So Casually Cruel in the Name of Being Honest: A Closer Look at ‘Red (Taylor’s Version)’

Red Double

When Taylor Swift launched her unprecedented catalog re-record project this past spring with Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the three resident Swifties on the staff – Craig Manning, Anna Acosta, and Garrett Lemons – dove deep to dissect the plethora of revisited songs, b-sides, and vault tracks. Seven months later, Taylor is back with part two of her backward-looking series, which means we’re back too! And while we all love Fearless, the second album Taylor has deigned to revisit – her fourth LP, 2012’s Red – holds a significantly more special place in all our hearts. At the end of 2019, when we submitted ballots for the end-of-decade staff list, all three of us shared a number-one pick: Red.

So, the question becomes: Can Taylor recapture the magic of Red for three people who love it beyond all reason? We spent some (read: a lot) of time with Red (Taylor’s Version) to find the answer.

Outset opinion: Before you hit play on Red (Taylor’s Version), where does Red stand in Taylor’s legacy for you?

Craig: Look, Red is my favorite album since at least 2010. It’s maybe the album I revisit most often, period – especially in the fall when it just feels like a warm blanket. I get vehemently angry when people have the gall to suggest that this album has filler material (or even, god forbid, “bad” songs). And I will probably gush about it at great length a year from now when the time comes to give it the decade retrospective treatment. So, to avoid writing TOO MUCH about this album, I’ll just share what I wrote about it on my end-of-decade list, to explain why it means the world to me.

“I never saw you coming, and I’ll never be the same.” On “State of Grace,” the first song from Red, Taylor Swift sings those words, and she’s right. This album was a pivot point for Swift, a shift away from the country-leaning pop of its predecessors to a kaleidoscope of new genres and sounds. There were still elements of country, tying everything together. But Swift was throwing everything at the canvas, and she was doing it with more confidence than we’d ever heard from her before. U2-esque arena rock? Give it a try. The lo-fi bedroom folk musings of Mazzy Star? Why not? Dubstep? Maybe inadvisable, but sure! It was fitting that the album was so scattershot sonically, because it was also all over the place emotionally. Elation; romance; infatuation; love; euphoria; dissatisfaction; yearning; loneliness; despair; heartbreak; heartache; sadness; recovery. No record from this decade better captured the full spectrum of emotions that comes with falling in and out of love. In the liner notes, Taylor wrote that this record “is about love that was red”—or love that was reckless and treacherous and desperate and thrilling and temporary. “There is something to be said for being young and needing someone so badly you jump in without looking,” she wrote. That’s the “never saw you coming” part. The “never be the same” part is there in the songs. It’s how an ill-fated romance leaves you with scars and memories that are as vivid as the pictures in any photo album. It’s how your past love stories teach you new things about yourself, hopefully giving you the tools you need to make the next one last. It’s how your feelings for another person can change over time, sometimes deepening and sometimes fading away.

“Sad, Beautiful, Tragic” is a song about a long-distance relationship that has worn its participants down to such a degree that the acoustic guitar actually sounds out of tune. “We both wake in lonely beds, in different cities,” Taylor sings, and they are lines that convey so beautifully the emotional distance that physical distance can breed.That’s the thing about Red: we talk about Taylor Swift as a superstar and purveyor of pop hits, but we don’t give her enough credit as a sheer craftswoman, as a master of words and mood and story. This album is her pinnacle in all those departments, exploding so many moments from the relationships we’ve all lived—moments good and bad—that it’s impossible to listen to it and not reflect. There is so much vivid life in these songs, from dances around the kitchen in the refrigerator light to crashed yacht club parties, from break ups that feel like they are going to strangle you all the way to nervous coffee shop meetups with new crushes.

This album came out a month before I turned 22, in the middle of my last year of college, and during year three of a long-distance relationship with the girl I would marry. There is no album that recalls college as vividly for me, and I think that’s because there’s no album I listened to more. I’d put it on all the time—for drives to visit my girlfriend, or long homework sessions, or moments of celebratory jubilation with friends. Because no matter what I was doing or how I was feeling, there was always at least one song that fit the moment. There’s no other record from this decade that I can say that about, which maybe explains why no other record has stuck with me in quite the same way.If you’d have asked me at the beginning of 2010 who I thought would make my album of the decade, I wouldn’t have bet on Taylor Swift. I didn’t even put Red in my top five at the end of 2012, for reasons that I can neither recall nor justify now. But when I look back on these 10 years, Red is the album that most sounds like how it felt to live them. I guess you could say that I never saw it coming. You could certainly say that I’ll never be the same.

