I'm reviewing "All Too Well" and "Begin Again" together because, in my mind, they are the yin and yang of each other on Taylor Swift's new album, Red. Both are classic story-song style ballads. While Swift's recent experiments with dance music and straight-up pop show her expanding aesthetic, these two tracks are what really mark her maturity as a songwriter.
Both songs are about love--"All Too Well" about loss, and "Begin Again" about moving on after a bad breakup--and they both show Swift's knack for dealing with such material. She possesses a strong sense of narrative. "All Too Well" is smartly book-ended with the image of scarf that helps us understand how the relationship between the singer and her lover evolves over the course of several verses. "Begin Again" follows a similar structure, but only takes us over the course of one date with a possible new love interest. However, during that date, we learn about the history leading up to this encounter: heartbreak, disappointment, loss, and, ultimately, the hope of moving on with someone new.
What makes these songs gel, though, is Swift's attention to detail. She packs them with sharp images, like in "All Too Well," when she talks about her lover almost running a red light because he was looking at her, or "dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light" in the middle of the night. In "Begin Again," the singer "turn[s] the lock and put[s] her headphones on," which concisely encapsulates the loneliness she feels at the outset of the track. She also tells us a lot about her date: he owns many James Taylor records, he laughs "like a little kid," he's punctual, and he values his family. It's a clearly rendered portrait.
The major criticism against Swift is usually that she is not a great vocalist, and this is often based on fair evidence. She does not have great technical ability. However, expecting her to be the Whitney Houston of country-pop seems foolish. If anything, Swift is an emotional singer. She can deftly express somberness, as she does so well on "Begin Again," playing it low-key for most of the track. But the most thrilling performances are where she pushes her voice too far, like in the bridge of "All Too Well," when she yelps, "And you call me up again / Just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel / In the name of being honest." She forces herself to the top of her range and attempts to hit these words with such volume that her voice quivers; it's clumsy but exquisitely captures heartbreak.
Say what you will about Swift--she names names too often, is too pompous, cannot sing well--but it is getting harder and harder to deny how talented she is becoming. If there is a young performer who seems to be working well within the 70s singer-songwriter tradition, it may be her. And the now-lauded singers from the 70s suffered the same criticisms: Carole King had an ordinary but wonderfully expressive voice, and Joni Mitchell was very hard on her lovers, who she often named in her songs. Swift's star is just beginning to rise; these songs show that we have not yet seen the best from this talented artist.