes musical dynamics for emotional resonance, culminating with the titular phrase issued over a bare, icy piano backdrop. Swift’s songs consistently reveal masterful songwriting moves like this which can make a monumental impact through a modest gesture. In “Come Back… Be Here,” a song about the tension of a long distance relationship, Swift’s delivery of the titular couplet pointedly encapsulates the matter at hand, with “Come back” issued in a strained plea, and “Be here,” voiced with a comfort derived from the imagined fulfilment.
Several of the new tracks chronicle Swift’s stylistic evolution as she moved into more general pop avenues. “Girl At Home” reveals a somewhat awkward stage, with the barebones beat and minimal instrumentation, along with the marked shift in songwriting priorities, giving the decided feel of a demo, although one can sense the pop punch that Swift would effectively tap into as the song develops. “Babe,” co-written with Pat Monahan of Train, and given to Sugarland in 2018, is another song that shows a musical digression. On this one, however, Swift’s instincts are neatly aligned, funneled effectively into pop precision “Message In a Bottle” is a radical outlier, worlds away from the album’s prevailing aesthetic, with a strikingly bubbly chorus and sections with a throbbing kick drum pulse. The subject matter, on the other hand, is a natural extension of “Come Back… Be Here,”
The narrative of Swift’s transition from “country” to “pop,” has always been a shorthand reduction, as Swift’s most country content was always of a generally poppy strain. The few instances on this album when she dives unabashedly into country stylings make for some of the most thrilling moments. On “I Bet You Think About Me,” Swift lets loose and embellishes her pronouncements with a twang that strikes with new vigor and verve, aided by backing vocals from Chris Stapleton, whose presence offers a bit of welcome grit. The delivery is particularly well-suited for the song, which acerbically compares provincial and metropolitan upbringings through lyrics like “I bet you think about me in your house / With your organic shoes and your million-dollar couch.”
An acoustic version of “State of Grace” recontextualizes all the lyrics in a threadbare production that trudges along, with the thrusting command of the standard version giving way to a chilling vulnerability. Swift’s drawn-out delivery of lines like “I never saw you coming” and “I’ll never be the same” drives home the endless desperation of the sentiment. Another notable reimagination comes across in “Better Man,” a song Swift passed on to Little Big Town, whose rendition won a Grammy for “Best Country Duo/Group Performance” at the 2018 Grammys. Little Big Town’s version is grounded in steady percussion, and expressed in a relatively gruff, worn vocal, whereas Swift’s recording has a distinctly youthful essence and immediacy.
“Ronan” is a song Swift wrote about a three-year-old boy who died of neuroblastoma after an eight-month battle in 2011. Beyond the touching backstory, the song is notable for how the open-ended lyrics extend the original inspiration to broader interpretations, with a chorus of “Come on, baby, with me / We’re gonna fly away from here / You were my best four years.” “Nothing New” is an incisive meditation on societal stigma and internal strife regarding youth and maturity, delivered with an audible authenticity that could have only come from an artist who came of age in the spotlight. Swift duets with Phoebe Bridgers, whose raw, coarser pronouncements alongside her relatively lithe voicings produce a rounded and revealing snapshot. There’s a righteous indignation in Swift’s observation that “They tell you while you’re young / ‘Girls, go out and have your fun’ / Then they hunt and slay the ones who actually do it.”
The passion, naivete and impressionability of youth are often at the core of Swift’s material. On “Forever WInter,” another effusive number about a strained relationship, Swift declares herself “Too young to know it gets better,” with an anguish in her voice effectively paired with instrumental dynamics. On “Run,” an instantly memorable ditty with Ed Sheeran, Swift expresses a winsome, wide-eyed, romantic optimism in a refrain of “Darling, let’s run / Run from it all.” “The Very First Night” is a giddy, upbeat number that builds up to a climactic line of “I miss you like it was the very first night,” then erupts into such fanciful frivolities as “I wish I could fly.”
Perhaps the most highly anticipated feature of the new album is the original ten-minute version of “All Too Well.” In the take that made its way into “Red,” there was a relative ease in Swift’s delivery, as if time had tapered the urgency of emotion, as events were recalled in retrospective reflection. The singing intensified as Swift moved from recollection to speculation, considering, “Maybe we got lost in translation / Maybe I asked for too much.” By the point of the bridge, however, Swift went from wincing to wailing, reaching an emotional apex. The extended version largely reverses this, with a more fraught delivery in the verses. The verses extend into a wealth of detail that captures the story of the song with a new potency. Little details like “You were tossing me the car keys, ‘fuck the patriarchy’” magnify the narrative. Lines like “You who charmed my dad with self-effacing jokes / Sipping coffee like you’re on a late-night show” drive home the detail far beyond the streamlined wording of the first album cut. By the end, the song has taken the form of a sprawling dramatic rumination, with a string-laden outro building on troubled memories as Swift recalls “I was there, I was there.”
With so many albums reissued in disposable, inflated promotional packages, “Red (Taylor’s Version)” serves as a refreshing variation. There could hardly be a more substantive celebration of an album than a track-by-track rerecording. The fact that the project is motivated by a righteous determination to reclaim control of one’s own art seems to have functioned as a measure of quality control. The entire tracklist of “Red” is recast, slightly sharpened and magnified. The selection of unreleased tracks expand on both the musical and lyrical focuses of the original album, chronicling the musical evolution that was in place, and delving deeper into the core subject matter, offering a range of material that captures Swift’s versatility. The full, expanded and enhanced album rings like a resounding affirmation that Taylor Swift means business.
“Red (Taylor’s Version)” releases Nov. 12 on Apple Music.