Anna: For years, I’ve maintained to anyone that would listen that Taylor Swift always releases the album I’m going to need right before I’m going to need it. She is one year ahead of me in age, and apparently (despite our many differences) one year ahead of me in pivotal and painful life developments…as far as relationships go, at least. If I am being honest, that trend started with Red.

That’s why (up until her release of folklore halfway through 2020, at least) my response to the question “What is her best album?” was unequivocally Red, without hesitation, qualifier or preamble. An at-times meandering odyssey of an album, Red as a body of songs is perhaps best described by the now-iconic line from “22” – you know the one. From the driving drums of “State of Grace” to the heart-wrenching lows of “All Too Well”, Red runs the gamut of young emotions in a raw and almost unpolished way that didn’t resonate with critics the way her earlier, less demanding works did.

Perhaps that’s why for many years, Swift seemed to distance herself from what many fans consider her best work, diving headfirst into the more polished pop sound of 1989. Critics of Red largely suggested that the album lacked consistency from track to track, and that it could have benefitted from some pruning or reordering. And I can see their point, now as then. But to me, and to a lot of other fans of this masterpiece, the appeal – the genius of Red – is in its raw, less-than-perfectly-polished, would-be flaws. Because…well, that’s how existing feels, especially in your 20s. 

It’s hard to know what to say about Red, or to know how to adequately state how much this album meant – means – both to the young person I was then, and to the 30-year-old I am now. On the morning of my 22nd birthday, I was flooded with texts from friends that all started with “I don’t know about you…”. I can say that about a year after its release, I was listening to “The Moment I Knew” when I realized it was time to leave the abusive relationship that had taken over my life for the better part of three years. I can say that “Come Back, Be Here” held me earlier that fall, before I’d found the strength to know it was time to go. I can say that the first time I ever played an acoustic show by myself, “Sad Beautiful Tragic” made the set list. And I can say that “Begin Again” played on the car ride home after my first date with the person I would one day marry.

Perhaps Red means so much precisely for that reason: it was happy, free, confused, and lonely in the best way. Just like me. Just like all of us.

Garrett: Depending on the day. I may (barely) rank Reputation higher on my personal favorites list for personal reasons. And I can acknowledge that folklore and evermore are probably “better” records. And I even understand the cohesion arguments for 1989. But there hasn’t been an album that more perfectly encapsulates who Taylor Swift is than the original Red, in all its scattershot glory. It was my choice for album of the decade for the 2010s, and nothing else was even close in my decision-making process.

Some of the songs on Red are timeless, and some are rooted in an extremely specific time and place. We have Taylor at her darkest, her bubbliest, her saddest, and even sometimes in pure jubilance. This is a lifetime’s worth of work in the lyrical hands of a 22-year-old who literally would go on to change the musical landscape of a decade. In 2012, Taylor was someone I heard on the radio. In 2021, because of Red, she’s charted the journey of the hardest decade of my life.

When I hear these songs, I remember train rides in Italy sharing headphones as the landscape sped past in the windows. I vividly taste garlic when “Stay Stay Stay” plays almost a decade later, as Red was the soundtrack of hours of cooking in that kitchen at the base of the Alps surrounded by vineyards. In these songs I can still feel being in love, with a person and a place and a time, and the heartbreak of not being permanently with any of those three things. The songs still mean the world to me. I remember it all too well, as she says. I always will.

Most improved: Which song benefits most from a re-recording?

Craig: I have probably listened to Red somewhere between 200 and 300 times in the past nine years. These songs are all burned so powerfully into my mind and my heart and my memory that it was always highly unlikely that I was going to hear a new version of any of them and say “Wow, she really improved that.” Improving upon perfection is hard work.

