Dust Off Your Highest Hopes: Revisiting RED (Taylor’s Version)

When Red was originally released in 2012, it represented a tale of two Taylors. A crossroads moment in her career in which there seemed to be two clearly divergent routes her music might take. There was the one that wound through Laurel Canyon, blazed by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, that would have seen her become the Poet Laureate of hyper-articulate girls who feel too much (glimpsed in songs like Treacherous, Holy Ground, or State of Grace); or the more straightforward path which ended in uncontested global domination (foreshadowed by all tracks produced by Max Martin).

If you’ve paid attention to music at all over the past decade, you know which option she chose, and though it was not the one endorsed by Robert Frost, eventually Taylor’s three album journey through pop megastardom looped all the way back around, and she was able to wander down the alternative songwriter path after all with last year’s releases of folklore and evermore. Perhaps a singular career like Taylor’s was never going to be plotted out in neat lines, perhaps it would always need to involve detours and scenic routes and doubling back from dead ends. That might be exactly why retracing every step with her now as she endeavors to reclaim control over her old music is so much fun.

There are certainly a lot more people along for the ride this time. Not that liking Taylor Swift has ever been particularly niche, but when Red originally went platinum during its first week of release, it still felt like it was mostly of interest only to people who already considered themselves dedicated fans. This time Starbucks is involved, and NHL teams are sending out tweets that require background knowledge of Taylor’s lyrics and subject matter, and even Dionne Warwick has put out her take. Last week’s release date felt like an international holiday, the kind of mass cultural event that rarely happens for movies in 2021, forget about music, that most stratified form of entertainment.

It was precisely this type of metaphorical group hug that we came to cherish during those not-so-long-gone lockdown days, when literal points of connection were harder to come by. And Red (Taylor’s Version) offers an additional psychological balm: nostalgia. After everything we’ve been through, who doesn’t want to return to a time that feels safer and warmer and more resolved? Nostalgia is fuelling all kinds of trends on Tiktok lately– mostly for the 90’s and the early 2000’s, but why shouldn’t we extend that affection towards 2012? Sure, I still regularly wear several clothing items I bought circa that time, but in plenty of ways it does feel like a wholly different age: Barack Obama was still the President, and the UK still belonged to the EU, and Lena Dunham was still being hailed as a genius for the first season of Girls. There was only one existing Avengers movie, if you can believe it– we truly were a simpler society.

But we had an appetite for some strangeness in our music. “Somebody That I Used To Know” was the number one song that year, a mid-tempo ballad by a Belgian-Australian singer-songwriter, featuring a vocalist from New Zealand and a not-insignificant amount of xylophone. And one of the year’s most successful albums featured a dubstep drop even though it was marketed to country radio.

Nine years on, the chances taken on Red feel much less perilous because we know how well they ultimately worked out, but their boldness at the time shouldn’t be discounted. Any version of Red was and is a chaos album, a product of the on-shuffle era, and indicative of an artist who had so much to say she was willing to learn brand new languages in order to express herself. On Red (Taylor’s Version) those risks are celebrated– find me another album anywhere that includes songs written with Lori McKenna and also with Max Martin. Or that features both Gary Lightbody and Phoebe Bridgers. Or that has a number one hit single that is also ten minutes long.

The extended version of “All Too Well” had been an object of Taylor lore for many years before it was included on Red (Taylor’s Version)– hinted at in interviews and glimpsed in fragments in diary page liner notes, but until this re-release project it was considered lost to time. That kind of mythological build-up makes it impossible now to assess the song as an independent work of art, which explains why people seem to be polarized as to whether it’s a masterpiece or a mess. The original (and, at 5 minutes 29 seconds, still quite sprawling) track is often held up by fans and critics alike as Taylor’s masterpiece, and while I personally feel a stronger connection to other Taylor songs, I can still recognize the expert craftsmanship apparent in “All Too Well”: the steady, confident escalation of verses; the pre-choruses and choruses that pile on top of each other until the song has no choice but to crackle under the weight of all that devastated reminiscing.

“All Too Well (Ten Minutes)” isn’t nearly so immaculately constructed. It is warped in places and asymmetrical in others, and some of the additions jut out awkwardly from the primordial frame, like renovations on a house that has received historical designation. None of the additional lyrics serve as notable improvements to the original, but they are stunning in their own way, and to me at least they are not unwelcome. Whether these lines were truly part of the original draft or if they’re better understood as edits that Taylor made along the way, they nevertheless recontextualize the song, shifting both its perspective and its meaning, from a clear-eyed account of a doomed love affair to something that is much more cynical and convoluted and downright messy. It is heartbreak as told by somebody who has lived with the damage for much longer than the girl who first wrote a song in the throes of it.

That sort of reflection and repositioning feels central not just to “All Too Well” but to the (Taylor’s Version) project in its entirety. In an industry that is forever skipping ahead to the next new thing, not many artists are afforded the ability to go back and reexamine their work, to try and fix its flaws while still celebrating the ineffable things that made it special in the first place. To earn the reconsideration of critics who once dismissed their work entirely. To reach a fork in the road and choose to forge an altogether new route that somehow reaches both places anyway. And to gift their fans the experience of returning to a bygone age where they can listen to a beloved album for the first time all over again, with ears that are wiser but still wistful.

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