If you haven’t listened to Red, recently or ever, it’s well worth your time; in its ecstatic, expressive vocals, tart humor, vivid imagery, and tender attention to the nuances of love and loss, you’ll find everything that makes Taylor Swift great. But the real draw for her main audience, who already know Red like the back of their hands, is the new material. Some of it is new only in the sense of being newly attached to this album or newly reclaimed by Taylor: “Ronan” was a one-off charity single in 2012; Little Big Town recorded “Better Man,” a stolen rearview glance on the drive away from toxic love, in 2016; and the venom-laced air kiss “Babe” was released by the country duo Sugarland in 2018. Most anticipated is an extended cut of a classic: “All Too Well,” a Red track with an outsize presence in Swift lore.
A slow-burn account of sunsetting love, long since codified as an exemplar of Swiftian storytelling, the original version of “All Too Well” was the product of Swift and co-writer Liz Rose’s extensive edits to a 10-minute demo. Now, Swift has dug up the lost verses. Not all of them are additive; Swift’s beyond-her-years analysis in the final verse feels disconnected from the in-process pain of the version that we know, and when she opens up the song for its subject’s input (“Did the love affair maim you too?”), she undermines the definitiveness of her own account. The extra bulk dilutes the original’s walloping crescendo, making it harder to locate the emotional climax. Still, it’s surreal to see the stuff of lesser writers’ dreams—“You kept me like a secret/But I kept you like an oath”—abandoned, until now, on the cutting room floor.
Some of the vault tracks feel like they were left off of Red because they weren’t up to snuff; see the garish cheer of “The Very First Night,” the too-obvious hook of “Run” (“like you’d run from the law”). Much more compelling is “Nothing New,” a somber acoustic ballad squarely in the wheelhouse of guest star Phoebe Bridgers, which grapples with the music business’ famously fickle relationship to young women. These same anxieties—about being chewed up, spit out, and replaced—surfaced on “The Lucky One,” but here, instead of projecting them onto another character, Swift inhabits them in her own voice. “Nothing New” was written by Swift in her early 20s, a time when she was deeply scared of alienating her audience. I wonder if she withheld it out of fear that it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy—that by exposing her disillusionment, she’d dull her own shine.