Second Look: Taylor Swift – Red (Taylor’s Version)

[Republic; 2021]

Expectations are the compass of our life. Nowhere else do we encounter a stronger polarity than when we confront our inner perception of what something could be with the actual reality in place. It leads us to make impulsive choices and ignore our inner voice. And what’s worse is that it’s a psychological prerequisite to almost every aspect of life. A new record of our favourite artist, a familiar longdrink at a bar we’ve never visited, the first kiss with a person we are smitten by – it can all horribly deviate from the images we conjure within our mind. Part of that is of our own making, but just as often it happens to be the product of outer influences conjuring a spectre which dissolves into myth.

Take Paris: ah, the city of love, mythical spot of romantic legends of all kinds, from the Hunchback of Notre Damme to countless Nouvelle Vague films. Kissing by the Seine, smoking in a bistro, running through the Louvre, chaining oneself to the Cinémathèque française and then ending up naked in a bathtub with the crew: classic!

But then, Paris is not all that fluffy, as the Netflix hit show Emily in Paris postulated in the most clichéd way. And so, here I am: in a small one room apartment in Paris’ city middle, right below the roof, with the plumbing broken and the sewer-flavoured fluid of all kinds all over the bathroom, no laptop to write, listening to Taylor Swift’s re-recording of her classic Red. And I’m getting a little emotional.

I abandoned my hometown, upset by the clusterfuck of 2021, with nothing left to lose and in search of something – not quite knowing what that was. I had never been to Paris, but an opportunity opened up, and my Sagittarius rising is prone to impulsive decisions. So to hell with German existentialism and welcome the warm embrace of French romanticism.

A few days’ rushed preparations later and there I was: the plumbing broken, shower unusable, windows open to somehow save me from the smell, armoured with full-on autumn-winter couture, listening to the remake of that one album of Tay’s I never had been able to crack… and all of a sudden, everything made sense.

Red was released back in October 2012, marking Swift’s transition from country songwriter to world famous pop sensation. Having written Speak Now mostly by herself, initial attempts to replicate the same creative process didn’t yield similarly satisfying results, leading to the young songwriter rework the material and enlisting a variety of musicians and producers to collaborate, among them blockbuster pop producer Max Martin, Brit mainstream folkie Ed Sheeran, punk musician cum indie-electro producer Jacknife Lee and Snow Patrol vocalist Gary Lightbody. Presented with material Swift had collected over the previous months, each of them brought their own trademark styles and aesthetics to the table, resulting in a kaleidoscopic sonic landscape, which dipped into folk, arena rock and electro-pop, equally bordering as much on indie as on chart pop. Yet Swift’s focus lay in the lyrics, some of which were improvised with her touring band, others resulting from diary entries, showing a newfound maturity.

If we follow the widely accepted narrative, Red’s emotionally rich lyrics were the product of her breakup with Jake Gyllenhaal. The myth goes that during the press for Speak Now, a journalist sparked an interest in Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which equally reflected on Mitchell’s breakup with Graham Nash. Her study of Mitchell led to a newfound maturity, easily observed in the first song written for the album, the majestic “All too Well”. Here, Swift recounts her doomed relationship step by step, tracing individual memories like objects, transforming her red scarf into a memento of absence (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s ignorance on the subject notwithstanding).

Mitchell could also be the inspiration for “The Lucky One”, tracing the musician’s disappearance from the public eye (although this is a theme that can be attributed to a large number of pop stars – Cyndi Lauper, Sinéad O’Conner, Sade and Britney Spears all at one point or another disappeared from public view – also lending the song to the interpretation of a structural critique of how women in pop are treated by the business and media). And while most critics point to those two as the highlights, I personally was always most impressed by the grim “Sad Beautiful Tragic”. The track, haunted by Swift’s appreciation of the now disgraced (and allegedly recuperating) Ryan Adams, includes some of her most harrowing assessments of turmoil: “Long handwritten note / Deep in your pocket / Words, how little they mean / When you’re a little too late”. I particularly love the line “You’ve got your demons / And darlin’ they all look like me” – the insinuation is so venomous you can practically feel the tip of the dagger.

So why was it that I – fully confessing my fascination with Swift and her career – always felt Red kept me at arm’s length? There’s a number of reasons. One is the record’s sound, which in places always struck me as a little too clean. A repeated spectre haunting the lyrics is indie rock – the hipsters she and her friend dress up as in “22”, the indie bands her ex would listen to rather than the output of his partner, and then of course the references to millennial indie in the sonic palette of some songs.

