ALBUM REVIEW: Taylor Swift, Red (Taylor's Version)
I am going to preface this review in the exact same way I did with my Olivia Rodrigo one, but with a little more detail because I honestly have been aware of Taylor Swift since she first began making music (i.e. there is a lot of history and context). I used to be a massive fan of radio hits from the age that I could start making memories to maybe middle school. I remember really loving Britney Spears and Christina Agulera, especially the latter artist’s seductive hit “Genie In A Bottle”, on top of that, Beyonce has always been my shit. I bought Dangerously In Love at age 7 for a plane ride to Florida and ran “Crazy In Love” back 50 times in a row on the flight. I loved Rihanna’s first singles, Enur, Destiny’s Child, Maroon 5 and The Killers as well. Mixed in with that was commercial rap from Kanye West, namely “Jesus Walks” and “Gold Digger”, The Black Album from Jay-Z (censored of course), Eminem and Gorillaz. What the fuck does this have to do with Taylor Swift, Ryan? Well, let me wrangle this all together to say, me and the average 25-year old Taylor diehard probably have a different listening history, generally speaking. We have different karaoke standards. The music of N’Sync, Backstreet Boys, P!nk, One Direction, Justin Bieber and especially Taylor Swift have never been a part of my formative musical digest. As a result, it’s Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. city that are my 2012 cultural touchstones, Red is just an album my first girlfriend forced me to listen to when she drove.
When “Teardrops On My Guitar” came out in 2006, it was just another radio single for me. When (mostly girls) my age in 2008 were fawning over “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me”, my thought was “what is this country bullshit”. While people were watching High School Musical and Hannah Montana, I was sneaking in episodes of The Boondocks and South Park, playing Halo and eating too many Doritos. Now, if this is not a perspective that you want to hear a Taylor Swift review from, I totally understand that, but I gave Red (Taylor’s Version) a very fair shot, and these are my thoughts…
While I think Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is an infuriating misfire, I find the re-recording of Red to be 10x more worthwhile. To keep it a buck, the fact that Fearless was written by a 17-year old shows in the lack of good songs. Not only that, but without anything tangible in terms of bonus material, it feels like a lazy cash grab. Yes, I fully understand her reasoning for dropping it again, I know all the intricacies of her contract with Scooter Braun and the douchey hedge fund that now owns her masters, please don’t explain it to me in the comments. She is a multi-millionaire whose business affairs bore the shit out of me; all I needed out of a re-release was bonus material, and I think Taylor knows that too. While Red has not and will never be a classic record for me, it is certainly more maturely written and worthy of examination. After carefully listening to all 2 hours of this record, twice, I have some thoughts. Let’s do a compliment sandwich to start. Taylor’s voice is fantastic, her use of trite similes and metaphors is the Achilles heel of her songwriting, and the production is noticeably upgraded on this new version. The songwriting on this album is at odds with itself, and whether or not a given track is good depends pretty much entirely on this and the performance. Let’s take “Red” for example, I like this song a lot. The chorus is great, comparing different stages of love with this person to colors. However, there are plenty of trash lines in here that keep me from loving it, namely “His love was like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street”. This is creative writing 101 lyricism, with “Sad Beautiful Tragic” being the absolute worst offender of this. Without punchy production of strong vocals, all we have to rely on is formulaic structures and lines that are the equivalent of “my life is a rollercoaster”.
Other times, it’s the severe lack of detail in her descriptions that hamper my enjoyment. I fuck with the idea of loving someone who is bad for you on the song “Treacherous”, seeing the red flags and “liking it”, but there is not enough concreteness on here to hold it all together. What specifically about this person makes the connection so hazardous? Rather than explain, the song just gets louder and she starts to repeat herself more (“Follow you, follow you home”). The following “I Know You Were Trouble” takes this song’s concept and makes it even more generic and blase, complete with some epic dubstep drops. You would think if this is a revisionist history of her “classic” that she’d be at complete liberty to make it more tasteful, so why do we still get the “wub wubs”? This leads me to the song whose memery made us lose 50 followers on Saturday, and that is “All Too Well”. I want to make it crystal clear that I have never had an issue with this song, I don’t hate what Taylor is “exposing” and I don’t think she is not valid for having these feelings. To be completely honest, I absolutely love the 10-minute version of this song. I think it was incredibly smart for Taylor to make this the centerpiece of the record, and I commend her for using her grown-up mind to enhance the details that were already there. Even if not for the 10-minute version, this is still the best song on the album without a doubt, but with added jabs about the age gap and charming her dad with the self-effacing jokes it paints most of the album in a different light. Especially looking back on it nine years later, the line “I remember it all too well” hits very hard. THIS SONG IS GREAT BUT LISTEN TO ME PLEASE AND LISTEN GOOD.
