Taylor Swift: new old hits
Taylor Swift is turning a series of re-releases of old career highlights into new career highlights and showing off both the strengths and weaknesses of that idea in the process. This week she released “Red (Taylor’s Version),” a re-recording of her 2012 album “Red.” It’s her second re-recording, after “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” came out earlier this year.
The reasons for the process are political in origin—she got the idea after being burned by her old manager who didn’t allow her the chance to buy her own masters—but in practice it operates differently. Taylor is one of the defining artists of the past decade, but has dealt with highs and lows in the court of public opinion seemingly album by album. These re-releases offer the opportunity to reclaim not only the rights to her music, but also the public discourse around each album.
Though it’s a re-release, the release of “Red (Taylor’s Version)” has come with all the publicity and fanfare of a typical album cycle. She’s been on talk shows, she released a short film, she performed on “Saturday Night Live,” she’s everywhere. The re-release has also been accompanied by a sizable portion of new songs that Taylor wrote at the time “Red” (original version) was released but never made it to the album.
The defining track in that group has been “All Too Well (10 minute version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault).” She accompanied the song with a 14 minute-long short film that she also wrote and directed and then performed it on “Saturday Night Live.” With the amount of press surrounding this song, it seems that Taylor is retrofitting it from a fan-favorite album track into a signature song.
“All Too Well (10 minute version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)” is, to be clear, a rare work of legitimate genius. “All Too Well” has always been one of her best songs—tender and vulnerable yet powerful and biting. It uses all of the best parts in the Taylor Swift artistic repertoire, her lyrical precision and facility with genre-bending, to create a swirling, nostalgic, heart-wrenching portrayal of a relationship that she was never in control of and couldn’t get over. It was good on the original “Red,” but better here. Her more mature voice lends the perspective of exactly what the song describes, a person looking back over a painful experience and allowing herself—despite her trepidation—to get caught up in a moment of remembrance. It’s exactly what the re-record can do, when used best.
Perhaps Taylor’s best moment as an artist ever is when, on the original “Red,” “All Too Well” gives way to “22.” The album goes directly from a devastating portrayal of a short but passionate relationship’s end to a song about the joys of being 22 years old and having fun with your friends. It’s a jarring choice to have them one right after the other, but it’s a choice that works. The duo perfectly encapsulates how it feels to be 22, from sobbing while processing a life-defining devastation to giggling through the night with your friends.
Yet, despite the success of the new “All Too Well,” the other half of that original duo, “22 (Taylor’s Version),” can’t measure up. The original was defined by a natural joy at the prospect of young adult hedonism. It’s about being entirely in the moment. There is no processing of emotion, there is only the having of emotion. Taylor’s vocals on the original “22” are like a recorded smile. But, because of that, “22 (Taylor’s Version)” can’t work.
The same things that benefit a re-recording of “All Too Well” ruin “22.” The maturity in her voice is too arch, too all-knowing. It sounds like a mom reminiscing as she watches her daughter make gloriously silly decisions. The new song can’t capture the unbridled joy of the original.
Unfortunately, that goes for a lot of the upbeat songs on “Red (Taylor’s Version).” It’s an album about being 22 years old, but that’s no longer how Taylor sings it. Whereas the yelp on the word “we” during “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” used to have a sense of youthful sarcasm, it now just feels uncomfortable. 31 year-old Taylor Swift can’t yelp, yelping should be left for 22 year-olds. Big artistic swings only work when there’s a sense of belief and excitement behind them, and Taylor is burdened here with the big swings of her youth. That’s part of why the 10 minute “All Too Well” works so well. Yes, she’d already written it, but there’s an excitement in her voice at the very idea of recording a 10 minute song in the first place that doesn’t exist in the re-recordings of the weird, youthful songs that make up a large portion of “Red.”
It’s not just “All Too Well” that works, though. Some of the other new additions more than justify the existence of the album. “Nothing New (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault) [feat. Phoebe Bridgers]” in particular, deserves to be let out of the vault. A song that details her fears about the public getting bored of her and replacing her with someone else, she can currently provide “Nothing New” a vocal performance imbued with a world weariness that serves it well.
“Red (Taylor’s Version)” has some moments that rank among the best of her career, but the album as a whole doesn’t really work. It feels like what it is: an adult looking back on her youth. That, however, contrasts with a lyricism that doesn’t always suggest retrospection. While the original “Red” is defined by its liveliness, “Red (Taylor’s Version)” can’t bring that. The great highwire act of “Red” was balancing the way being 22 means you finally have enough life to be retrospective and that you are still primarily emotional. “Red (Taylor’s Version)” tips the scales too far in favor of retrospection. The project of re-release is nostalgic by design, but “Red” can’t just be nostalgic, it should feel alive.