Red: Why Taylor Swift’s genre-switching break-up album is her defining work

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Taylor Swift performing on her Red tour  (Getty Images)
Taylor Swift performing on her Red tour (Getty Images)

“This is the golden age of something good and right and real,” Taylor Swift sings on State of Grace, the stadium-ready track that ushers listeners into her fourth album, 2012’s Red. In this opening song, the then-22-year-old - already a major country musician but far from the all-conquering superstar she is today - was conjuring the sense of possibility that comes when you first fall in love with someone. Things get messy almost immediately afterwards - this is, as Swift herself put it last year, the singer’s “only true break-up album,” and on the title track, she goes on to describe the same relationship as “like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street.”

Still, even if this particular “golden age” quickly loses its shine, Red marks the start of another one. It is Swift’s most important crossover record, her leap into music’s major league, combining pop hooks with some of her most perceptive, emotionally eviscerating lyrics to date and laying out much of the sonic formula that has made her one of the biggest artists in the world. No wonder, then, that instead of working through her old albums chronologically, the singer has decided that Red will be the second of her records to get the Taylor’s Version treatment, as part of her on-going effort to re-record her back catalogue after it was sold off to Scooter Braun in 2019. Just like her re-do of second album Fearless, released in the spring, this will be an expanded version, featuring 30 tracks and new collaborations, including a team-up with Phoebe Bridgers.

There are plenty of music critics who would say that it’s Taylor’s 2014 album 1989 that marks her real musical watershed. I’d disagree - and I’m in good company. “[Red] was really sort of the beginning of everything that I’m doing now,” Swift told Rolling Stone in 2020. Her first all-out pop record is staggeringly good, but it just wouldn’t exist without Red as a sonic stepping stone (it’s more of a watershed for critics themselves - the point when it stopped being cool to pigeonhole Swift as an artist for emotional girls crying over emotionally challenged boys).

Taylor Swift’s Red album marked a turning point in her career (Getty Images)
Taylor Swift’s Red album marked a turning point in her career (Getty Images)

It’s here that we see Swift, whose countrified sound had remained consistent on her three earliest records, restlessly playing with new genres for the first time, from the sing-along pop of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together to the squelchy dubstep that engulfs I Knew You Were Trouble’s chorus to State of Grace’s stadium rock. For the first time, she seems like an artist embracing re-invention.

After a flurry of writing on her Speak Now tour, Swift initially turned in some new tracks to her then-label Big Machine, but wasn’t happy with her efforts: she was worried that, in following a similar process to her previous album, which had been written solo as a counter to claims that she relied too heavily on co-writers, the record might feel inert or repetitive. Her solution? To recruit a bunch of new collaborators, including Max Martin, the Swedish super-producer who has spun pop gold for everyone from Britney Spears to Katy Perry to Ariana Grande. “It actually was an interesting wrestling match with my own fears of remaining stagnant that made Red the kind of joy ride that it ended up being,” Swift has said.

Martin’s hallmarks are all over Red’s lead single We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, not least in the earworm chorus and the driving drum beat, yet it’s still classic Swift, albeit a more self-aware version, willing to poke fun at her public perception (“I say, ‘I hate you,’ we break up, you call me, I love you”). And is there a more damning pay-off aimed at an ex in the entire Swift catalogue of zingers than “hide away and find your peace of mind with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”? I’m not sure how Jake Gyllenhaal ever recovered.

Martin also worked on later singles I Knew You Were Trouble and 22; he went on to collaborate with Swift on her next two albums, 1989 and Reputation. He’s not the only through-line between Red and Swift’s future endeavours: it’s here that we first see Taylor really lean into songwriting as story-telling, just as she did to such acclaim in her most recent releases Folklore and Evermore. The Lucky One is a shimmering but cynical vignette about a young woman arriving in Los Angeles, “new to town with a made-up name” seeking “fortune and fame,” which makes an interesting companion piece to folklore tracks like The Last Great American Dynasty. She’s never confirmed it, but there are enough hints for fans to deduce that she’s singing about Joni Mitchell, another huge influence on Red (one critic, so the story goes, once suggested that Speak Now-era Taylor should go and listen to Mitchell’s defining album Blue instead - she came back with her own version, down to the title and artwork).

Swift is at her best, though, when she is at her most personal, and Red marks a sea change in her songwriting. There is no more talk of princesses, Shakespearean romance, cheer captains and sitting on the bleachers: there is no safety net of fairy tales and high school to distance and cushion us from the blows when she talks about heartbreak. Red’s Taylor is more mature, a little more wary, but never jaded; the record isn’t just her transition from country to mainstream, it’s also her journey into adulthood.

At the beating heart of the album is All Too Well, the greatest single Swift never released. A five-and-a-half-minute epic in miniature, it begins as a contemplative ballad that builds into something staggeringly raw by the time the bridge arrives, with some of her most indelible lyrics (however emotionally stable you might be feeling at the song’s outset, “You call me up again just to break me like a promise/ So casually cruel in the name of being honest” never fails to throw you off course). The holy grail for Swift fans has always been a long-hinted at 10-minute version - on Taylor’s Version, we’re finally getting to hear it. You’ll find me dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light.

Red (Taylor’s Version) is out now

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