Burning “Red”

How Taylor Swift transformed heartbreak into art

(Part six in my apparently ongoing series on the music of Taylor Swift – see parts onetwothreefour, and five)

“How can a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22?”

That’s the question Taylor Swift asks herself on “Nothing New,” a previously unreleased track included on her recent re-recording of her landmark 2012 album Red. It’s a song full of intense personal and artistic self-doubt, with Swift expressing severe reservations about her ability to stay creatively relevant and tacitly acknowledging that adolescent over-confidence fosters the illusion of wisdom. But it’s also the thematic question that drives Red as a whole, as the youthful romantic fantasies portrayed so vividly on her previous albums shatter and give way to more mature meditations on love, intimacy, and heartbreak – all elemental experiences that help define the human condition at its core.

On Red , Swift takes us through the intense emotional odyssey of a heartbroken person looking back on and convalescing from a fatally flawed and ultimately doomed romantic relationship. It’s hard to put it much better than she herself does in her introductory note to the re-recorded album: thematically and emotionally, Red “was all over the place, a fractured mosaic of feelings that somehow all fit together in the end.” Swift assembles an elaborate, heartfelt kaleidoscope of the feelings we experience in our lifelong pursuit of intimacy and human connection, a quest in which we’ll inevitably stumble and fall short of our deepest desires more often than we’ll fulfill them.

As wrenching as Red can be, though, it’s hardly a lament about the cruelties of modern romance and human existence. Throughout the album, Swift leaves us with the sense that all the trepidation, vulnerability, and heartache intrinsic to our attempts at intimacy are worth it, no matter how it all turns out in the end. The hurt and anxiety are a necessary part of life and, indeed, being human; heartbreak is a risk we take every time we reach out and try to forge a close connection with another human being. As she puts it “State of Grace,” over the course of our lives we all “learn to live with the pain” and piece together “mosaic broken hearts.” But as she reminds us on “Begin Again,” the romantic scars we accumulate can’t and shouldn’t cause us to close ourselves off in a futile search for invulnerability. Or as she counsels on “Treacherous,” “Nothing safe is worth the drive.”

Swift’s undeniable brilliance as a songwriter comes across exceptionally clear on both the original and expanded versions of her now-classic opus “All Too Well.” The original five-and-a-half-minute rendition is raw and passionate, a direct and emotionally piercing blow. Swift painstakingly paints a lyrical picture of a doomed relationship (complete with exquisite imagery like “autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place”) amidst constantly escalating musical tension provided by the steady crunch of her backing band’s electric guitars and bass. This built-up pressure finally detonates at the song’s bridge:

And maybe we got lost in translation 

Maybe I asked for too much 

But maybe this thing was a masterpiece 

‘Til you tore it all up 

Running scared, I was there 

I remember it all too well 

And 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

‘Cause I remember it all, all, all 

Too well 

It’s an intense and incendiary song, to be sure, but it’s not necessarily a vitriolic or vituperative one. (She was in this relationship for a reason, after all.) Swift seems to possess – and convey – an underlying understanding that these deep romantic wounds are a necessary part of life and the pursuit of intimacy. Though she’d “like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it,” Swift still possesses her self-confidence and lets the former object of her affection know that he’s “lost the one real thing you’ve ever known.”

In contrast, the ten-minute extended version of “All Too Well” that serves as the grand finale of Red (Taylor’s Version) is a sprawling epic that in many ways resembles the “mosaic broken heart” of the album as a whole. It relies much more on Swift’s vocals and lyrics than anything else, both of which superbly carry the extended rendition’s moody and subdued sonic palette. The song becomes much more pensive and reflective as a result, but it’s still as sharp and emotionally compelling as ever.

For all its additional lyrics and verses – the extended version contains roughly twice as many words as the original, and there are two additional verses plus the expansion of a third – the extended version of “All Too Well” remains remarkably lean and focused for a track that’s more than ten minutes long. There’s nothing unnecessary added here, only a natural expansion of the original’s lyrics and a journey deeper into the song’s emotional recesses. In one particularly pointed new lyric, for instance, Swift reminds her ex, “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath.”

The song begins quietly and slowly, like a needle picking up the opening track on an old vinyl record. It lends this extended version a dreamy, ethereal atmosphere, as if Swift’s starting to recall a memory that’s grown hazy over time. As the song picks up, it proceeds more slowly but more steadily than the original; it’s a persistent, smoldering burn rather than an explosive release. The peaks and valleys of the extended version may be smoother and shallower as a result, but it’s a shift needed to sustain the song’s simmering emotional intensity for over ten minutes. Swift lets us steep in the feelings she conjures up, leaving us to soak them up as we listen her recount memories that grow increasingly detailed and evocative as the song progresses.

In this extended version, then, Swift takes us on a grueling ten-minute voyage through the shattered emotional landscape heartbreak leaves in its wake. Swift uses stark physical imagery to describe how she felt at the end of the relationship; it’s an ordeal that “broke my skin and bones,” leaving her “a soldier who’s returning half her weight.” She asks the former object of her affection if he suffered the same emotional injuries: “And did the twin flame bruise paint you blue?/Just between us, did the love affair maim you too?” As painful as the experience may have been, though, it’s hard to sense much if any regret or bitterness at the song’s end – only a flickering awareness that Swift and her listeners have acquired some hard-earned wisdom about life and the human condition.

That’s in keeping with the spirit of Red (Taylor’s Version) as a whole, both in the re-recorded original album and the new tracks taken from Swift’s musical vault. After all, it’s the record where Swift breaks hard from the romantic fantasies of her youth and takes listeners on a sojourn through the emotional torments of heartbreak. But Red also marks the moment where Swift evolved from a songwriting prodigy to a fully-fledged artist in every sense of the word. None of that discounts her earlier work, of course, but it does reflect her own acknowledgement that she’d already been “learning tiny lessons with every new crack in the façade of the fairytale ending she’d been shown in the movies.”

On Red, Swift picks up the pieces of that now-shattered façade and begins to assemble the mosaic broken heart we all have to put together at some point. By the end of the journey, though, it’s clear that our reconstructed hearts serve us just as well as the originals that were smashed to pieces in the past. That doesn’t mean we stop learning about ourselves and our shared humanity, though; as Swift reminisces on “Daylight,” the final track on 2019’s Lover, “I used to believe love was burning red/But it’s golden.” It’s an education that never really ends, and never really can – not least when we think we’ve got it all figured out.

Heartbreak may be miserable and emotionally brutal, Swift tells us on Red, but it’s a universal, necessary experience we’ve all got to endure – and one that’s ultimately worth it in the end. It we recognize this fundamental emotional truth, we can always pick ourselves up and begin again.