Madison Yardumian ‘21
There was a slightly obscure album released on Nov. 12th, 2021 — you may not have heard of it. It’s Red (Taylor’s Version). The highly-anticipated re-release of Red was met with acclaim from fans. Featuring eight brand-new tracks “From the Vault” (never-before-released songs written from the time in which Swift originally wrote Red), and an extended 10-minute version of “All Too Well.” Upon its release, “All Too Well” broke the record for longest song to ever go to number one on the Hot 100 (surpassing “American Pie” by Don McLean, which held the record for just shy of 50 years). For the sake of brevity, this review will rank the nine songs “From the Vault,” excluding “All Too Well (10 Minute Version).” (But if you haven’t listened to the 10 minute version, do so NOW. It’s worth the hype).
8. “Message in A Bottle”
“Message in a Bottle” anticipates 1989 in its bubblegum pop sound, which makes it a fun listen for Swift fans who love tracking her various eras. At the same time, I’ve come to find Swift is at her most powerful in her lower register, where the fullness of her voice can be exhibited. In this track, which features more of her upper belt, the vocal runs in the chorus and pre-chorus that ground the song sound a little clunky in her upper register. Her voice thins out and almost fades into the poppy background. It almost feels as though any current pop singer could sing the track and it would sound exactly the same. The songwriting feels more generic than the other songs, both in its lyrics and production. The harmonies are simple and exactly where you think they’d be. This song sounds like it would play in an American Eagle, or on a playlist made by a Carlie Rae Jepsen stan, but nowhere else.
7. “Forever Winter”
“Forever Winter” features a subtle but beautiful winter-esque production and backtracking. However, beyond its pleasing backing, the song as a whole is just a touch forgettable. Swift’s voice sounds a little thin and pitch-corrected on the high notes of the chorus. Contrary to what a chorus typically should do, the song’s refrain feels a little anticlimactic and expected, as does the song’s central metaphor. All in all, it’s a decent song, but certainly not a standout track.
6. “Nothing New” feat. Phoebe Bridgers
This might be a controversial take, but I’m ready to substantiate it. I was as excited for this track as many others, as I love both Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers. I would note that without a doubt this was the best song to put Phoebe Bridgers on. It captures her energy perfectly — so much so that I almost imagine that she co-wrote the song. The lyrics and backtracking give the song a simple sadness, making it captivating and raw. At the same time, this quality makes the song verge on overdramatic, particularly on Bridgers’ verse. My biggest complaint, however, is that I wish there were more moments of the two stars singing together. The best moment of the song for me are the harmonies in the backing after the bridge, which feature Bridgers and Swift together. I couldn’t help but wish these harmonies came earlier, perhaps in the second verse, to complicate the empty-sounding track. Overall, “Nothing New” is a solid song and I’ll continue to listen to it, but with two of my favorite artists, I simply had higher expectations that weren’t fully met.
5. “I Bet You Think About Me” feat. Chris Stapleton
Here’s the part of the review where I start gushing. The remainder of these songs are my favorite From The Vault. The sass and confidence in “I Bet You Think About Me” is unparalleled and a refreshing change of pace from a self-effacing heartbreak song. The production is very classical country sounding — like a remnant of her earlier sound, or perhaps like that medley of pop and country which Red so artfully encapsulates, an era between eras. Taylor Swift’s blend with Chris Stapleton is also extremely beautiful, especially the harmonies in the bridge. The twang of his voice compliments hers gorgeously and seems to bring out a more country sound in her voice. In spite of its defiant tone, it also gives listeners a peak into the dark side of the speaker’s relationship with her ex. The lyrics “You laughed at my dreams, rolled your eyes at my jokes” are particularly poignant, showing just how unsupportive her ex was (and proving that Jake Gyllenhal is just truly…the worst!).
My one complaint about this track would be that Taylor Swift loves to pretend she grew up poor. This figures prominently into the second verse of the song: “I was raised on a farm, no it wasn’t a mansion / Just livin’ room dancin’ and kitchen table bills.” When Swift was growing up, her father was a successful financial advisor and marketing executive with the ability to relocate his business to Nashville to help Swift pursue her passion for country music. Not exactly kitchen table bills territory. At the same time, I can’t help but cheer her on when she indicts Jake Gyllenhal for his “organic shoes and…million-dollar couch!”
