Red (Taylor's Version)

Coming of Age with Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’

Following the release of Red (Taylor’s Version), Caragh Medlicott reflects on what the album meant to her on its first release, and what its re-recording means nearly a decade on. 

We tore up the post like animals when it dropped to the doormat. Red, Taylor Swift’s fourth album, peeked out from the shredded cardboard. By 2012, the purchase and subsequent listening to of a new Taylor Swift album was already a well-worn ritual. On this occasion, my sister and I had managed to pre-order a signed CD; we held it up to the light like something holy. Indeed, to us, it was. 

Now, nearly a decade later, Red (Taylor’s version) is here again – a part of Swift’s project to reclaim her masters after they were unceremoniously sold off to a long-standing adversary. The original twenty-track album has swelled into a thirty-strong epic with songs that were once trodden on the cutting room floor picked up, inspected, dusted off and crafted anew. It’s not the first re-recording – Swift’s second album, Fearless (Taylor’s Version), was released with considerably less fanfare back in April – but the buzz surrounding Red is as electric as it is palpable. Yes, Red is a fan favourite. Something of a classic amidst Swift’s considerable discography. For those of us lucky enough to have been coming of age in its heydey, Red is a time machine to the poignant and emotionally turbulent period of both adolescence and looming adulthood. 

By grace of her early success, Swift has documented, at great length, what it is to be young and burning with emotion. The joy and the pain; the melodrama and the boredom. It’s a credit to Swift’s lyricism – to her ability to reach right within a feeling and find its most striking, resonant chord – that her privileged background has never tainted her relatability. There is no understating the significance Red had for me on its first release. I was sixteen years old, my two best friends also devoted Swifties, and it quickly became the unending soundtrack of our late teenage years. And I mean that sincerely. Does any time stretch out quite so long as the two years preceding adulthood? Yet we never tired of it, playing it incessantly; there was not a house party, sleepover or bus journey unfit for its consumption (and if there had been, we’d probably have played it anyway).

Red is famous for being a break-up album, its tracklist dominated by the elliptical phases of love and heartbreak. Yet, returning to it today, I’ve found that Red is mostly redolent of friendship. ‘We’re happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time’ Swift sings on ‘22’. Could anyone have put it better, more clearly or unvarnished? Growing into adulthood so often feels like being caught in a whirlwind of emotion. Some days my friends and I craved the addictive dubstep of ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ – on others we retreated into the tawny sadness of ‘All Too Well’. The very things Red was criticised for – its campy autumnal aestheticism, its sonic discombobulation, its heartbreak theatrics – were exactly what we loved about it. Naturally, it was the romanticism that we felt most associated with back then. But today I recall how, at even the slightest whiff of heartbreak or rejection, we’d stick on Taylor Swift and declare, with ferocious earnestness, our total love for each other. Inevitably those friendships have long outlasted any boyfriend or break-up occupying us at the time. 

Red’s second coming is emotional. It’s grown by a third with new (well, technically, old) “from the vault” tracks added onto the re-recordings of the original songs. I’m not labouring under any illusions here, it would be mad to expend the energy and effort required to re-record a lengthy discography and not find some new ways of adding allure, sprinkling on some money-making finesse. I’ll even readily admit that there’s a reason why some of these tracks didn’t make the album the first time around (even if most of those reasons are PR, rather than quality, related). But what is most astonishing about Red (Taylor’s Version) is that it improves upon the original. The additional tracks strengthen, rather than dilute, the overall effect (even if that effect is slightly unconventional – like swapping out a published novel for the author’s personal, annotated manuscript). Swift’s matured voice has grown only more expressive and commanding in the intervening years, and there are new collaborations here, too – most notably with Phoebe Bridgers who sings on ‘Nothing New’. The track sends cracks up the good girl, teetotal image Swift was so entangled in at the time of its writing; ‘I’ve had too much to drink tonight / How did I go from growing up to breaking down?’ they sing in unison. 

Of course, any good fan will know that the most anticipated part of this album is not a new song but the extension of an old fan favourite, ‘All Too Well’ (now ten minutes long). It’s a heartbreak track like no other. What was a blunted knife is, here, sharpened into a dagger and dipped in poison for good measure. At its new running time, the song builds and builds to unbearable, teetering heights – the new lyrics crashing down like thunder from an old testament god. ‘You kept me like a secret but I kept you like an oath’ has already usurped ‘Call me up again just to break me like a promise’ as most quotable lyric. Most crushing for Jake Gyllenhaal (who the song is widely accepted to be about), is the fourth verse. Swift sings: ‘And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punchline goes / I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age’. Social media has since lit up in delight (Gyllenhaal’s current girlfriend is 25), the lyric proving – dramatic and petty as she may be – Swift’s perceptiveness has always been keen. 

It’s hard to imagine what a song like this sounds like to someone not already familiar with it. Entrenched as I have been for a long time in the shimmering world of Taylor Swift, I acquiesce that objectivity is not my strong suit here. What I can speak to is the power of this album; the impact it has had on me personally, along with many other people I know. Its brilliance lies in its imperfection, its vivid painting of emotional extremes. Listening to it on my walk today, the autumn trees in full golden bloom, I felt glad that – for whatever reason – we’ve been offered a chance to visit again, at once old and new.


Red (Taylor’s Version) is streaming now.