That said, if there’s one song that I felt really benefitted from the nine years that have passed since Red came into our lives, it’s “The Lucky One.” Taylor was always so good in this era at writing songs that were very “age appropriate.” Part of the reason she became such a universally beloved pop phenomenon, I think, was (and is) her knack for writing songs that capture what it’s like to be 15, or 20, or 22, or 30. If you are a similar age to Taylor – which all three of us are – it’s hard to listen to her songs and not hear a lot of your life experiences reflected back at you.

“The Lucky One” always struck me as the rare Taylor Swift song where it felt like she was writing something that was “too old” for her. That’s not to say she hadn’t already lived a lot of life by the time she was 21-22, but it definitely felt early in her career for her to be fantasizing about pulling a Joni Mitchell and leaving the industry behind. Nine years, a lot of heartbreak, and a metric ton of music industry bullshit later, I feel like there is so much more weight and experience behind the words of that song. It’s a pleasant surprise, given that “The Lucky One” – while a song I like – has always been a bottom-three track on Red for me.

Elsewhere, I’d say the orchestral pomp of “The Last Time” comes across a lot more convincingly in this version; and “Begin Again,” while not necessarily “better” than the already-superb original version, strikes a new emotional chord now that Taylor has seemingly found her happily-ever-after. If that perfect song ever had an imperfection, it was that the romance that inspired it ended up being short-lived. It’s such a hopeful song – like daylight breaking through the clouds at the end of a tumultuous storm – but it was tinged with melancholy by what happened next in Taylor’s story. Imagining it now as a song for Joe and not Conor Kennedy, it wins the hope back.

Anna: I’ll just say it: Taylor’s vocals are so much stronger in 2021 than they were in 2012 that it’s a little mind-boggling. From that perspective, I would say most of these songs improved markedly. 

But otherwise, my answer has to be “Girl at Home.” It’s the only non-10-minute track from the original record that sees a rather significant sonic departure here. According to the involuntarily little shoulder bop the new version makes me do, at least, that change is absolutely for the better. 

I’m not sure why she went so rogue on this particular track, but I’m here for it. (Side note: Taylor, if you ever feel the urge to do something similar to “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” in the vein of the 1989 Tour… you should consider embracing that urge. Just throwing that out there.)

Garrett: It’s hard to deny the absolute force of the first three songs of this version. “State of Grace,” “Red,” and “Treacherous” are still the songs I’ve loved, but somehow, they’re fuller and amplify themselves to new heights here. They’ve always stood at the top of her catalog as career bests, and this only further emphasizes their sheer quality. Even though I’ve always liked it, “I Knew You Were Trouble” manages to feel a lot less dated, but remains a sonic outlier even with some of the poppier vault tracks for context.

Outside of those starting four, it becomes a little more up and down. “I Almost Do” and “Begin Again” are passable, but man, I am very attached to those originals.

I guess here is the best place to mention it, but “Girl at Home” got an Elvira-glow up here. I never disliked it before, but it was easily the weakest link of the album (and remains bottom two for me in light of the whole vault now). It was a delightful surprise when this new version started. I even immediately messaged Craig to be like “I need your reaction to this,” and it makes me wonder if we’ll see more updates like this going forward.

I liked it better the first time: Which song couldn’t be improved, or actually got worse?

Craig: One of the fascinating things I’m learning from this project is that there are all these tiny, seemingly unimportant facets to songs that you love but never really think about until someone doesn’t quite nail them on a re-record. Red is an album that kept me company for a lot of long drives back in college, when I was going back and forth from visiting my girlfriend, so I think I have more attachment to all its little nuances than for most albums I could think of.

And so, listening to Red (Taylor’s Version), I can’t help but nitpick all the tiny little moments of magic that get a little bit lost in translation. On “State of Grace,” for example, the production and mixing feels a bit “louder” across the board, which means that crescendo of drum fills that brings the song back up to full force after the bridge doesn’t have quite the thunderous force it has on the original recording. “Sad Beautiful Tragic” (my pick for most underrated Taylor Swift song, ever) loses some of the woozy, off-kilter magic that the 2012 version had, which in turn dents its impact as a song about the exhaustion of long-distance relationships. And “Everything Has Changed” sounds so closely miked that it loses some of the relaxed bedroom pop-folk charm of the original.

