Ambiguity runs throughout Red, most explicitly in the title and expressive waltzing of "Sad Beautiful Tragic." But it works best on "All Too Well," perhaps Swift's finest narrative. There's even a Chekhov's gun in the first act—a scarf left at a boyfriend's sister's house—but its reappearance, during a relationship's messy unravel, is thoughtful and brutal: "But you keep my old scarf from that very first week / cause it reminds you of innocence / and it smells like me / You can't get rid of it / 'cause you remember it all too well." It's an exhilarating piece of writing. A detail snaps into place, and the thrill experienced is half from the detail itself and half from how it refers to a haunted object, like a road sign remembered drowsily and a little too late.
The rest of the track renders the relationship and its dissolution so delicately that I'm both surprised and unfazed to discover myself contemplating it as intensely as I might a Leonard Cohen song. In the center of "All Too Well" is a lyric that's at once intricate, tender, and lucid: "And I forget about you long enough / to forget why I needed to." While not as precisely formed as the lines "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" or "Famous Blue Raincoat," it feels of a piece with "That's all / I don't even think of you that often," or "I guess that I miss you / I guess I forgive you / I'm glad you stood in my way."
This isn't to suggest Swift is operating on the level of Cohen, Springsteen, or Steely Dan. She's a pop musician; her words function less as demonstrations of artistry than they do as practical, inclusive stories. Her nearest lyrical analogue is still Ashlee Simpson's totally under-respected and still-great Autobiography, a collection of observations so specifically teenage that they come out sophisticated and strangely applicable to adulthood. But there are also songs on Red that lack immediate reference. "Begin Again," like "All Too Well," lingers in a cloudy, uncertain space, between the end of one relationship and the start of another. Swift addresses the previous boy by listing contrasts: "He didn't like it when I wore high heels / but I do." But when someone new enters a scene, she preserves the "I do" structure, and it flourishes newly in this setting, like a flower returned from darkness to a sunlit windowsill: "We tell stories and you don't know why / I'm coming off a little shy / but I do." These small, rich differences are derived from the traditions of great songwriters, but they're delivered with such ease that they sound entirely Swift's own.