7 years ago today, Taylor Swift’s best album—RED—was released. RED is a masterpiece, and it seems like critics are only realizing that now; on the recent best-songs-of-the-century listicles that have cropped up, RED has certainly been having a moment. In particular, “All Too Well” is finally getting the recognition it deserves (#57 on Pitchfork, #29 on Rolling Stones). I believe the reputation stadium tour had something to do with this glow-up, too; the song’s acoustic performances truly shed light on its exemplary songwriting and emotional magnitude. And as autumn turns leaves burning red all around us, RED is the perfect seasonal album to listen to on repeat.
When RED first came out, I didn’t give it enough love. But in recent years, the album has grown to become one of my favorites. So, on the 7-year anniversary of RED, I’d like to write this track-by-track appreciation post for the album—and suggest some new ways to think about/listen to the songs today, especially in light of Lover.
Here we go!
State of Grace – A lyrical masterpiece and pop/rock/country hybrid, “State of Grace” is the perfect opening track. I personally think it’s her best opening track ever (maybe tied with “Fearless”). Listening to the song post-Lover, certain words jump out at me more: traffic lights, blue, golden. Notice how these are all color-related terms? On an album titled after a color, this opening track also asks us to think about “shades of wrong,” a “mosaic [of] broken hearts.” The affinities between RED and Lover are strong and certainly intentional, given how Taylor has also been performing songs from RED in recent live performances (“All Too Well” on NPR, “Holy Ground” on BBC Live Lounge, and she totally name-dropped “Treacherous” on Jimmy Fallon).
* Listen to the acoustic version of this song!
Red – Who doesn’t love a good TITLE TRACK? On “Red,” we go to simile/metaphor land and it’s amazing. “Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street…” It’s amazing how the color red permeates the first verse without even appearing in it. Taylor saves the word “red” for the last line of the chorus, where it counts: “Loving him was red.” The song is beautifully synesthetic, in that all the emotions Taylor describes in words (eloquent as the are) are eventually best described through splashes of color. The pop/country crossover feeling on this song is also especially strong.
* In this song, “losing him was blue” and love is “burning red.” On Lover, however, Taylor often associates blue with love instead (in Paper Rings). Also, she directly references “Red” in “Daylight:” “I once believed love would be (burning red) / But it’s golden / Like daylight.” Talk about a glow-up!!
Treacherous – I think of “Treacherous” as the spiritual predecessor to “I Did Something Bad” from reputation, and the fact that both songs are Track 3 might confirm this theory…it’s the first ballad on the album, and its lyrics are haunting: “all we are is skin and bone / trained to get along.” Wow.
*The secret message in this song (hidden in the lyric booklet) alludes to The Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition.” Perhaps listen to both songs side by side and see what you find?
I Knew You Were Trouble – This is Taylor’s first song with a bass drop, and that fact in and of itself already makes the song pretty legendary. IKYWT was a major milestone for Taylor, both in terms of genre cross-pollination and audience reach. Taylor x Dubstep is a combination that not many realized they needed…until this song dropped. The music video very much leans into this feeling, too. When Taylor debuted pink hair in the Lover area, many also immediately thought of her pink hair in the video. IKYWT is one of a kind in Taylor’s early discography. This is not to say, however, that nothing else on the album sounds like IKYWT; the “me-e-e-e-e” rhythm in the song echoes the “re-e-e-e-d” vocal patterning in Track 2.
*You’ve heard the “goat” remix of this song, but have you seen Tom Holland’s take??
All Too Well – where do I begin with this song, Taylor’s chef d’oeuvre? The longest song in Taylor’s discography (it would have been longer if she hadn’t cut the 10-min version), “All Too Well” is treasured, beloved, worshipped among Swifties. Lately, I can’t stop listening to it on repeat when I’m running. The song boasts Taylor’s best musical arc, arguably best lyrics, and most moving narrative. It all starts with a scarf that is introduced in the first verse and returns at the end: “you keep my old scarf / from that very first week.” Like a scarf, the song is composed of similar patterns and loops in a way that makes the song stronger with each iteration. Taylor wrote the song to get over a bad, bad breakup, the way you’d reach for a scarf to warm you. There are lyrics in this song that are among my all-time favorite lines, one of them being: “we’re dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light.” I mean, WOW. Also: “autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place / And I can picture it after all these days.” The parallel between pieces and picture?? Also, the way “red” appears in this song is sublime; “you almost ran the red ’cause you were looking over at me,” “your cheeks were turning red.” Also, the bridge in this song is just unbelievable. “Maybe we got lost in translation / Maybe I asked for too much / But maybe this thing was a masterpiece / ‘Til you tore it all up.” Well, one thing is clear. “All Too Well” is a masterpiece, and no one is tearing it up!!
22 – Earlier this year, I wrote a longer essay about turning 22 vis à vis this song. “15” and “22” are the two age-songs in Taylor’s oeuvre, so “22” has always held a special place in my heart. It’s one of the poppiest songs on the album and, like IKYWT, has a “viral” charm. “I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling twenty two-oo” is a line that sticks both melodically and lyrically. You can count on the song being blasted at 22-year-old birthday parties. It’s also one of the songs on this album that is deliberately self-deprecatory; in one of the verses, you hear a voice in the background going, “Who’s Taylor Swift, anyway? Ew.” Taylor’s knack for poking fun at herself will reemerge two songs later, and is also the kind of energy that made “Shake it Off” from her next album one of her biggest hits ever. “22” is a song that embraces the ups and downs—”We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time”—and is thus a timeless hit, whether you are 22 or not.
*Did you know? The girls in the “22” music video are Taylor’s real-life best friends.