Also, let’s be honest: There are definitely songs on Red that could never, ever be improved, and at the top of that list is “All Too Well.” We’ll get to the 10-minute version in good time, but the crisp autumnal glow of the original recording is so absolutely flawless that I debated with myself whether I should even bother listening to the non-10-minute “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version).” I did listen; it is not better; it could never be better. And there’s no shame in that! You wouldn’t ask Leonardo da Vinci to repaint the fucking Mona Lisa, would you?

Anna: Interestingly enough, I would say that the “new” versions that lose my interest the fastest are the songs that skew more cheerful (perhaps quirky is the better word?) than the ballads. While I don’t share the opinion that they were destroyed by the absence of Max Martin, there is a certain energy that isn’t quite there in tracks like “I Knew You Were Trouble” or “22”. 

That said, I genuinely don’t mind the new versions and am downright confused by some of the more dramatized negative takes on that front. Then again, music is nothing if not subjective, so I’ll just wrap this up by saying to each their own, and if I’m picking my least favorites that bank of songs would have to be the answer.

Garrett: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “22” are two songs that can’t be sung by a 31-year-old with any sort of the same faux-gravitas and earnest belief that we get from the original versions. “Stay Stay Stay” doesn’t lose as much, but it’s hampered by the same loss of youth (which is fine!) she now sings with. “The Last Time” has long been underrated and over-hated in the Red discourse, and this re-record will do it absolutely no favors in that regard. 

I also think that “The Moment I Knew” and “Come Back… Be Here” took a step back in comparison to their original forms. In both cases, neither should’ve been bonus tracks as they’re easily in the top third of the album’s immense offerings.

Best new song: Which of the “vault” tracks is your favorite? And should this song be on the album? In place of what?

Craig: An extremely difficult question, gthis time. With Fearless (Taylor’s Version), I thought there was one terrific b-side that everyone already knew (“Today Was a Fairytale”) and three great vault tracks (“Mr. Perfectly Fine,” “You All Over Me,” and “That’s When”). Here, with the exception of “Girl at Home” (which, unpopular take, is much worse in this clunky, synthy reimagining than it ever was in its initial format), I think every b-side and vault track is aces.

“Message in a Bottle” is so blissfully catchy that I can’t believe she never put it on an album (or gave it to another artist). “Babe” is so blissfully catchy that I can’t believe she did give it to another artist. “Forever Winter” is an aching song about (I think?) being in love with someone who has depression struggles, and it fits the cold-weather vibe of this record perfectly. “Nothing New” and “I Bet You Think about Me” both could have been on evermore (and both feature top-tier guess features, from Phoebe Bridgers and Chris Stapleton, respectively). “Run” builds a ton of beauty around one killer line (“Run, like you’d run from the law”). And “The Very First Night” packs in an equally splendid Taylor lyric (“We broke the status quo/Then we broke each other’s hearts”).

The best ones, though, are songs we’d already heard in some variety. The first is “Ronan,” which is a song I’d never spent much time with, for one reason or another. It’s a shame that song never got to be on an album, because it’s absolutely one of the most emotionally gripping things Taylor ever wrote. But it’s also an extraordinarily wrenching thing to listen to, and for as much heartbreak as there is on Red, I don’t think that kind of heartbreak would have ever fit on this particular album.

It’s a different story with “Better Man,” a song so good that it won Taylor her only CMA Award for Song of the Year…when she gave it away to Little Big Town five years after Red. I can’t see any good argument for it not making the album, unless it just wasn’t finished yet. It fits thematically, has one of the best choruses Taylor ever wrote, and surely had “country hit” written all over it long before it ever saw the light of day. What song it replaces in the original tracklist is the tougher question, since my two personal least favorites on the album (“Stay Stay Stay” and “I Knew You Were Trouble”) serve very different emotional and sonic beats and wouldn’t necessarily trade out seamlessly. So I’ll swap it for “I Almost Do,” a song I love that nevertheless can’t help but feel like a bit of a momentum staller coming between “22” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” “Better Man” serves a similar sonic/thematic purpose but keeps the tension and energy more effectively.

