Nostalgia Tracks: Reflections on Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well,” Then and Now

All Too Well - Taylor Swift
All Too Well - Taylor Swift

In the section Nostalgia Tracks, team members discuss their favorite songs – ones with which they have a deep connection. In this installment, contributing writer Emily Algar talks about what Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” meant to her eight years ago and what it means to her now.

With autumn upon us and Taylor Swift’s brief layover in country music, now feels like a perfect moment to revisit her magnum opus, “All Too Well.”
Stream: “All Too Well” – Taylor Swift

It was the beginning of Autumn a few weeks ago, and as anyone who knows anything, knows that autumn or fall is the month of RED, Taylor Swift’s 2012 album. The sky is bright blue, the leaves are turning red and brittle, falling off the trees and getting stuck to your wool jumper as you lie there on the grass.

Swift has sort of returned to country or is at least stopping by for a visit with her impromptu lockdown fueled album folklore. Swift even performed the album’s much-loved song “betty” at this year’s ACM’s in Nashville. So, with autumn upon us and Swift’s brief layover in country music, now feels like a perfect moment to revisit her magnum opus, “All Too Well.”

All Too Well - Taylor Swift
All Too Well – Taylor Swift

I distinctly remember the first time I heard the song. I had just finished at work and I was walking to one of my lectures at university. The album had come out that morning and I knew all the tracks were sitting on my phone ready to listen to. I remember the abrupt ending of “I Knew You We Trouble” and the now all too familiar opening guitar chords of “All Too Well” coming through my earphones, which always reminds me of empty rooms and cold autumn days.

I remember it was autumn, the light playing on the pavement outside, the open blue skies, the trees exhausted from summer beginning to let their leaves go; I remember the bridge and thinking “how did she know?”; I remember the first man who had broken my heart the previous summer; and I remember knowing that every time I listened to the song I would remember that first time, not knowing that each time “All Too Well” played, I would remember all of those first times.

“All Too Well” clocks in at five minutes and twenty-eight seconds, and for that reason and others, it reminds me of Don McClean’s “American Pie”. Not because of the topic but because as each verse builds, a clearer picture of the story of two people come into being. Like photos slowly falling into place in sequence, it just keeps unfolding as they spin round and round in this sonic memory of Swift’s creation.

Taylor Swift © 2012
Taylor Swift © 2012

Swift has said in interviews that the lyric she is most proud of, and the one she’ll always stand by is, “And you call me up again just to break me like a promise, so casually cruel in the name of being honest”.

Songs evolve over time. What once was “our” song is now a song you deliberately skip when it comes on; a song you thought was about one thing, you now realise was about something else entirely; and sometimes a song will stay with you, carefully slipped into your back pocket, the edges turning blue from your jeans.

Swift most recently played “All Too Well” at her NPR Tiny Desk Concert, and though it will never be as raw as when she recorded it or when she sang it at the Grammys, you can see not only how the song has evolved over time for Swift herself but also how much it still means to fans eight years later, as you watch them swaying in the audience, eyes closed, mouthing the words back.

So, what does “All Too Well” mean to me now, eight years later?

I don’t feel exactly the same, how could I? but I feel pretty close. The song awakens the feelings I had when I first heard the song and the experiences I tied them to. I may not feel the same about the first man that broke my heart, but I remember how I felt because of that song and where I was when I felt it. Like her line, “and i forget about you long enough to forget why i needed to”, I have forgotten about him, but the song makes me remember.

Red - Taylor Swift
Red – Taylor Swift

As I have grown from 26 to 33, I have had more experiences in love and loss. Each time I put on “All Too Well” it’s because I have to violently headbang my tears away or because it just comes up as I’m running across the fields, with each new experience getting tied to a lyric along the way.

Now when I hear, “cause there we are again in the middle of the night/ we’re dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light/ down the stairs, i was there/ i remember it all too well” I tie it to the last man I loved, and he and I standing at the bottom of the stairs after spending our first afternoon together. Or when I hear those words, “’cause there we are again on that little town street/ You almost ran the red ’cause you were looking over me/ Wind in my hair, I was there, I remember it all too well”, I am on that street again and he is looking over at me, like he always did.

The bridge after all these years, never fails to give me goosebumps when I hear Swift sing, “well maybe we got lost in translation/ maybe i asked for too much/ but maybe this thing was a masterpiece/ till you tore it all up/ running scared, i was there/ i remember it all too well”.

The lyric, “time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it/ I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it”, still means the same as it did to me, if not more. Back when I first heard it, I was desperately trying to find myself again except I never did. Because that me had been altered irreversibly by my experience, for better and for worse. The same still stands today. I have days when I desperately try to locate and cling to the me from four years ago, but she’s gone. I am still here and parts of her will always be in me but that her I want to go back no longer exists.

The singer-songwriter John Paul White once said love songs are pretty much, “This is how I feel about you… Almost.” So, when I hear those opening guitar chords, I almost go back to that 26-year-old self, outside on the pavement, on her way to university, trying to mend her broken heart whilst trying not to remember who broke it, but almost is never a complete sentence. But then again, would I want such a beautiful and immense song to be so rigid?

In Swift’s Tiny Desk Concert, she changed the last line of “All Too Well” from, “It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well” to “It was rare, you were there, you remember it all too well.” A lyrical misstep? Perhaps. Or maybe, Swift, like me, is almost remembering him.

Like Swift, he may not have my scarf in his drawer, but I still have those memories of him looking over at me, or that moment at the bottom of the stairs, or the part where the masterpiece was torn up in front of me.

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Stream: “All Too Well” – Taylor Swift

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All Too Well - Taylor Swift

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