Predictably, Red (Taylor’s Version) isn’t entirely convincing, but it’s another welcome assertion of autonomy from the ever-evolving artist.
Red is the Taylor Swift album most precariously balanced between different identities. Caught in between country and pop, it’s a fan favorite project that has some of the best songs of her career but also a wildly inconsistent tracklist. The album tends to be remembered for a handful of its highlights, as well as the abstract nostalgia for its stylistic commitment to not committing to anything but the heat of the moment, but its less iconic songs do make the project feel less convincing as a whole than some of Swift’s more focused releases. In short, Red is near impossible to pin down satisfactorily, and the newly rerecorded Taylor’s Version only makes it more complicated. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The heart of this album is the (literal) reproduction of the tracks that made up the original Red, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag. A handful are actively disappointing: “Holy Ground” is one of Swift’s best and most underappreciated deep cuts, flushed and breathless and pulsing with color, but even though producer Jeff Bhasker returned to work on the rerecording, some crucial sense of energy is missing from his updated arrangement and the vocal production. The new “wee-EE!”s in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” also sound a little like a child going down a playground slide. But most of the songs end up in the solid, if unexciting, territory of being decent approximations of the original. Of course, there are plenty of small differences if you listen closely enough, but most of them are minor enough to fade from attention after a few listens. Like with Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the mixing is also crisper and wider. Occasionally, this makes the songs feel a little plastic, like their instrumentals could have been ripped from a tasteful clothing commercial, but there are also a few cases where the adjusted production and mixing are a genuine improvement. On “The Last Time,” small details pop newly out of the background and paint even sharper shadows as the guitar solo crackles with energy. The title track, although changed only subtly to lean further into pop-rock, also blows the original out of the water.
There are, of course, a few actual new songs on Red (Taylor’s Version) as well. Similar to the Fearless re-release, some of the From the Vault tracks (“Run,” “The Very First Night”) are pleasant but easy to understand why they were kept off the original, while others add surprisingly fresh elements. “I Bet You Think About Me” is a fun outing for Swift’s gleeful country-accent antics; “Message in a Bottle” captures the same, well, bottled feeling of playfulness, but turns it into synthpop instead. It’s also clear why “Nothing New” and “Forever Winter” didn’t make the 2012 album — the former is a meditation on the way the entertainment industry captures, toys with, and discards young women, the latter a message of hope for a suicidal friend, both probably too serious and un-romantic for the image Swift’s team was chasing at the time — but in a post-Folklore and Evermore world, these tracks feel more fitting than ever, acting as further proof that her lyricism has always reached beyond immediate relationship drama in thoughtful ways.
And then there is “All Too Well” and its 10-minute extended version, which somehow, against the odds, lives up to its almost decade-long hype. Sure, the additions to the story lose the lyrical economy of the original, but the goal of this new version isn’t perfection, but mythmaking. Recognizing fans’ faith in even the deepest cuts of her work, reaffirming the emotional and cultural impact of the original, reclaiming heartbreak and turning it into a carefully crafted global experience: at this point, Swift has written circles around her best-known b-side a dozen times, but no other track will ever define her career as perfectly as “All Too Well.” Like the rest of Red (Taylor’s Version), this final vault track is a look back at where she’s been in order to take control of her future — not just to ensure ownership of her masters, but to address public perception of the version of Swift that came along with each album. And going back to where she was in 2012 means taking listeners back to their past selves, too. Some fans of Swift might hate these rerecords, because the originals are too important to them to ever be replaced; some might take them in stride, returning selectively to just a few standouts; some might forge an entirely new, striking relationship with these updated versions. Although her re-releases are a fundamentally economics-driven project, they’re generous in the personal possibilities they offer up: Swift has never seemed more sure of herself, and although her newest music looks back to the past, it defines itself not by who she was, but by who she has become.
Published as part of Album Roundup — November 2021 | Part 1.