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12 November 2021updated 18 Nov 2021 11:03pm

Why Red is the definitive Taylor Swift album

Critiqued as not “sonically cohesive”, Swift's fourth album is unruly, uneven, chaotic – and contains much of her greatest songwriting to date.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

It’s clear that Taylor Swift takes criticism of her music to heart. When a music journalist wrote that Swift “can’t sing”, she responded by writing a song about him called “Mean”. In the documentary Miss Americana, Swift videos herself receiving the news that her sixth album Reputation had not been nominated for any major award at the Grammys. Visibly wounded, with tears in her eyes, she says: “You know what, this is fine. I just need to make a better record.”

When Red, Taylor Swift’s fourth album, was nominated for but did not win Album of the Year at the 2014 Grammys, she did not shrug it off. Skipping the afterparties, she went home, ordered In-n-Out and cried. Lying in bed that night, she began thinking about why Red hadn’t taken home the top award. Reflecting on that night later, she said: “You have a few options when you don’t win an award. You can decide like, ‘Oh they’re wrong! They all voted wrong!’ Second you can be like, ‘I’m gonna go up on the stage and take the mic from whoever did win it.’ Or third, you can say: ‘Maybe they’re right. Maybe I did not make the record of my career. Maybe I need to fix the problem, which was that I have not been making sonically cohesive albums’.” She started using the phrase “sonically cohesive” so much that fans turned it into a meme.

By the time Red came out, Swift had long been labelled as a “crossover” artist – her music straddled both country and pop. She was lauded for bringing a new audience of teen girls to country music, and for bringing country melodies and lyrical observations into pop. Swift describes Red as “patchwork quilt-y” and “a little bit multiple personality”, blaming “a scared record label” too frightened to see her let go of her country roots. Though it contained some of her biggest, dance-friendly pop hits to date, Red was submitted to the 2014 Grammys as a country album.

It’s true that Red – re-released as Red (Taylor’s Version) on 12 November as part of Swift’s re-recording project – is a jumble of styles. The banjo of the title track is separated from the dubstep-influenced “I Knew You Were Trouble” by just one song. The epic anguish of guitar ballad “All Too Well” rolls into the sugary bubblegum-pop of “22”. There are not one, but two misguided collaborations with alt-pop artists: Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, and the nostalgic, teen-friendly “Starlight” sounds like it belongs on a much earlier Swift record.

But despite being unruly and uneven, it also contains some of the greatest songs of her back catalogue. It might not be sonically cohesive, but it is aesthetically, thematically and narratively cohesive. Yes, it oscillates wildly between moods – but so do the heartbroken. It’s arguably the Taylor Swift album that is the most unapologetically Taylor Swift. Maybe she didn’t make the record of her career – but maybe she did.

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Swift has called Red her “one true heartbreak album”: it chronicles the beginning and the end of a brief, intense relationship that unfolded over the autumn months of a year, between Swift and a man widely considered to be Jake Gyllenhaal (the two were seen together from October to December in 2010). The album began to take shape after she wrote the title track, a nostalgic but pained recollection of a whirlwind love affair that came to an abrupt end: “Losing him was blue… Missing him was dark grey… But loving him was red.” She began to organise the record around the tumultuous emotions of this romance and subsequent breakup: passion, frustration, joy, excitement, and rage.

Red is a love story glimpsed in the rear view mirror. Sometimes, in the record’s most bitter moments, tormented by memories, Swift seems to regret it ever happened; in others, she seems grateful to have taken a risk. “Nothing safe is worth the drive,” she sings on “State of Grace”, the reflective, drum-heavy opener that sets up romance as a “ruthless game”.

The album contains several of her greatest pieces of songwriting: taut, forceful tracks, the platonic ideal of a Taylor Swift song. Sweeping yet intimate, and focused around a single image, the propulsive melody of “Red” is delivered in a breathier, more emotional vocal than Swift had used before (and one than she can’t quite recreate on the new version of the classic record). The foot-stomping “Holy Ground” has an even greater sense of momentum, as Swift captures the feeling of jumping headlong into a new relationship without pausing to look down. The warm harmonies on “Begin Again” (more pronounced on the new recording) are both reflective and hopeful for the future.

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 “All Too Well”, an album track that nevertheless has become the all-out fan-favourite song amongst her most devoted listeners, is deliciously uninhibited, revelling in the theatricality of heartbreak: “You call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest / I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here”. The new, long-anticipated ten-minute version is quite possibly even better: infused with the dreamier, spacier production style of her most recent two albums Folklore and Evermore, it leans even further into these extremes. “They say all’s well that ends well, but I’m in a new hell / Every time you double-cross my mind,” Swift sings, her voice cracking. “You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine / And that made me want to die”.

Swift’s music has always had a diaristic quality, but on “All Too Well” she seemed willing to hand over evocative details from her life without restraint, unpicking the highs and lows of the relationship in forensic, cinematic detail: a road trip upstate, two people dancing in the light cast by an open refrigerator door, a favourite scarf sat hidden in an ex’s drawer.

That scarf has reached mythic status in pop culture folklore, and its emblematic of how evocative Red is of a particular time with a particular feeling attached to it. It might be chaotic, but it’s an appropriate, organised chaos. “Musically and lyrically, Red resembled a heartbroken person,” Taylor Swift said, announcing the album as her newest re-recording. “It was all over the place, a fractured mosaic of feelings that somehow all fit together in the end.” You sense she still has the words “sonically cohesive” ringing in her ears. And yet to Taylor Swift fans, who often talk about her career in “eras”, Swift’s Red era is by far her most defined: autumnal, melodramatic, wistful, loud. Falling leaves, hot coffee, bright red lipstick, plaid shirts, knitwear. The fading of a once-hot sun. Longing and nostalgia. And a whisper of a new beginning, too.