Anna: Disclaimer: I am not including “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” in the “new song” category OR the re-record category because it would be unfair to the competition. That isn’t a song, so much as it is a decade of lore wrapped up in ten beautiful minutes of character exposition and intricate storytelling. I could probably write a piece just on this epic poem of a ballad, but I will simply leave it at this: it stands on its own, and I appreciated (and cried through just about) every second of it.

This is a tough one because these vault tracks are…well, phenomenal, pretty much across the board. It speaks to the quality of the material you’re working with when songs like “Nothing New” and “Better Man” are getting either left on the cutting room floor or optioned out to other artists. No disrespect to Little Big Town: their version of the latter floored me the first time I heard it. But I absolutely always wanted to hear this version, and I’m incredibly grateful that it eventually came to fruition. “Better Man” is my winner for that reason, and that reason alone. Without that context, this would’ve been a much more difficult decision, because I was charmed by damn near every one of the vault tracks. 

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not sure “Better Man” needs to bump anything from the original, or that it belongs there at all. The original track list for Red got dinged for being scattered or inconsistent by some contemporary critics (which isn’t unfair, because it isn’t untrue), but to me that was always kind of the point. I think maybe this was the right way to get to hear these songs. 

Semi related: I wonder what the original “Message in a Bottle” would have sounded like – simply because this version almost feels like a dance remix, not an original.

Garrett: We’ve heard “Ronan,” “Better Man,” and “Babe” plenty of times before, so to me they don’t feel like vault tracks. However, the first two of these three are easily the best here, so I feel like those are also the most truthful answer. “Ronan” is gut-wrenching and even better in this recording (that damn sigh rattles my soul_ and I’m very glad we now have her improved versions of the Little Big Town and Sugarland songs. 

“Run” is the better of the two Ed Sheeran songs on here – he does a little too much vocally on the “Everything Has Changed” re-record for me – so swapping them seems like an easy answer. 

“Nothing New” is harrowing and powerful and the best of the new songs, and no disrespect to Phoebe Bridgers who does a solid job here, but imagine the power if she had done this duet with another artist who has experienced tumultuous public discourse the same way Taylor has. There’s a world where maybe she does this with Miley, Kesha, or Britney, and that is something I wish I could’ve heard. This is Taylor at her most personal and why we love her on so many levels.

I don’t know how to say properly what I want about “The Very First Night,” but it feels like a sister track to “State of Grace” somehow. There’s an album’s worth of material here that could bridge from Red to 1989, and this is the crux of that. I also like it because it paints one of the, uh, few positive glimpses into the relationship. Red is a breakup album. It’s a heartbreak album. But we don’t always get the clearest glimpses on the album for why love is worth it. “The Very First Night” (and to a lesser extent “Forever Winter”) show that there can be a lot of good before a lot of bad. All the lyrical parallels to later works seem to even suggest that Taylor herself knows this. At the heart of her work is always storytelling, and the more she moves away from telling her story, the more these glimpses into the journey can be prized.

New revelation: Did you discover anything new about Red from the re-record?

Craig: In all these years of loving Red, I always felt like Taylor was withholding certain details of the love story that inspired it, in pursuit of universality. Part of what makes the album so wonderful is that it captures the kaleidoscope of a tumultuous love story in such broad, sweeping terms that you can easily fill in the gaps with your own experiences. As a result, it was possible to walk away from the original album knowing that it was a breakup album – and even knowing who it was about – but still feel every ounce of good and bad that its songs convey.

Red (Taylor’s Version) tilts the album away from the moments of romantic bliss that the original contains in good measure – the head-over-heels, euphoric-until-it-isn’t love – and toward the reading of the central relationship that inspired it as genuinely toxic. Taylor Swift of 2012 was deeply concerned with alienating country music, alienating her young fanbase, inviting the public backlash that would come several years later. And so, it seems, she hid bits of herself, and of the darker truths that the songs on Red skirt around.

The vault tracks and b-sides, and of course the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” lay this all bare – mostly at the expense of Jake Gyllenhaal, who ends up looking like a much shittier, more villainous ex-boyfriend than the indie-rock-loving dufus originally painted in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Here, she rips him mercilessly for his “organic shoes” and his “million-dollar couch”; reams him out (twice) for missing her 21st birthday party; proclaims plainly that their romance might have worked if he’d simply, you know, been a better person; and then caps it all off by ripping him to shreds for 10 minutes straight, airing a million grievances that make him seem like a petty, patronizing, controlling dickbag.