But there’s a struggle on the original Red, maybe one that can be traced back to Swift’s confession in Miss Americana, the 2020 documentary on the musician, where she admits she always felt like the odd one out who wasn’t allowed onto the cool table, trying to please. This urge likely materialized here in a way where it explains the jarring difference in styles between the dubstep chorus of “I knew you were trouble”, the arena rock of “Red” and the indie folk of “Begin Again”. Another might be Swift’s vocal performance: I enjoy how confident and strong it is, but at times this conflicts in more fragile moments, like on “Stay, Stay, Stay”, where her attitude doesn’t seem to directly reflect the gravitas of the lyrical content. I didn’t dislike the album, but I felt it often eluded me.

But then great art often eludes the individual. Ok, I see, you want an example after all this – fine. So here I am in Paris, deciding to – for the first time – head to the Louvre. Lone wolf in a new turf – just like I enjoy it – I don’t have anyone to run through the halls with, and I usually am not attracted by the typical tourist attractions, but hey, I’m here, so might as well get in line and take a look at the “Mona Lisa”, that legendary (not Netflix-legendary) painting fabled to be the greatest of all time. And honestly, two meters away from it… it’s kind of disappointing. It’s fairly small, and while I do appreciate the glowing colour composition of green, black and gold, it… doesn’t move me.

Later, after finally having a shower at the place of my dear fellow BPM’er Ana Leorne, she comments “If you want to see a great Da Vinci at the Louvre, you don’t go for the Mona Lisa, you go for the “Virgin on the Rocks”.” And she’s right, even with my blasphemous dislike for all things Italian, I loved the dark, deeply impressive work! Its use of striking colours and deeply spiritual composition got to me. Now, what’s interesting about the “Virgin” is that there are two versions of it. Researching the other one, I must say I vastly prefer the moodier, darker version, with the prominent Red cape on the angel, a violent rush of life to contrast the black of the shadows on the left hand side.

Back in my room below the roof, I open the window and indulge in Red. And the saddest fear comes creeping in: I was wrong! Red, the new Red that is, explodes over the rooftops of Paris. Two things come immediately into focus: for one, it’s that the re-recording allowed for a revamp of sonic space. Where the original sometimes felt very cleaned up, Taylor’s (new) Version is more cohesive, allowing for the instruments to breathe.

I DM that to my fellow Swift enthusiast Richard He – himself not a stranger to Swiftroversies – and he grumbles back the production is “uncanny”. While I’m curious if this opinion is shared by other Swifties, I think it’s merely a byproduct of the other major change in place, which is Swift’s vocal performance. Her voice is noticeably deeper, but the main difference is how Swift emotes some of those lines. A good example of this is her delivery of “Cause it reminds you of innocence / And it smells like me” in “All too Well”. There’s the tinyest earthquake in the final “me”, a sharp strike in the k at the end of “You keep my old scarf from that very first wee-K”, both not as sinister back then than now.

There’s a newfound gravitas to those lines, Swift looking back 10 years into the past, now a grown woman, understanding the dynamic of then in a new way. “Red” receives a new, melancholic tenderness, while “State of Grace” removes the same. Where the old performance had a Cotton-Candy attitude, this one feels slightly sour, resigned when she evokes the “Twin fire signs” and concludes “So you were never a saint / And I’ve loved in shades of wrong.” The chorus is no longer jaunty or ironic, it is wholly embracing the confession that the partner is her Achilles heel.

“I Almost Do” delves even deeper. There’s a hint of tears in her delivery, now that she almost whispers the twin “I almost do”. “Holy Ground” hits harder, Swift assessing the quality of what’s been lost a decade ago with defiance and the guitars and drums more confident, to a level where the tracks almost transforms into a pop variant on Portishead’s “The Rip”, while “Sad Beautiful Tragic” is now all fragile beauty without a hint of youthful pride, like a ghost reclaiming the past one last time when it hisses “Kiss me, try to fix it / Could you just try to listen? / Hang up, give up / For the life of us we can’t get back”. And there’s a strange, ominous feeling to “The Lucky One” now, with the singer’s voice breaking in odd places, maybe due to the fact that the narrative in hindsight foresaw Swift’s “lost weekend” following her Twitter cancellation pre-Reputation era. The only time I sense a certain uncanny quality is – oddly – in “I Knew You Were Trouble”, one of the best pop songs of the last decade, which feels almost a little rehearsed in its new version.

But then, all I’ve been talking about isn’t even the meat of the release. The real treasure comes in the extensive bonus material, which includes b-sides, songs written but not previously recorded and, finally, the original, extended, King Crimson-sized version of “All Too Well”. We’ll get there, I promise… but let’s get into the vault first.

“Come Back… Be Here” and “Girl at Home” are both sensational, and the acoustic version of “State of Grace”, post-Folklore, is incredibly potent, adding yet another emotional shade to the experience of meeting somebody who’s about to change your life for the first time. These former b-sides are now, interestingly, more cohesive than in their prior iteration, probably again due to the extended room the production affords them. This is expanded on the unreleased ‘Vault’ material, which is free from the constraints of fitting any previous recordings: this is very much material coloured by Swift’s evolution in Folklore, bridging the two eras.

