From a star who rose out of the ashes of controversy and made us all realise… ‘Oh my god, I was sexist in the early 2010’s’, we get a Taylor who knows her worth – and by Jove she does.
Folks, you all knew it was going to happen. Taylor’s done me a solid by giving me something to write about – and that is her holier-than-thou re-recordings. It’s well known that I love to critique Ms Swift – and I couldn’t not give my two cents on this plethora of new content. Could I?
So, let’s get started. The sentiment behind these recordings is, may I say, spot on. Swift really said ‘fuck you, Scooter, I’ll get my masters back’.
Does ethical content mean ‘good’ content?
These replacements were needed in the ethical sense – plenty of Swifties (including myself) felt uncomfortable listening to bangers that put money in Braun’s pocket. But just because these re-recordings were needed, doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily good.
I’m not saying that Swift was trying to add anything new necessarily, rather, that the tracks serve to pander to the most dedicated fans who will literally listen to the same song sung 10 years later, over and over again. (I know I did that, but still.)
Now, I could go through every single song and dissect what’s good and bad about them with reference to the original tracks. But that’s boring, so disclaimer, I will make some (fair) generalisations of trends I discovered when listening to both old and new albums.
There’s just less bite
My first point is that there’s less bite in the new songs. In the originals, you could hear the pain, the genuine anguish that these memories caused Taylor when she sang about them. Swift’s voice has definitely matured, as well. Softer, melodic, almost whispered lyrics; a far cry from her occasionally whiney, sometimes shouty originals.
Take ‘Picture to Burn’, for instance. Whenever I play that song in the car, my mother makes a comment along the lines of “This is a bit shouty, Nina”. But that song is an absolute banger when you’re going through an anger inducing break-up, and it’s because she lets go. With some of the new recordings, I just don’t get the same raw emotional connection to her music.
‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ was an iconic tune back in the day. But the new version just feels … Off. For one, the classic ‘wee-ee’ sound is like a child going down a slide – it really doesn’t hit the mark. There’s also a significant, thumping bass drum, which in the original made sense over Taylor’s colloquial lyric writing. She was essentially talking to the mic, yet also to her ex, in many of the verses, with the tension building to the chorus through this thumping beat. Now, it feels almost robotic, like Swift is reading the lyrics from a cue card.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room
Seeing as this is a review of Red, I can’t not talk about ‘All Too Well’. I know I lean towards criticism rather than praise in my writing, but today is a day for loving. Sitting here, driving through British countryside, involuntarily shrugging off chills because of this ten-minute version, I just can’t pick holes. My metaphorical hat is well and truly tipped to Swift, and why the original was ever cut to 6 minutes in the first place is a mystery, with injustice at its root.
The production value is massive. And I mean “value” in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the word; being a major star, and also moulding a lyrical masterpiece twice over requires money and talent. Muted sounds and an interesting use of soft brass create this whimsical, amorphous feel, nodding at the memorial aspect of the piece. Remembrance and loss are reflected in the drifting melodies of the secondary instruments while Taylor’s softer and mature vocals align perfectly with the images of road-tripping through middle America with an unrealised sweetheart.
The multitude of metaphors for pain and loss such as “did the love affair maim you too?” never get old. The relationship is presented as dream-like yet violent in its ending, with these two oppositions juxtaposing each other and never over romanticising the experience. ‘All Too Well’ is an instance in which there is new and old, paired with Swift’s mature voice, which works terrifically.
Yet, there is a whole host of new tracks that fans and critics have never heard before. ‘From The Vault’ is a phenomenon which has surprisingly not been heavily capitalised upon before in this particular fashion. In essence, Swift is marketing these old, unreleased tracks to fans in the sense that they ‘get something new’, whilst getting the old.
I have to say though, original lyrics such as “I could’ve loved you all my life if you hadn’t left me waiting in the cold” (taken from ‘You’re Not Sorry’, Fearless) just can’t be re-sung and have the same impact it did when you listened and cried (or still cry) to the original in your twenties. I still hear that lyric and feel an instant recognition of sorrow, whether I’m going through a break-up or not.
From the Vault: The Phenomenon
I won’t talk about the ‘From the Vault’ tracks in detail, mainly because they were probably discarded songs from when Swift was 22 – and I find it hard to judge B-sides when they were written at an age only a year older than I am now.
These tracks are a tricky one. They vary widely in terms of the quality of text-setting, lyric and general flow. ‘Nothing New’ (ft. Pheobe Bridgers) is a triumph, but I find myself thinking, do I merely love it because I can so acutely relate to the (albeit sentimental) quote; “How can a person know everything at eighteen, but nothing at twenty-two?” (Note the brilliant word-painting on the word “twenty-two.”) Maybe we’ll never know.
As always, I come from a position of critical bias when it comes to Swift. Yet, I find myself feeling rather ambivalent about Red (Taylor’s Version). I still relate to her lyrics as much as I did in the early 2010’s – the woman’s a genius. You can’t say that “No one knows the words that we whisper, no one knows how much I miss ya” is a bad lyric. You just can’t.
So, I tentatively recommend Red (Taylor’s Version); for die-hard fans who haven’t heard the full album yet, you won’t be disappointed, especially with tracks like ‘Ronan’, ‘Begin Again’ and ‘Sad Beautiful Tragic’. I reiterate that Swift’s more mellowed, diaphanous voice works infinitely more effectively in tracks like these, while the punchier songs may not spark an enormity of awe in a more vigilant listener.
I initially hesitated to critique Red too deeply – the ethics behind these re-recordings seem to hinder authentic debate of how much of a necessity they really are. But as always, I can’t deny that I will always listen to new content from Taylor – and I will always have something to say about it.