There’s some serious venom in this extended version of Red. It’s fascinating to hear now, all these years and listens later. But I’m glad it wasn’t there in the first place. Taylor knew that leaving some of those daggers in their sheathes was the right choice. While those blades would have made the album a more intense rebuke of the man who broke her heart, they would also do two other things: throw off the balance of the album and steal away some of its universality.

People always ding Red for being so scattershot, thinking that the all-over-the-place sonic and emotional elements of the record hurts its cohesion. Those people are wrong, because this album is supposed to encapsulate all the pieces of a relationship. To quote Taylor’s liner notes from the original album, the record is meant to carry “moments of newfound hope, extreme joy, intense passion, wishful thinking, and in some cases, the unthinkable letdown.” As released, the album accomplishes that goal perfectly. This version, by giving us more of a glimpse behind the curtain, places too much weight on the “wishful thinking” and the “unthinkable letdown.” It proves, I think, that the scattershot topography of the original Red was 100 percent intentional – the product of Taylor’s already-razor-sharp instincts for self-editing and album-making. Any version of that record, with the songs we had and the ones we’ve gotten now, would have been great. But the one we got was the masterpiece.

Anna: To me, in the year 2021, this album is a masterclass in context and perspective. Now, as then, it feels like a perfect encapsulation of the chaos of living, learning, and loving in your early 20s. The lengthened “All Too Well”, the range of emotion in the vault tracks, it all ties into that theme. Isn’t it just fascinating that the playful, Speak Now-esque wistfulness of “The Very First Night” and the absolute devastation of “The Moment I Knew” can be different parts of the exact same story? Or the obvious ties between “I Almost Do” and “I Bet You Think About Me” – so similar, yet at the same time completely different.)

But honestly, as endlessly entertaining as the memes resulting from this rollout have been, the biggest thing that jumps out to me as I listen is the context that being a decade older as a listener has provided for me as I listen, from my own experiences. Red (Taylor’s Version) genuinely doesn’t feel like it is about whoever inspired the songs. It feels as though it’s about embracing how non-linear healing can be. To me, it feels like – and yes, this is projection, as almost all feelings about somebody else’s art are – approaching the mess of your own younger grief with love and patience, not judgment or condescension. And above all, it’s about having the right to tell your own story.

Garrett: My main takeaway is that if Taylor Swift still wanted to be on country radio, she would still be dominating those charts in an unprecedented manner. “Red” and “Begin Again” were massive at the time in that market and sound every bit as massive now. We all know the power of “Soon You’ll Get Better” from Lover, the lyrical storytelling of “Betty” from folklore and “Dorothea” from evermore, the entire vault from Fearless (Taylor’s Version), and now we have her latest entry: “I Bet You Think About Me” with Chris Stapleton. What an absolute romp this song is.

But I still want, and have always wanted, an album in the vein of “State of Grace.” I expected some vault tracks to fall in this vein, but sadly we didn’t get any.

We need to talk about the 10-minute version of “All Too Well.”

Craig: Taylor Swift was listening to “Konstantine” a lot back in 2011, huh?

The 10-minute version of “All Too Well” has occupied such mythical status in Taylor Swift lore for so long that actually hearing it seemed like a pipe dream for years. Even when Taylor announced the re-recording series, I wasn’t sure it would see the light of day. And if I’m being honest with myself, I might have been kind of relieved if it continued to just be this imaginary perfect thing, floating out there in the ether somewhere.

Because “All Too Well,” as it was, was a masterpiece. It’s Taylor Swift’s greatest song, and I’ve felt that way since the first time I heard it (even if I sometimes rank “Last Kiss” above it on my personal favorites list). That line about “Dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light” is one of the most beautifully evocative images that anyone has put into a song, ever. The entire thing is just this expertly-wound bit of musical clockwork, building and building and building until it explodes in a grand catharsis in the last chorus. It lasts for just long enough, does everything it has to do, and then lets you get on your merry way with the rest of Red. It never needed to be 10 minutes.