Before we get to the bonus tracks, let me just do a sweeping overview of the other few songs I hate, the ones I dislike and the ones I really like. Generally, my critiques in the second paragraph ride throughout the whole record, so… The three singles that marked this as her “pop album” all suck, for my taste. Again, karaoke sensibilities. “22”, “I Know You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever…” are just dumbed down stadium-anthem versions of the more subtle moments on the album, and I don’t fault them for that at all. I don’t think this album would be nearly as successful or “iconic” if it was “All Too Well” and “I Almost Do” as the singles. I see all three of them as songs you can scream out with your girlfriends while drunk in an Uber. I am not here as a man to take these experiences away from (mostly) white women or anyone else for that matter. I like dumb music too, that’d be like someone telling me I can’t blast “JumpOutTheHouse” by Playboi Carti. However, I’m not going to sit here as a critic and co-sign lyrics like “It feels like one of those nights/To dress up like hipsters”. The 2012 trappings are abundant on Red, the worst offender of course being “Stay Stay Stay”, whose YouTube Tutorial ukuleles and repetitive songwriting have aged like milk. So twee! The duets on this album go over better than I would’ve expected though, with Ed Sheeran of all people actually giving charming vocal performance. I really enjoy how gentleman-like he is, and the way the pre-chorus effortlessly fades into the actual hook, well done on both of their parts. I just wanna know you better, know you better, know… Another highlight for me is “Holy Ground” reminding me a lot of her song “Paper Rings”, it has this bright and beautiful ‘80s momentum to it that never lets up. “The Lucky One” and “Starlight” rely too heavily on what I like to call “Hallmark Daydreams” where it’s two white people being romantic in their conservative white towns. All these ‘50s rhythms, ‘60s references and lines about “sneaking into country clubs” is fucking unbearable. And with the songwriting prowess of a “dance all night party yeah yeah” Black Eyed Peas song, “Starlight” is by far the worst song on the album.
This is another point where me and the Taylor stans are at an impasse. As someone who really enjoys The Criterion Collection, I understand that supplementary materials can deeply enhance a classic film. The Police Story 1 and 2 CC Edition, for instance, it has these extra features that give the viewer a richer understanding of just how fucking amazing of a stuntman, director and actor Jackie Chan is. That is worthwhile to me. You’ll never see me spending $30 on a film that means nothing to me and that I don’t have a history with, even if it’s one that’s celebrated or technically sound. That’s all to say, while I appreciate the POV of a Taylor stan who is basically getting more of what they love, I don’t love this album. So while I like “Nothing New” with Phoebe Bridgers, “Girl At Home” and I actually love the extended version of “All Too Well”, the rest of the bonus content is fucking boring to me, plain and simple. I don’t want to listen to covers, I hate Chris Stapleton and Ed Sheeran, and I never want to hear the “acoustic version” of anything ever. Maybe it’s because I’m not a girl or because I am a Kanye stan or whatever people want to say. I like music to be blunt and direct, like Playboi Carti, Death Grips, Kanye, Snail Mail, PinkPantheress, My Bloody Valentine, Kendrick Lamar, Metallica, The Weeknd, Doss, Charli XCX, SOPHIE, Boris, JPEGMAFIA, Shygirl, Nine Inch Nails and Arca. I also have a softer/spacier side and like Cocteau Twins, Big Thief, Blood Orange, Beach House, Bladee, KKB, Jodeci, Mariah Carey, Jazmine Sullivan, SZA, Prince, The Isley Brothers, Solange, Beyonce, Aalyiah, Mih-Ty, Caroline Polachek and Frank Ocean. I like weird esoteric art shit and folk like Radiohead, The Knife, King Krule, Flying Lotus, Fleet Foxes, Weyes Blood, Sufjan Stevens, Swans, CAN, Destroyer, Talking Heads, OPN, smooth shit like Fela Kuti, Miles Davis and Kamasi Washington. I have no time for music that has no idea what it wants to be, that lacks detail, that needs all these excuses surrounding it to be great. Red is just not my shit, and if that offends you then I’m sorry. But I’ve never listened to Taylor Swift if it was not coming from an FM radio, a girlfriend’s car stereo or for this review, and that’s that.
And thank you to Taylor for not being lazy this time around, I genuinely appreciate you putting work into this.