Red was already Taylor Swift’s greatest album, her bittersweet spot between the confessional heartache that defined the megastar’s earliest songwriting and the stadium-pop grandeur that would inform her next trio of colossal LPs (1989, Reputation and Lover).
It was the ultimate millennial breakup album, a touchstone of lovelorn devastation, fury, hope and reflection for all those suburban teens and twenty-somethings similarly figuring their shit out — the era of “happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time.”
And of course, Red, released in 2012, was a commercial mammoth; seven weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, certified seven times platinum and earning Swift her first Hot 100 No. 1 single in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It was the project that planted her flag as a mainstream monolith ready for further domination.
Now, as Swift continues her unprecedented run of re-recording and releasing her first six albums in an effort to own her masters (after a lengthy legal battle involving her old label Big Machine Records and super-manager Scooter Braun), Red (Taylor’s Version), out on November 12, was destined to be a slam dunk, even if it was an exact facsimile with no add-ons.
But as Swift is the reigning empress of extra beyond extra, the new Red — her second re-release (following April’s Fearless) — is a gargantuan, extended revisitation of her fan-worshipped fourth album: 30 songs including nine previously unreleased “vault” tracks from those writing sessions, among them a doubly long cut of her bleeding ballad “All Too Well,” her single finest piece of songwriting to date.
To listen to such an expansive project, clocking in at a whopping 130 minutes, in one sitting is a task perhaps reserved for the most devout Swifties — in the same stretch you could watch Citizen Kane and still have time for a 10-minute “Flow and Let Go” Peloton meditation. Or you could listen to Mannequin Pussy’s latest EP nine times.
But in totality, Red (Taylor’s Version) is a highly rewarding listen for fans both casual and manic, bolstered by its excellent source material and Swift’s steady hand in rewriting her own looping history, with a few thrilling footnotes tacked on.
The feverishly anticipated 10-minute rendition of “All Too Well,” which is accompanied Friday by a Swift-directed short film starring Sadie Sink (Stranger Things) and Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf), is a triumphant revamp, further skewering Swift’s ex, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, whose messy split from Swift informs much of Red. Gyllenhaal may or may not be locked in a bunker during this release weekend.
“You never called it what it was ‘til we were dead and gone and buried,” Swift sings, the new lyrics injected with extra fervor. At least half a dozen lines added here are destined for Instagram captions, among them “you kept me like a secret but I kept you like an oath” and “just between us, did the love affair maim you, too?”
Is this to suggest Jake cheated on Taylor? Either way, the new version is a melodramatic masterpiece, sure to gleefully devastate the fanbase with a more rounded, chugging arrangement shepherded by superproducer and Swift’s regular collaborator Jack Antonoff. While Nashville veteran Chris Rowe handled production on all the original tracks, Antonoff and more recent partner (see: folklore and evermore svengali) Aaron Dessner of The National split work on the newbies.
The original songs are intended note-for-note recreations, though the album’s production feels more open and airy this time, with less of the weighty compression that made for fine early ‘10s pop songs — Red was Swift’s first work with mega-producers Max Martin and Shellback — but lost some of the personality of Swift’s previous releases. The electro-infused “I Knew You Were Trouble” feels especially altered.
And to be frank, Swift, 31, is a much better singer now. Tone, power, texture; all of it has improved over the last decade, forging warmer and more even performances.
As for the new (or new to listeners) tracks, “Message in a Bottle” and “The Very First Night” are both pulsating, bygone-era sugar bops; “I Bet You Think About Me” featuring Chris Stapleton is a twangy “Piano Man” disciple that doesn’t give Stapleton enough to do; “Run,” with Ed Sheeran, is a mid-tempo road trip winner; and “Forever Winter” is a B-side steeped in familiar “don’t go” desperation.
The best of the bunch is “Nothing New,” a welcome pairing of Swift and indie noble Phoebe Bridgers, whose delicate crooning imbues a subtle woe over the track’s acoustic guitar and light strings. The song, which hinges on the question “will you still want me when I’m nothing new” is brilliant in its double meaning — is it meant for Swift’s romantic partner, or her listeners and the music industry at large, known for chewing up and spitting out its ingenues?
“How can a person know everything at 18 then nothing at 22,” Swift sings, of then-new adulthood, a line which travels time to mirror “when you are young they assume you know nothing,” in “Cardigan,” Folklore’s lead single last July.
In those 16 months, Swift has released four albums — folklore, evermore, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Red (Taylor’s Version) encompassing 90 songs and swelling her catalog at a pace that cannot possibly be sustained. At some point she’s going to have to play some of this stuff live.
But for now, Red 2.0 is another towering victory, which should be coveted by fans as Swift is surely already onto the next re-recording, furthering the worthwhile fight.