If one is to summarise the entire album in a few words, it’d be in the words by Taylor Swift herself. Quoting Pablo Neruda’s Tonight, I Can Write, Swift said that the line “love is so short, forgetting is so long” had been stuck with her ever since she came across it. The album RED, which she has described time and again as her only “to the core, about heartbreak”, makes a modern commentary on the love that doesn’t last long, and yet stays forever.
Throughout the record, she plays with different concepts of time. She personifies it as a ruthless identity at one occasion, symbolizes it as an independent arbitration, and portrays it as a paralytic element at another. It’s cruel, it’s fleeting, but it’s also kind and lasting. One can argue that Swift sees a lot of herself in Neruda’s works and life, as both artists have said that writing something sad comes easily to them. Divided by a century and united by penmanship, RED is what the soundtrack to a broken heart would sound like. What Neruda wrote about (flawlessly) a hundred years ago, Swift sings heart-wrenchingly (once again) almost a century later.
A Classic Vignette
No, it’s not cohesive. No, it’s not linear. And no, it’s not quick. Just like a “fractured mosaic of feelings”, it is all over the place. It’s a time jump into the past and the future. Put a heartbroken girl under an emotional microscope, and this album is what you will find. It’s an intricate, tangled web of unexpressed emotions. A big jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are memories of the past and a reflection of times bygone. So scattered through the wind that piecing it all back together seems like an impossible task.
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The album is the complexity of a human mind in pain, as simple as that. Swift feels happiness and hopefulness, sorrow and gloom, broken and healed. She cuts open her soul and bares it to the listener in this deeply personal, yet somehow universal, collection. The tracks may not make sense halfway through, but one does piece the puzzle as it draws close. After all, a hurting person does not understand time, nor does she care.
RED is absolutely a breakup record. It takes occasional detours to distant fantasies and seemingly unrelated anecdotes. No, it isn’t done to add to the time. It’s rather done to retain sanity during a period that was tumultuously cruel and wounding. A reflection on choices made, and paths taken, and storms weathered. Time is not a concept too scientific, but abstract and mystical.. almost mythical.
State Of Grace
Swift is known to emote through every aspect of a song, be it lyrically, melodically, sonically, or musically. It is not a coincidence that the album starts with thunderous, blaring drums that sound like a war cry. An elongated thumping percussion that adds strings as it progresses. It’s purposefully stretched for over half a minute, before she drops the beat and with it, the first line. It’s a big song with big lyrics and big production.
Exploring the concept of time being unpredictable, Swift paces through the lyrics over an ominous sound. She talks about love that doesn’t feel like love.. maybe because it is not. She calls it “touch and go”, symbolizing the fast-moving life she lives, that we all live. The most pessimistic lyric from the songwriter comes in the first verse- “we fall in love till it hurts or bleeds or fades in time.”
Heartbreak is the essence of the record. She makes that abundantly clear in the very first minute of the album. Just like poets of the old, she believes in love coming along the way when one least expects it. The kind of love that “hurts and bleeds and fades in time”. She talks about love that soothes and heals and stays through time, but not until the end of the album. Not slowing down for a heartbeat, the song quiets down almost to a whisper in the second verse. “We are alone just you and me”, she sings, as one can feel the intimacy, despite their physical absence.
Unexpectedly though, she bursts out into what is probably her best lyrical string to date. Frustration in her voice is quite evident when she says that he wasn’t any good, but she hadn’t always been picture perfect either. It is this self-awareness and emotional maturity that separates RED from most breakup works.
Arguably one of her very best metaphors ever, it is the imagery of “mosaic broken hearts” that the singer has visited later as well on the track mirrorball from her album folklore. Broken, shattered, scattered, and pieced back together; falling in love is what she believes to be a vicious cycle.. until she finds the 1. The loud banging of battle drums is touched on once again in the bridge when she calls love a “worthwhile fight” and a “ruthless game”, comparing her beloved to “Achilles heel”. She sees love as something to be fought for, and something that fights you.. at least in the beginning.
Swift is no average songwriter, and her pen game is quite literally one of the very best. Color synesthesia, or associating different colors with different emotions, is definitely not a new concept. Sadness is blue, fear is yellow.. but is love necessary red? Is it the only emotion that’s red? Taylor Swift associates red with “newfound hope, extreme joy, intense passion, wishful thinking, (…) unthinkable letdown” throughout the course of the record.
The title track is a deep dive into the singer’s mind as she explains how “loving him (was) like”. She had already talked about how it began, now we get to know what she felt. She takes the listener through a doomed-to-be romance from her side of the stick.
Time is a foreign concept here, fickle and loopy. The relationship is fated and destructive, fast and sudden, explosive and desperate. It is thrilling and memorable, confusing and dangerous, enchanting and fleeting. She calls it unreal and unbelievable, comforting and frustrating, regrettable and teachable. Each line emoted with absolute brilliance, as a first-hand account of a girl in pain.
Captivating and enthralling, it just might be some of her best lyricism. Her longest-running hit on the country charts, maybe it’s the closest to describing the album as a whole. She has said on more than one occasion that it is not possible to perfectly tune down the album to one song. But Red definitely comes an awful lot close. Perhaps that is why it is the title track.
Each song ends with a line that leads into the next one, in a way that almost feels like a precursor to an incoming attack. “Love is a ruthless game” of State of Grace leads into Red, which is reckless and all over the place. “Loving him is like driving a new maserati down a dead end street” leads into one of her most beautiful songs. Treacherous is about how the relationship was just meant to end badly.. how it wasn’t going anywhere at all.
It is vulnerable and exciting in its structure and melody, words, and feeling. Talking about how she fell for someone she wasn’t supposed to fall for. How something casual and chill, turned into a glowing red ball inside her heart. She tries to hold her ground, but he’s “quicksand” meaning that he drew her in and her resistance was rendered pointless. Seeing blind, she calls it treacherous.. and hesitantly, admits her want and attraction. The break of the rhyme scheme at the end of verse two, where she calls him “friction”, is ingenious.
Now the tremble in her voice is a bolt of confidence. She is no longer shaking when she says “I like it”, as she is no longer in denial. She is now desperate and assertive in her tone and words, alluring and confrontational through her actions and emotions, adventurous and daring with her heart and soul. Quite possibly one of the best bridges from her, it is surely a journey for a fan, from her previous song Mine where she calls herself “a careful daughter”. Once again the track ends with “this slope is treacherous, I like it”. It’s a sentiment that flows into the upcoming, in this case, doomsday.
I Knew You Were Trouble.
Trouble. She calls him trouble. What happens when you jump into a lake knowing that you’d drown? What happens when you like the danger and start seeing double? Trouble. There is one thing to remember about a person post-breakup. Their mind is a mishmash of real and imaginary, practicality and fantasy, past and present. A melting pot of acceptance and denial, and fossilized and compliant. It starts to blend different experiences from different times. A blend that turns into one big truckload of thoughts that hits you randomly at any given time without a warning.
It gets fuzzy. It’s natural to wonder why someone left you and compare it with something similar in the past. For a moment, you blame yourself before moving on to blaming them, before blaming yourself again. Wild and tortured, one is left with nothing but confusion and pain. The confusion and pain that become your companions, once again, for a distant future. It’s a relationship of its own.
Swift blames herself for falling for someone who was “obviously” the wrong guy. She feels used, a sentiment that grows stronger with time. He was wrong and very wrong for her. She hammers that point into the head of the listener repeatedly with a chorus that is basically her screaming that he was, in fact, trouble. A big red flag is all one sees and interestingly, hears during the song.
Because all of the other things in her mind were painted red, perhaps the red flag was a clever camouflage. Brought down by a device of her own making, self-pity is a strong message here. But make no mistake, he was TROUBLE. As with all the songs thus far, she ends this pop perfection with “trouble, trouble, trouble”. At this point, it’s the musical equivalent of the final alarm that sounds a ship’s defeat to a treacherous sea. What follows is turmoil, devastation, and hurt.
All Too Well
Pain. Tears. Gloom. There is nothing cheerful about this one. No hint of a shimmer of sunshine in the slight, no hope of a glimmer of glee in the passing twilight. A mind that is capable of feeling intensely sadly weeps uncontrollably too. A mind that paints the world red, unfortunately, is capable of creeping to rock bottom too.
Swift feels the ugliest emotions through vigorous tumultuations. This ballad is inarguably her most personal writing to date. All Too Well is the song equivalent of someone reaching inside you to grab your heart, crushing it to dust with bare hands, and ripping a hole open in your body on the way out.
Swift has been looking back at the time, reliving the relationship through the memories. During this song, she is very much in the present- alone and vulnerable. Time is real, all too real. Pointing out the minuscule details she remembers from their time together, she throws herself into despair and heartache. She is melancholy throughout most of the song, wondering how she got there.
Details after details, she watches themselves almost like a film reel in her mind. The warmth she felt when near him, the music he played on road trips, the changing colors of the leaves, the look on his face in traffic. The memories hang in her brain like snapshots of time spent together. She is jolted back into reality, and the realization dawns on her that he is gone.
Reliving the glory days alone, she remembers his family, his childhood home, his innocence. Her mind isn’t letting her forget him, and the cycle repeats. She is caught in a time loop that she cannot escape. One interlude later, she is prepared to. She’s been sad, alone, confused, but now she is angry, frustrated, annoyed. Filled with rage, she spits out the most widely appreciated lyrics of her career.
And you call me up again/ just to break me like a promise/ so casually cruel in the name of being honest/ I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here/ ’cause I remember it all, all, all too wellAll Too Well, RED
Within seconds her rage quiets down to anguish, and this is quite possibly the darkest confessional songwriting from her. She “want(s) to be my old self again” after all that has happened. The scarf that he kept became a symbol of innocence, proof of her mastery with the pen. All Too Well is one gut punch after another. It does not end on a lighter note, like Last Kiss and Dear John. Vulnerable, helpless, emotional. Pain. Tears. Gloom.
Through the immaculate five-track run, Swift managed to convey everything from how the relationship began to how it ended. Every song sounds different from the one before. It’s sonic cohesion that is lacking when one holds RED up with her other records. Not only is this bipolarity in sound and tracklisting (that follows) “fairly” intentional, it is what critics and audiences have realized with time.
Announcing her re-recording of this gigantic worldwide hit, Swift said “.. (the world) moves on a different axis, at a different speed (for the heartbroken). Time skips backward and forwards fleetingly.” The album so far had been fairly sensible to the first-time casual listener. She talked about how it began, how it made her feel, how it was a bad idea, how real it was, and finally.. how it left her.
Now, it gets messy.. as now, we step outside her bedroom and into the world, where we see and hear people other than her. Now, we look at how it changed her.. and the time it took her to get there.
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