And hey, it still doesn’t need to be 10 minutes. Just like the album as a whole, the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” sacrifices some of the universality of the original. And just like the album as a whole, the 10-minute version tilts the balance of good memories and heartbreak too far in the latter direction. That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful attributes about this version of the song. “You kept me like a secret/But I kept you like an oath” is a line so good that I let out an audible “Holy shit!” the first time I heard it. But the construction of the song, as a 10-minute epic, is nowhere near as elegant and graceful as what we had in the original. The five-minute version is one perfectly executed crescendo; the 10-minute version is a fit of stops and starts – some of them purposeful, some of them awkward. If the song did indeed start in this form, then it’s a testament to brilliant editing that the final product we heard back in 2012 ever worked as well as it does. Trimming down a song can decapitate its soul. Everyone who has ever heard a bad radio edit can attest to that. “All Too Well” loses nothing vital by being five minutes long, and I’d argue it actually gains something.

With all that said, I’m still happy to have heard this version, and I genuinely loved the short film that Taylor made out of it. But “All Too Well,” in my heart, will always be the five-and-a-half perfect minutes I first heard on that crisp fall day back in 2012.

Anna: I don’t have as much to say about “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” as one might expect. (My most pie-in-the-sky wish is that releasing a 10-minute song triggers Taylor’s Phish era, in which she plays two entirely different sets every show and every night, while firmly embracing the advent of streaming live shows every night until kingdom come.) I cried it all out when I was listening, and then watching, and then watching again.

The short version is, I don’t have much to say because Taylor said everything. I’ve had that love: If you’ve followed my work (or hell, just talked to me) in the past decade, you know that living with post-traumatic stress disorder has been an inescapable detail of my life. There was no kitchen and refrigerator light, just a basement pool table in Westminster. The scarf looks like a silver bracelet on my wrist. And while he skipped my 21st birthday too, I close my eyes during the bridge and it’s Noche Buena. Missing that night was the second to last promise he broke, and I remember it all too well. 

I saw a tweet that said the new lyrics make the insistence on Taylor remembering it all make more sense. When you love someone who tries to make you feel crazy, or bad, or wrong, “It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well” stops sounding like a mere declaration and starts to feel like well-warranted self-defense. Because it is: Nothing adds insult to injury quite like being traumatized by something that the world around you insists never happened or didn’t matter. 

I am 30 now. I smile a lot more than I did back then. Many of my triggers have worn off, or become something I don’t struggle to live with. These scars are aging, fading, changing. I’m not sure they’ll ever be 100 percent gone. But time – and a concentrated effort to heal – has given me enough perspective to know that you can mourn something you don’t miss. You can be well on the path towards healing and still have broken moments. Our scars are details on the canvasses of our lives, but they don’t define the full picture. Not forever, anyway. I love the life that I have built. That I am building. Yes, it was rare. I was there. And I remember it. And sometimes that remembering hurts. This iconic new version of a song I always considered flawless is a welcome reminder of that: As I cry, I’m not mourning for the me I am today. I’m grieving with the young person I was, who deserved to be celebrated, not tolerated. Even the sonic update to the production on the new version feels like a nod to that type of growth. To the beauty in aging.

Because: This is rare. I am here. 

And I know it, all too well.

Garrett: The greatest song she’s ever written, though some are inching closer. I noticed a few small differences in the re-recording of the original, but nothing in a negative way. It’s very good… but it’ll be very hard to not just return to the original. It’s “All Too Well.” It’s my favorite song of all time. It’s the song I’ve cried to in the shower at the end of something I didn’t even realize I had. It’s the song I turn to when the leaves turn golden and red and litter my lawn. It’s the song I return to again and again and again. I feel every aspect of the original recording deep in my bones.

Now, the real question might be: “All Too Well (10 Minute Version).” I have a hard time believing 22-year-old Taylor actually wrote the extremely clunky lines around “fuck the patriarchy” and that it’s just been sitting in a drawer for a decade. But otherwise I really liked this! I’d even go to say that I’m growing to love it more with every listen. The storytelling and worldbuilding is exceptional. The section with her father referencing her birthday is pure chef’s kiss. I think if you removed 2:11 – 2:52 and ~8:30 to the end, you may have the perfect cut. But then it wouldn’t be 10 minutes!

