August 20, Red (Deluxe Edition) by Taylor Swift
Genre: A hodgepodge of different sorts of pop. Not quite as synth-focused as Taylor’s more recent pop, but certainly not a country album either save for 2 or 3 tracks.
Total Number of Tracks: 21. This consists of the 16 songs from the standard edition, 3 bonus songs, and 3 bonus versions of standard edition songs.
Songs you might know:
– “I Knew You Were Trouble.”
– “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
– “Everything Has Changed” (ft. Ed Sheeran)
– “Begin Again”
My prior relationship with the album and artist: If you remember the year 2013 correctly, you know it wasn’t exactly easy to escape “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” or “22.” I was not exactly a fan of any of these songs, and I also found it incredibly obnoxious that Red was still marketed as a country album despite these three singles that were obviously pop songs, plain and simple.
Eventually I got into the habit of putting on Taylor Swift music and listening to every album in its entirety back-to-back, usually when I had writing to do and I wouldn’t let myself turn off the music until I met my goal. It was through this that I realized I had a soft spot for Red. Usually when I got to the album’s opening track, “State of Grace,” I would breathe a sigh of relief as I was pretty much done listening to the cliche pop country songs of Taylor’s first three albums. This is the first album where Taylor/her label really gave her permission to experiment, and the result is one of her most interesting albums, even if not sonically cohesive.
The more and more I’ve listened to it, the more I’ve grown to appreciate Red. The ratio of songs I really like to songs I really hate is actually quite good. I learned I especially loved “All Too Well” and “The Last Time” (ft. Gary Lightbody), both of which I’ve made friends listen to and made a case for “see, Taylor can be good when she wants to be.” This is the first time I had bothered to listen to the bonus tracks though. With 16 songs on the standard version, I’d always kinda assumed the album just ended there.
My impression this time around: The more I think about it, the more I wish Taylor would make more music like the music of Red. This is the only album she’s ever made where she really leaned into her country sensibility as she felt like it, but also leaned into her pop sensibility as she felt like it. This is the album where she demonstrates that she can thrive in the middle ground between the true country sound of “Our Song” and the heavy synths of “Blank Space.” Songs like “State of Grace,” “The Last Time,” and “Holy Ground” all incorporate tons of live instrumentation but yet none of them are country songs. The result is this country/rock/pop hybrid that transcends genre and actually stands out from what other artists are making.
The fact that Taylor limited the number of true country songs on this record seems to be a positive too, as the ones that ARE here are some of the best she’s ever done. The title song “Red” is among my favorites of all her country work, with a catchy hook and an interesting lyrical concept that come together for a track that’s somehow exuberant and melancholy at the same time. “I Almost Do” is a sad country ballad that I feel like anyone can relate to, and it’s one of Taylor’s most underrated tracks. “Begin Again” is definitely one I’d heard in passing before, but had shrugged off before this listen. It’s actually an incredibly well-written song that balances reflecting on a past relationship with optimism for a new one in such a beautiful way. I feel bad for not giving it the credit it deserved in the past.
I can’t help but think that if Taylor or Scott Borchetta had forced this to be a 100% country album, these fantastic songs would’ve just gotten lost in the mix like they do on Fearless. Instead, the album’s variety makes it easier to appreciate what makes each song special. Each new track is something completely unlike what came immediately before it, and while some have criticized Red for its lack of a cohesive sound, I think it’s one of the album’s strengths. It seems clear to me that Taylor wasn’t trying to make these songs sound the same, and any cohesion lies in common lyrical themes more so than production choices. The way the album skips between so many different moods helps each song to shine on its own. I get to really feel how sad “All Too Well” is when it’s sandwiched between “I Knew You Were Trouble.” and “22.” I get to understand how desperate “The Last Time” is when it’s sandwiched between the bubbly optimism of “Stay Stay Stay” and the content retrospective of “Holy Ground.”
I’ve also noticed how a lot of the songs that I don’t really think of as the BEST of the album still get to me. “Treacherous” and “The Lucky One” kind of fall into the forgettable filler category in that they’re not on the same level as my favorites. They will never be the first songs I start hyping up when I’m arguing how strong Red is as an album. But yet when they come on I still have a feeling of “Wow. This is actually a really well-written song.” Other tracks like “Starlight” and “Sad. Beautiful. Tragic.” I probably wouldn’t miss much if they were omitted, but they’re still enjoyable enough while they’re playing. I think this is made possible by the fact that even the songs that aren’t the BEST of the album are still distinct from the rest of the album. There’s no case of “well sure, Song A is fine, but Song B is better and sounds essentially the same, so why is Song A here?”
I also learned on this listen that I actually really LOVE some of the deluxe exclusives I had not heard before. I guess because the standard edition was already 16 songs long, I had just assumed that there wasn’t a deluxe version (silly me!) “The Moment I Knew” and “Come Back… Be Here” are some of the strongest songs on the album, and they’re perfect examples of that live-sounding pop I wish Swift was still making. I was playing them on repeat after discovering them, and it’s rare that I have a real love-at-first-listen experience with Swift’s work. These make the deluxe version worth your time, even if the new-versions-of-old-songs on the deluxe version feel like a cash grab and don’t really offer much that the original versions didn’t.
Out of the 19 songs on the deluxe version, there’s only two that that truly irritate me. Those would be “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Stay Stay Stay.” The first irritates me just because I don’t think the songwriting is up to Swift’s usual standard. I know Swift is capable of coming up with more creative ways to say “we are never getting back together” but she chooses not to. “Stay Stay Stay” is possibly the only song on here that actually feels disruptive to me. For one thing, I hate the idea of idealizing a romantic partner who thinks it’s funny when their partner is mad, or wears a football helmet to an argument. People who minimize or laugh at their partner’s emotions are NOT relationship material, they’re assholes. For another thing, this track strikes me as incredibly fake. So many of the other songs on Red come from a place of deep, raw emotion and true vulnerability and that makes the childish fantasy of “Stay Stay Stay” stick out like a sore thumb. This is the song that infringes on the “cohesion” of Red moreso than any other in my mind because it’s the only one that comes from this false, hollow illusion of love rather than hard-hitting, emotional reality.
Who would enjoy it? This is a great one for people who want heartfelt, vulnerable lyrics and don’t mind a variety of production choices co-mingling. While it would be easy for people to be put off by “I Knew You Were Trouble” or “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” just as I was years ago, I ensure you that the bulk of the album doesn’t sound like this. That being said, both country purists and country haters will find tracks on here that they don’t like, and so it’s probably a better choice for people who don’t really care what music sounds like as long as the emotion feels authentic.
My other Taylor Swift Reviews: