Back in November 2017, Billboard celebrated Taylor Swift’s singular pop catalog in the days leading up to the release of her sixth LP, Reputation, by asking five writers to argue for one of her five five studio albums as her best. Here, Sam Lansky made the case for 2012’s Red, Swift’s fourth album, and her first obvious foray into pop.
Some albums we love not because of what they are but because of who we were when we first heard them. I didn’t know that I needed Red as urgently as I did, that I needed all those big bright empathetic swells of feeling, and it feels a little dramatic even to use the vocabulary of need to talk about what is, after all, just a pop record. But I did — I needed it. I was young and lost and the world seemed like an inhospitable place for someone like me who felt things so deeply.
Now, a few years later, it would be easy to hide behind a veil of disaffected impartiality, or to temper my enthusiasm, but this is the truth: As good as Red is — and it’s really good — I don’t have a mite of critical detachment to evaluate it on its merits. Not when listening to it is like boarding a time machine to a moment when I was on the cusp of adulthood and everything felt broken and this album whispered in my ear, Same.
That’s an intense thing to say, but Taylor Swift is pretty intense, right? She always has been — even in the beginning, when she was accusing a flattering beau of lying to her face in the opening lyrics of “Tim McGraw.” And now, all these years later, she’s still out for blood on the clattering “Look What You Made Me Do,” her most menacing song yet — and this is an artist, remember, who once characterized herself as a “nightmare dressed like a daydream.” Yet those of us who love her do so not despite this quality but because of it; this relentless pursuit of the highest and most deeply felt emotions, desire and rage and joy and disillusionment and regret and abandonment and wild irrational love. Say what you will about Swift but she’s never half-assed expressing her feelings, or feeling them. That’s why she’s my favorite pop star: Nobody feels things more fiercely.
And that’s why her Red is her best album, because it’s the album where she most effectively lays bare her emotional life in all its messy complexity. And while there are cases to be made for all of her records — the precocious perceptiveness of her debut and the sonic cohesion of Fearless and the singular authorship of Speak Now and the razorlike clarity of 1989 — in this house we stan Red. It captures the experience of being young and coming into your own emotional power, the way that opens you up to both elation and anguish, and how volatile it can feel to swing from one extreme to the other. There is a lyric on the opening song, “State of Grace,” where she sings, “This is the golden age of something good and right and real.” What a statement — the unabashed grandiosity of it. But when she sang it, I believed her.
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The greatest moments on Red aren’t the obvious ones. Certainly “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is an unimpeachable smash, and it too is a case study in hyperbole, from that extra “ever” in the title (in the title!) to the high drama of Swift groaning, “This is exhausting.” Red marked the first time that Swift teamed up with the Swedish writer and producer Max Martin, and her work with Martin and acolyte Shellback made the hooks catchier than they’d ever been before. “I Knew You Were Trouble” sounds like the biggest song in the world being played underwater, that breathless dubstep-lite bounce a middle-finger to country-radio programmers, and it’s impossible, too, to resist the millennial pink fizz of “22” and its neutered naughtiness, like the soundtrack to shoplifting from a suburban Claire’s. Songs like these are a forever summer, and on them Swift sounds more youthful than she did when she was an actual teenager.
No, the beating heart of Red are the songs Top 40 never touched. “All Too Well,” the album’s best offering and her finest work as a songwriter, is a portrait of lazy autumn afternoons in bucolic upstate towns; it starts as a love song, spangled with heart-scratching details, and then you sit back and watch as it curdles in her mind’s eye. Plaid shirt days and nights spent dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light turn to scorched-earth agony. Swift was always popular music’s most gifted memoirist but here she breaks the fourth wall; it’s a song about memory, but more than that, it’s a song that interrogates the ritual of remembering. Watch the way she pivots from past to present tense in that shattering bridge, making the pain of the memory immediate — that perfect sleight of hand.
That song alone would make Red her best album, or pretty much anyone’s, but my favorite song here is actually “Holy Ground,” which doesn’t sound like anything else in her catalog. It’s insistent and urgent, a twangy guitar riff looped over a punchy aerobic drum pedal, and her vocals sound a little bit strained, and as it throbs and lurches along toward the two-minute mark, the instrumentation suddenly drops out and she sings maybe her most perfect couplet ever: “Tonight I’m gonna dance for all that we’ve been through / But I don’t wanna dance if I’m not dancing with you.” If that doesn’t move you on the page, go listen to it and try not to feel something.
Listen — Swift knows this is a handful. She knows it’s bonkers that on the bridge of “Treacherous,” she threatens to follow a dude home. There’s literally a song on this record called “Sad Beautiful Tragic.” Even on Red‘s perkiest tune, the featherweight “Stay Stay Stay,” she sings, “I’d like to hang out with you for my whole life.” If you’ve ever watched a first date start scanning the restaurant for the nearest available exit when it dawns on him that you’ve already started redecorating his apartment in your head — wow, have I got an album for you.
Of course it’s dramatic, but that’s why it’s so extraordinary. And as ever, it’s tempting to write it all off as pure histrionics; so often we diminish the stories of young women who share their experiences in love and life, because their power frightens us. But Red didn’t go quadruple Platinum because Swift’s songs are catchy. It’s because, as a writer, she chose to share something vital—something I felt in myself but could not name until I heard these songs. Do you know what it’s like to feel things this intensely, to have reserves of joy and sorrow so deep that sometimes it feels like they might swallow you whole? Do you?