I’m just gonna come out and say it: with “Red”, Taylor Swift has recorded one of the greatest breakup albums of all time (ofalltime!). She takes us on a journey through the complex and particular moments that come – bidden or un – with the dying of a relationship. Look here:
We start in a State of Grace. But foreboding kick drums and tom-toms suggest we won’t get to stay there for long. Something is rotten in the state of Taylor. And it’s former-beau Jake Gyllenhaal’s piss-poor attitude. But as much of a “self-indulgent taker” Jake is, (Swift’s words, not mine) they can’t seem to part. “All we know is don’t let go” she sings, her delusion soaring, Bono-like, over U2- inspired guitars betraying that she still hasn’t found what she’s looking for. And when Jake finally lets go, the simile-fest (15 with “like” and three with “as”) of a title track, Red, lets us know how her heart feels. In what can only be a satire of the melodramatic-yet-heartfelt journaling that inevitably follows a first heartbreak, losing him is blue, loving him is red, and fighting with him like is trying to solve a crossword and realizing there’s no right answer. In other words, she’s as confused and inarticulate as the rest of us, and we love her for it.
Kubler-Ross calls what happens next. The denial of “State of Grace” and “Red” give way to anger. In Treacherous, she asks herself: “how could I let you seduce me?” before indicting herself with the album’s most damning image: “I’ll do anything you say / if you say it with your hands.” And is any breakup complete before that anger gets turned inward and transformed into self-loathing? Nope. Or so T-Swift reminds us in I Knew You Were Trouble when, in what will certainly become Mr. Gyllenhall’s anthem of triumph (Swift to him: “A new notch in your belt / Is all I’ll ever be”), she admits with shame that she put herself “on the cold hard ground.” It’s that moment where you realize the one you love is an ass and so are you for not noticing before now.
The back-and-forth bargaining of All Too Well continues the grieving process. Was Jake “casually cruel in the name of being honest” or was their love just “lost in translation”? It’s all too much. Her lyrics sound like incantations, summoning impossible spirits to bring the relationship back from the dead.
But just when we’re convinced Ms. Swift is about to lose her mind and go all Romeo and Juliet on us… Girlfriends to the rescue! They arrive just in time to party with Taylor as she celebrates turning 21 + 1 in the Ke$ha-inspired 22. “Everything will be alright if you keep me next to you” T-Swift announces between premonitions of hookups that will heal. Whether or not the hookups will prove a serum of healing (the rest of the album says they won’t), simmering them over the kind of infectious beats that populate”22″, and Taylor’s got herself another sure-to-be-number-one single.
And like the rest of us, Taylor’s saved again and again by the care of her friends. In I Almost Do, it’s easy to imagine BFF Selena Gomez taking away T-Swift’s phone (and handing her the Ben & Jerry’s) before she makes that cringe-worthy mistake of calling up the ex to confess her undying love. It’s right at the pivot point of the album (the 8th of it’s 16 tracks) that, with the help of her girls, our girl Taylor finally emerges from the darkness of love denied. And celebrates her independence with the triumphant We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together. It’s a powerful song for a powerful young woman, a strong one who’s overcome heartbreak, but there’s something in it that says the breakup story isn’t quite completed yet, almost as if the insistence of the extra “ever” is there so Taylor can convince herself that she’s all the way back when we can still feel the vulnerability and longing beneath her refusals.
It’s by letting us join her in the midst of that intimacy, in the vulnerability of an almost too insistent I’m-over-you, that Swift joins us in our own heartbreak. She gives us every right to think “I’m not alone” to ourselves as she journeys with us from brokenness to wholeness. Her songs heal.
And that’s enough to make a good break-up album. What makes “Red” legitimately great is what comes next. You see, nothing sets us free from the hurricane of self-pity more than caring for somebody else. And part of the magic of “Red” is being pulled out of own self-centered storms in our affection for the girl who’s walked with us. Which is why, as Swift’s rebound with Boston-Brahmin Conor Kennedy (yes, of that Kennedy family) gets out of hand, all we want to do is stop her, warn her, tell her to slow down – because we care! Our own worries fade away as we see disaster, like the sword of Pericles, hanging over our girl.
Indeed, it bodes poorly when out-of-place mandolins and glockenspiels greet the entry of the 6’ 2”, green-eyed Conor Kennedy like he were Venus stepping out of a shell. Stay, Stay, Stay, pleads our hypnotized heroin. “Come on girl,” we can hear ourselves saying along with BFF Selena, “Don’t do it! We know you’re hurting, but you gotta give yourself some time!”
Our pity-wincing continues as the plaintive guitars enter, along with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody. Lightbody, playing the part of ex-boyfriend Jake, shows up (just as Taylor’s getting her feet back under her and falling for Conor) on T-Swift’s steps with roses in hand. Thank goodness this is the Last Time. And when, in Holy Ground, even the old hangouts won’t stop calling out Jake’s name, we just want to shake her and say “Don’t you remember that You are Never, Ever Getting Back Together! You’ve got Conor now” despite all our mixed feelings about the Kennedy scion. But, alas, she doesn’t hear us. Or so it seems as the histrionic Sad Beautiful Tragic reveals the demons of self-pity still cutting at our girl with relentless regularity. And all the vacillations of Taylor’s not-quite-yet-healed heart are enough to put the knife both to us and to the almost-forgotten Conor.
Thank God (Conor sure is) that the next song is not about Jake. We’re all The Lucky Ones as Taylor reemerges from the depths a second time, and this time to stay. It’s so easy to care about her that we can’t help but rejoice when she finds happiness. And, set free from navel-gazing, Swift sings that Everything Has Changed while hightailing to Hyannisport with Conor. In what may be the sappiest track on the album, her heart finds a home in Conor’s green eyes. (Dare you not to swoon.)
But the turn from rejoicing to worrying happens quick as we see this rebound relationship fly out of hand. Nothing says this “we’re moving too fast” like writing a tribute to your dreamed-of-future-mother-in-law. And in (the admittedly lovely) Starlight, Taylor does just this in a well-crafted panegyric to Ethel Kennedy. “Girl, I love you,” say Selena’s snapping fingers, “but comparing yourself to Jacki-O? Slow down, crazy!”
As the album wraps up with the unabashed earnestness of Begin Again, we’re left worrying what’s going to happen next – what dismal dreams might come. Pitying Taylor, we’re right back where we were when the album kicked off. Only the “we” has changed. And that’s the trick of “Red”, really. In wrapping us up her own romance, Taylor has pulled our attention out of ourselves. Not only has Taylor helped us through our heartbreak, she’s stretched our hearts a little wider, made us a little bit less for-ourselves, and a little bit more for-others.
And any twenty two year old who can write an album that does that gets a spot on my own shortlist of the best breakup albums of all time. Thanks Taylor.