“Forever Winter” provides a very interesting horn backdrop, half Stars’ “Set Yourself on Fire”, half The Walkmen, an oddity in the Swift catalogue. “Better Man” is bitter and grim country pop with a real punch to it, while “Nothing New” showcases Swift’s appreciation of Azure Ray: all gloomy and autumnal, it features one of Phoebe Bridgers’ better performances, lending a night-sky blue to Swift’s Bordeaux red. It’s up there with “August”, “Hoax” and “Invisible Strings” as one of the singer’s most nakedly personal tracks, and includes some of her most impressive lines: “How can a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22? / Will you still want me when I’m nothing new? / I know someday I’m gonna meet her, it’s a fever dream / 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 / I’ll say I’m happy for her, then I’ll cry myself to sleep.” Behind the scorn, there’s also the anxious doubt of a musician confronting a new, younger generation. Of the pop songs here, “Message in the Bottle” is the most interesting one, showing the way ahead, a cross between the neon-lit synthesizers of 1989 and crystalline soul of Lover.

I know, you want a happy ending. That’s not your fault – maybe I shouldn’t have opened talking so much about Paris, but what can I do – the city makes my eyes well… or maybe it’s just the smell of whatever cosmic horror awaits me in the bathroom. Yes, I know, your expectations, I shouldn’t disappoint them: the 10 minute version of “All Too Well” gets an all new coat of paint. Instead of sticking to the original’s sound, Swift runs wild with some distortion on the piano, delay on the instruments, odd quiet guitar wails way in the background and – yes: expanded lyrics. And oh boy… there’s some real juice in here!!

My favourites? When her lover throws her the “Fuck the patriarchy” car keys on the ground, which is such a clever slap, the older guy making the girl bow for the politically loaded car keys in submission – note that cars in the Swiftverse always crash, a climactic horrific event that deeply cuts into a relationship. The gothic “He’s gonna say it’s love, you never called it what it was / ‘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” feels like a precursor to Swift’s obsession with the perspective of un-death since Folklore.

And speaking of death: the confession that the narrator wants to die when her partner alludes they’d have worked out if she wasn’t so young, coupled with her assessment of being seen as a “never-needy, ever-lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you”… it’s insanely brutal imagery, delivered with a snarling intensity rare for Swift. When the song, near its end, drifts into dreampop drums, she brings out the knives: “And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punch line goes / I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age (…) And did the twin flame bruise paint you blue? / Just between us, did the love affair maim you, too?”

The track is accompanied by a 15 minute short film directed by Swift, all 4:3, grainy A24 optics. It closely chronicles the song’s lyrics, delivering emotional gut punches every few seconds. It’s intimate and rough, providing rare insight into how Swift sees herself when the cameras are off: after the four minute mark, the two characters of the film have a fight over his behaviour – she explains her frustration of feeling expendable and isolated, while he won’t understand the issue. The camera lingers on the girl’s face, instead of judging her volatility allowing for identification. If it’s true that the song is about Gyllenhaal, Swift, now a decade later, beats him at his own game, using film to conjure and re-enact her younger, inner self. And finally, it uses the image of the red scarf to establish Swift as an author – not just writer, but fully fledged master of her craft.

I have a theory regarding Swift’s albums: they each represent a different side of her zodiac chart. Swift is a Sagittarius, with a Cancer Moon, Scorpio Rising and Virgo MC. Reputation is Scorpio (obviously), Folklore is Cancer (all romantic kaleidoscope), Lover represents Sagittarius (all that talk of archers and, erhm, impulsive harsh language) and 1989 is Virgo (clean cut perfectionism).

Red is, in that sense, an outlier. In this, its definitive form, it unites all the factors that make Swift who she is under one roof, keeping the youthful perspective intact and adding a loaded, matured performance to it that lifts the album past its status of transitory mainstream pop debut. In this form, it’s the tree from Swift’s fictional written work we see in the short film, branching out into the wintery sky, while its roots are firmly lodged in the earth. And that – as a Cancer with Virgo moon and Sagittarius rising – is something which, now, in this room under the Paris rooftops, with its broken plumbing and cold air coming in, this strange town that is printing itself into my DNA, makes my eyes well up.

But then I can’t remain too static – if I take one lesson from all this, it’s that we all need to grow to make sense of what the past has dished us. Without expectations, without conclusions. And so, I grab my coat and put that new scarf around my neck, which a girl that just came up to me gave me as a gift, and head out, to see the Eiffel Tower. In front of the dark night sky, a hundred lights on it twinkle like some sort of ever-lovely jewel. I don’t know what I expected, but I love this, and sometimes this feeling is all that matters. With the cold winter wind in my hair, I am here. The colour of my scarf is Red.