4. “Run” feat. Ed Sheeran
My childhood best friend called this song Swift’s “obligatory Ed Sheeran feature” in her new releases. While this may be true — and while I am instantly regretful of the fact that I’m going to say something positive about an Ed Sheeran song on the main — I love this song. This is the first song Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran wrote together, having penned the tune in 2012. Rather than offering the little glimpses of harmony typical in contemporary pop music, this song really dwells in a space of harmony that makes the little musician in me happy. It’s also thematically appropriate; in a song about running away with someone, the harmony allows for a sense of comradeship and togetherness which supports the song’s message. The all-encompassing harmony in the song also brings out the rare moments without harmony, giving the song added dimension and richness. There’s an energy of nostalgia to this song and the feeling it evokes that makes it all around a pleasant listen. It doesn’t have the bravado to be in the Top 3, but it’s a great addition to Red.
The song begins with such confidence and oomph, with tight harmonies almost reminiscent of a boy band. The song builds with this same confidence. There’s no moral quandary about whether or not this person will be forgiven — there’s no second chances, and this lack of forgiveness is declared firmly: “This is the last time, I’ll ever call you babe.” The irony of this line is that it is the refrain of the chorus, meaning that Swift repeats “this is the last time” multiple times. This choice seems to play on a sense of push and pull — like there have been moments of hope for this beloved’s redemption prior to this song, but now all of that is over with. This switch to definiteness is stated cleverly, when in the last line the refrain of the chorus becomes, “This is the last time, I’ll never call you babe.” The harmonies on the last line of the song are particularly satisfying. This song is a powerful moment of Swift setting boundaries and standing up for herself (and perhaps, learning how to do this for the first time in a relationship), offering a welcome roundness to the album. “Babe” shows us that Red isn’t just about the sadness of heartbreak, but about realizing that you are worth more than how you’ve been treated in the past and claiming this worth, even if it entails cutting people off in the process.
2. “Better Man”
An unseasoned Taylor Swift listener might be shocked at just how much she was able to make “Better Man” her own. There’s a good reason for this: this song is actually her own! Swift gave “Better Man” to Little Big Town, who recorded their version of the song in 2017 (and won a Grammy for it!). It makes a bit of sense why this was one of the songs Swift chose to give up; the lyrics are slightly on the simple and generic side. This allows someone else to sing the song and do it justice, but doesn’t take away from the song’s meaning. In its generalizability — how anyone who has experienced heartbreak can both hear it and see themselves in it and sing it convincingly — it’s able to be even more heart-wrenching, carrying the weight of many a heartbreak in one three-minute song.
While “Better Man” finds an excellent home with Little Big Town’s standard four-part harmony, Swift’s rendition of “Better Man” is just as captivating, if not more so. The background composition of Swift’s version begins in a more wistful space than the Little Big Town version, with a soft banjo introduction and gentle vocals and guitar strumming in the first verse. The quiet vulnerability in the first verse gives Swift the space to grow into the first chorus, coming back stronger in the second verse. Swift builds the song masterfully, allowing its big moments to soar, twinged with even more anger and defiance than the Little Big Town version is able to reach. The strings and harmonies in the bridge create a beautiful crescendo, and the sense of longing in the lyrics “I wish you were a better man” reverberates with extra ache. The singing in a round- effect of the final chorus ends the song with certainty and power that is made all the more impactful by the longing which precedes it.
1. “The Very First Night”
A plucky pop song complete with a Red-inspired country production, “The Very First Night” is bright, youthful, and invigorating. Expressing a longing to return to a time before a relationship ended, or was ruined, the song is surprisingly upbeat and hopeful. It reflects a childlike revelry in love that is poignant and cheerful, unburdened by the world around the speaker and their beloved. The song beautifully but simply describes the personal experience of love that simply can’t be translated to someone outside a relationship, with catchy musicality, effective songwriting, and energetic back tracking.
And yes, we all know that Taylor Swift knows how to rhyme. That “Didn’t read the note on the Polaroid picture / They don’t know how much I miss her” is clearly the way the rhyme scheme is supposed to end. We all know the song’s current lyrics, “how much I miss you,” do not rhyme with the line that comes before it and that “how much I miss ya” would be a more rhyme scheme-appropriate gender neutral version. Why does Taylor Swift live to torture us in her closet made of glass? Anyway. Moving on, it’s also refreshing how this song configures Swift as the pursuer and hero of the story (who picks up their beloved, flying like a superhero, and brings them back in time) in a fun moment of subverting (perhaps even queering) gendered expectations.
Image Source: NME