Most of all, Springsteen and Swift share a sensibility: that a story can be reduced purely to its rising action. There's a central relationship to "Holy Ground," and Swift refers tidily to its end with the lyric, "Well I guess we fell apart in the usual way / And the story's got dust on every page." But the song is focused inflexibly on a single, revelatory moment that happened during the course of the relationship. The second verse begins "Took off faster than a green light—go," and the song builds itself in the shape of this line. The shape resembles ghostly restraint of "I'm on Fire" or "Brilliant Disguise," with intense, variable emotions flickering beyond a fire door. There's no climax; it's a tense framework of expectations and barely contained ecstasy. It's like the seconds right before you run into the middle of traffic. It lasts three and a half minutes.
"Holy Ground" also shows off a relatively recent development in Swift's storytelling: ambiguity. Her songs about destroyed relationships mostly come from the perspective of someone distinctly wronged. In 2010's "Dear John," her triumph over a bad boyfriend is stratospheric: She ends the bridge "shining like fireworks / over [his] sad empty town." In a 2011 interview with MTV, Swift described this attitude as a product of age and experience, and she refers to a particularly embittered song from her first record, "Picture to Burn." "Now the way that I would say that and the way that I would feel that kind of pain is a lot different," she said. "It's a lot different as you grow up and you kind of understand that there are different ways of saying things." In "Holy Ground," her way of processing a breakup has become charmingly complicated. In the chorus ("Right there where we stood / was holy ground") she enshrines a moment of mutual discovery, but the moment has passed. Later in the song, a ghostly chorus of "hooray"s drifts into the mix. They make for a frail celebration, commemorating a small, happy instant in a longer, murkier story.
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."