'Red (Taylor's Version)' Makes a Classic Even Better

First things first: Let’s skip to the ending. The long-lost 10-minute original version of “All Too Well” turns out to be even better than we were all hoping. Taylor Swift takes her own masterpiece, tears it all up, breaks it like a promise, shreds her tapestry, and rebuilds it into a new heartbreak epic, twice as long and twice as mad. Yes, you just heard Taylor sing the words “fuck the patriarchy.” Yes, you just heard extra verses about this guy meeting her dad and skipping her 21st birthday party. Yes, her greatest song just got greater. No, you’re not fine at all.

Ever since Swift announced she was dropping Red (Taylor’s Version), remaking her 2012 classic, anticipation has run high. And since she specializes in doing the impossible, here’s yet another insane idea she’s brought to life: the new Red is even bigger, glossier, deeper, casually crueler. It’s the ultimate version of her most gloriously ambitious mega-pop manifesto. 

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Red is the second chapter of her Taylor’s Version project, after Fearless, redoing her old albums even though she’s hitting her fiercest creative peak right now, dropping two of her biggest albums in 2020. Nothing on this scale has been tried before. This is a leap, even from the girl who invented the whole concept of Never Looking Down.

The new “All Too Well (Original Version)” sums up Swift at her absolute best. The legend is that this was the rough draft, before she cut it down to size, now finally done in a proper studio take with Jack Antonoff. But every emotional detail hits home. She goes deeper into the story, venting her grief and rage, getting so savage it makes “Dear John” sound like “I Will Always Love You.” She hits harder about the age difference, sneering, “I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age.” She quotes Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, seven years before busting out that reference in “Lover.”

When the guy fails to show up at midnight for her birthday — a story she’s already told in “The Moment I Knew” and “Happiness” — her dad tries to cheer her up. This is the first time she’s quoted him in a song — he tells her, “it’s supposed to be fun, turning 21” — and it’s a heart-punching moment. Not for the first time, you might catch yourself begging Tay to slow down and give you a minute to recover, but she plunges ahead, because she has no mercy. In the final minutes, in a new coda, she asks, “Did the twin flame bruise paint you blue?/Just between us, did the love affair maim you too?”

It’s beyond belief she didn’t release this until now. But it’s beyond belief it even exists. It’s the fitting climax for Red (Taylor’s Version) — 30 tracks, the original 16-song Red tricked out with B-sides and vault outtakes, all redone with more boom and detail in the production. The new edition clocks in precisely 131 minutes, and if you think that number might be a coincidence, catch up.

Red was her greatest album, and seemed destined to wear that crown forever—until Folklore and Evermore came along. (That’s her top three—but wait, what about Speak Now? An argument for another day.) It’s where she proved herself not just the supreme pop songwriter of her generation, but one of the all-timers. Red wasn’t her first masterwork, but it’s the one that established the Swiftian universe as a place where every lost scarf is a ticking time bomb that can take years to explode into a classic song.

The challenge of Red (Taylor’s Version) was how to remake an unimprovable original. You could argue with the sequencing — the hard-rocking “Holy Ground” might have fit better in the Number Two spot behind “State of Grace,” where it sat on the Red Tour set-list, but that’s a quibble on such a preposterously perfect album. Hidden gems like “I Almost Do” or “Sad Beautiful Tragic” would be career highlights for nearly anyone else, but here they’re overshadowed by even loftier tunes. (Not even Swift seems to care for “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” which she’s barely ever done live, yet some of us will die on this sad, beautiful, and tragic little hill.) 

But as on Fearless, her adult voice adds new power to these songs, especially deep cuts like “Come Back…Be Here” and “The Moment I Knew.” It sounds different to hear “Holy Ground” sung by the Taylor who went on to write “Cornelia Street” and “Coney Island.” And it’s poignant to hear her thirty-something voice go back to “Begin Again,” the ballad that ends the album on a note of fragile optimism, as if she sees the refrigerator light at the end of the tunnel. In “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” there’s a little extra venom way she snarls “trust me” — which might come from an additional 9 years of hearing men ask her to trust them.

“Nothing New” might be the most eagerly awaited vault song — a duet with kindred spirit Phoebe Bridgers, about growing older, with the question, “How can a person know everything at 18 and nothing at 22?” It’s a story they know well — “people love an ingenue” — and they can both relate to lyrics about crying in your room. It’s a sensitive Aaron Dessner production, mostly just his acoustic guitar with an orchestration from brother/bandmate Bryce. (Here’s hoping we get a whole Taylor/Phoebe duet album? Produced by Dessner? Please?)

We finally get proper Swift versions of “Better Man” and “Babe,” country hits she gave away to other artists. “Babe” was a 2018 Sugarland hit, “Better Man” a 2016 hit for Little Big Town, but both thrive with Swift singing lead. (Dessner produces “Better Man,” while Antonoff takes “Babe” — did they flip a coin?) “Message in a Bottle” is a dance-pop zinger written with Max Martin and Shellback the day she met them; the even perkier “The Very First Night” sounds like it’s part of the same jet-set rock-star romance as “Come Back…Be Here.”

“I Bet You Think About Me” is a rowdy all-the-way country duet with Chris Stapleton — the kind of Nashville hit she was about to leave behind, with her twang on display. She baits a high-tone ex about his “organic shoes” and “cool indie music concerts.” (In 2012, that probably meant he was going to see the National and Bon Iver, before she started writing with them.) “Think About Me” and “Forever Winter” have scenes set at 3 a.m., an hour later than her usual favorite time for pacing the floor.

“Ronan” is a one-of-a-kind song for her, a 2012 charity single based on the blog of a bereaved mother writing about the death of her 4-year-old son from cancer. Swift turned Maya Thompson’s blog posts into a song (with Thompson’s blessing, of course) and released it as a benefit for cancer research. She sings it with even more soul now. “Ronan” is the kind of song that’s nearly impossible to pull off without seeming manipulative, but that’s what makes it such a deft tribute, as well as a template for the kind of narratives she’d go on to write in Folklore and Evermore

“Run” is a peppy acoustic duet with Ed Sheeran — not to be confused with the George Strait song she once covered as a tribute. They wrote “Run” the day they met — on the same trampoline where they wrote “Everything Has Changed.” Everything might have changed in their lives and careers, but not the fact that they really do sing like two friends who know how to listen to each other. 

She’s kept telling these stories over the years, so the songs take on new dimensions. “Sad Beautiful Tragic” plays off “All Too Well (Original Version),” which also milks the phrase “love affair.” “The Lucky One” always felt partly like a Britney tribute (Taylor has covered “Lucky” live) but it hits different in the Free Britney era, especially lines like “You don’t feel pretty, you just feel used.” (Red comes out the same day Britney might get out of her conversatorship, which would be that rarest of things, a coincidence Taylor didn’t plan. But it would be a hell of a cool one.) The acoustic “State of Grace,” always a highlight of the expanded Red, feels even more autumnal now.

Needless to say, Swift doesn’t need to be doing this. Remaking the oldies is the kind of project you assocate with someone who’s run out of gas, not an artist this prolific. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is the second best-selling album of the year — the only thing keeping it from the top spot is her own Evermore. (Just like Paul McCartney in 1976 — the Beatles’ comp Rock and Roll Music got blocked on the charts at Number Two, stuck behind Wings at the Speed of Sound.) 

But that’s the amazing thing about Red (Taylor’s Version) — it’s a tribute to how far she’s traveled, but it makes you even more excited for where she’s heading next. This is the golden age of something good and right and real. And for Swift, the golden age is really just beginning.

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