Will this become my definitive version? Probably not. Does it detract from the original? Nothing could. I’m extremely grateful this version exists, but it doesn’t carry the same weight for me. I don’t think we’d praise “All Too Well” as the best song in her catalog if we started with the 10-minute version. The tightness of the original is what makes it great. Either way, I’m just so happy that this is a lock for the setlist of the next tour. I need to scream it with thousands around me.

However, “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath” should’ve made the final cut. I felt that line like a gut punch. How do you hold that line in your pocket?

How are we feeling about this re-record project? Is this better than the original version? 

Craig: I don’t know what it says that I have listened to Red (Taylor’s Version) more in a week than I’ve listened to Fearless (Taylor’s Version) since it came out. Is it just that I like the album Red significantly more than Fearless? Are these re-records more successful? Is it a better vault? I’d contend that it’s a mix of all three of those things.

On Fearless (Taylor’s Version), I struggled with Taylor sounding older but still singing songs that were very grounded in the teenage experience. While a lot of people seemed to like the new versions better because her voice had so obviously grown since 2008, they lost something for me because an album about being a teenager is supposed to sound like the original Fearless sounds. That same problem crops up a few times here, namely on the singles (the new “22” has none of the effusive “this-night-has-endless-possibilities” energy of the original, for instance), but since Red is a significantly more mature and “adult” album, the songs are mostly a better match with where Taylor is in her life now. I still don’t think I’ll reach for any of these re-records over the originals, just because I have such a deep attachment to the 2012 album we all know and love. But I would say this project is significantly stronger than Fearless (Taylor’s Version) on the whole.

I’d apply that judgment to the vault as well, where I genuinely love every new track. The new songs are charming and catchy at worst, and they’re frankly masterful at best. I really can’t wait to hear what she has sitting in the vault for, say, Speak Now or 1989. And I think that excitement will keep me fully invested in these projects going forward – even if the ultimate “goal” (of “replacing” the existing versions of these records) is unlikely ever to be completely successful for me.

Anna: I loved Red, and I love Red (Taylor’s Version). To me, the generally subtle changes – and I may be in the minority on this, but I’m fine with that – aren’t jarring precisely because I listen to this album and just hear all of that context and growth. To this listener, that’s a beautiful thing. How can I be bothered by something when it was kind of the point? I didn’t want carbon copies when Taylor started this project. But as this saga goes on, I find myself oddly drawn to the way the differences are so subtle, yet so stark precisely because of how intimately familiar I am with the originals. It doesn’t feel like a betrayal to me. It feels like an inevitable nod to the fact that reclaiming something you lost isn’t about perfection or replication. Making it about those things is an exercise in futility. Instead, it’s about accepting that change is inevitable, even in snapshots of your own past. It’s about finding healing in that. 

In terms of how I’ll listen? As a songwriter myself, I can’t separate the art from the grown man named after a mode of personal transportation who profits from streaming the original. Both versions mean very different things to me, and I have a lot of love for them as a result. That isn’t to say I think it’s wrong to revisit the originals on streaming: That would be absurdly simplistic and more than a little pretentious. It’s just that for me, I have the original Red on vinyl for those days where I’m feeling 22.

Garrett: Now that we’re a third of the way through the project, I’m still all-in on Taylor claiming ownership of her art. I think the re-records here on Red, overall, are much better than the re-records on Fearless. But Fearless has the higher quality vault by a smidge, because it’s harder to miss from a smaller sample size and also from a more concentrated musical focus. The Red vault is as expansive and varied as the album it’s connected to. 

As long as we keep getting quality vault tracks, and hopefully a greatest hits tour for those of us who missed out on previous era tours, I’m in. At this point, how can we not trust Taylor?

However, I’m now not so sure that any of the albums will ever be better than their original form in the whole, especially as the age discrepancy grows between the original performance and her talent now. At least “I Bet You Think About Me” shows she can still throw on that old country accent for when self-titled rolls around. 1989 and Reputation have the best chance of breaking this expectation. But I’m probably more hesitant for Speak Now than I was before listening to this one.