I Almost Do – An underrated song on the album, “I Almost Do” is about the difficulty of getting over someone, the instinctual reaching for the phone. Sandwiched between two songs that sound pretty defiant, “I Almost Do” is one of the most vulnerable, honest songs on RED.
*I think of “I Almost Do,” Treacherous,” and “The Moment I Knew” as being part of the same trio.
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together – More commonly referred to as “WANEGBT” in the Swiftie fandom, this song was the first single to be released—and, in some ways, also the “odd one out” in the album. WANEGBT doesn’t really sound like anything else on the album; a single-release strategy that Taylor is known for (see: the release of “ME!” as her debut for the Lover era). But “WANEGBT” is a powerful blast of pop, which does foreground the pop influence in this album. “You would hide away and find your peace of mind / with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine,” she sings to her ex in this song, as if noting the genre characterization of her album. The shake-it-off energy in this song also carries much powerful-woman energy, which Taylor completely exuded in the RED era—from her outfits to her red lipstick to her skyrocketing fame.
* “WANEGBT” is a power move. Listen to it alongside “The Man” for some perspective!
Stay Stay Stay – Here’s the cutest song on the album, and for some people, it’s a little too cute—but I love the quick lyrics and iteration in the song. It’s a perfect ukulele jam. Taylor didn’t write this song about a relationship she was in, but about relationships she observed—the kind of love she hoped to find, the kind of love she sings about in “Lover.” My favorite line is probably, “you came in wearing a football helmet and said ‘okay, let’s talk.'”
*If you liked this song, you’ll also like “Paper Rings,” and vice versa!
The Last Time (ft. Gary Lightbody) – Without a doubt, this is Taylor’s most heartbreaking ballad, and one of the most emotional songs on this album. I find the harmonies in this track amazing, and something about Gary’s voice lends this song an indie quality. I particularly like how the word “me” quavers leading up to the chorus.
*If you haven’t seen this song performed live yet, head over here!
Holy Ground – Another lyrical showstopper, “Holy Ground” has some of the best lines on the album: “back when you fit in my poems like a perfect rhyme,” “spinning like a girl in a brand new dress”… the drumbeat that propels this song makes it soar. It’s a song that forgoes regret and instead thinks of the territory of a past relationship as being holy. A number of Tay’s songs draw upon religious imagery, and I love how we get it in subtle ways in this album, with “State of Grace” and this track.
*Listen to Taylor’s 2019 update of the song here, as performed on BBC Live Lounge.
Sad Beautiful Tragic – Another slow ballad on the album, this song is a trio-of-adjectives and feels like the melancholy parallel of “22.” Instead of the bop that is “happy/free/confused/lonely,” we’re in the nostalgic realm of sad/beautiful/tragic. The heartbreak in the following line is palpable: “time is taking its sweet time erasing you.” The ukulele/riff in this song really shapes its entire emotional arc.
*Try listening to this song with earphones in, paying attention only to the riff. I promise it will hit different.
The Lucky One – In this song, Taylor gets incredibly candid about fortune and fame. What’s it like to be so luckily loved by so many fans, and yet have a “lover in the foyer” who “doesn’t even know you”? It’s a song that gets real: ” you don’t feel pretty, you just feel used / And all the young things line up to take your place.” And yet, it’s also a song that recognizes the double sides of being “lucky;” it’s both lucky to have your name up in lights, and also lucky to be someone who can get out unscathed, dignity intact. Thinking about the way Taylor values her privacy now, I think she’s figuring it out what it means to be truly “the lucky one.”
*The word “lover,” apart from appearing in “Lover,” also appears in this song!
Everything Has Changed (ft. Ed Sheeran) – The collaboration that gave rise to the Ed/Taylor friendship, this song is one of my favorite duets that Taylor has ever done. It’s lovely and sweeping, and the chorus is triumphant. The collab also feels totally natural; it makes complete sense that two of our generation’s best songwriters would put their guitar-plucking skills together to make something happen. It’s also a triumph to go from a song like “Sad Beautiful Tragic” to “Everything Has Changed,” a narrative about the tables turning. Fall is a time of change and this song highlights the particularly beautiful, falling-headfirst kind.
*If you’re already familiar with this song, you’ll certainly want to visit its original lyrics, which are more wordy but also delightfully detailed.
Starlight – Taylor wrote this song about Ethel Kennedy (and she liked it), which I think is pretty cool. It’s another track on the record that feels distinctly poppy and sparkly, which befits its title. I love songs that Taylor writes based on other people’s stories; she does something similar in Lover with “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” but in “Starlight” you get the most exquisite details.
*Listen to her cover of “Untouchable,” another starry song.
Begin Again – What a perfect way to close the album; by suggesting a return to form, a renewal of love. Taylor’s most narratively-cohesive songs master the “loop” structure: see “All Too Well,” “Tim McGraw,” Our Song,” Love Story,” etc. They end the way they begin. The idea of new beginnings seems to always come at the end of a Taylor album—the final tracks, such as “New Year’s Day” and “Daylight,” all suggest revival. Perhaps the prettiest and most delicate song on the album, “Begin Again” is what autumn feels like: crisp air, a new start, revisited memories.
*Fun fact: Katy Perry loves this song and added it to her playlist recently. In the year 2019, Katy and Taylor are friends again.
The three tracks on the Deluxe version of RED are “The Moment I Knew,” “Come Back…Be Here,” and “Girl At Home.” Each of them could have belonged naturally on the album, and in many ways, all of them have become canonical (I particularly like “Come Back…Be Here”).
But that’s all I’ll say for now. Happy listening to RED. ❤️