Unpacking ‘All Too Well’, Taylor Swift’s Finest Song

'All Too Well' is a once-in-a-lifetime song, but what exactly is it that makes it such a gut-punch?

taylor swift all too well photo

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The announcement of the 10-minute version of ‘All Too Well’, set to appear on Red (Taylor’s Version) sent Taylor Swift fans into a frenzy.

The existence of the 10-minute cut was, until this point, the stuff of pop music (ahem) folklore; Taylor had mentioned its existence in interviews around Red’s release and dropped lyric snippets in the Lover journals, but most TS fans felt the release of the extended, reportedly explicit, original version of ‘All Too Well’ was nothing but a pipedream.

To mimic Taylor’s own lyrics, everything has changed — and we’re set to hear the 10-minute cut of the country-pop power ballad for the first time on Friday, November 12. Arguably, ‘All Too Well’ is the track that fans are most anticipating, despite Red (Taylor’s Version)’s A-list features such as Phoebe Bridgers, Ed Sheeran, and Chris Stapleton, and never before heard bonus tracks.

In the Taylor Swift universe, ‘All Too Well’ is a certified fan-favourite. The album Red is generally considered to be the first Taylor Swift album that looked at love with a truly critical, mature, almost cynical eye — as opposed to her earlier records which were focused very much on chaste, romantic fairytales.

That’s not to say her earlier albums aren’t incredibly well written — but Red is on a whole new level, one that really only comes from a songwriter’s age and experience. The purest distillation of this artistic development can be heard on ‘All Too Well’ — everything that makes Taylor Swift’s songwriting so affecting, so impressive, is on show.

In some ways, ‘All Too Well’ is an unusual fan favourite; it was never a single, and never got a music video. It’s long, particularly for a pop song, clocking in at five minutes and 29 seconds — and it subverts the traditional ‘verse-pre-chorus-chorus’ pop song structure in quite an interesting way.

Swifties and music critics alike have long embraced ‘All Too Well’s peculiarities; Rolling Stone described it as a ‘masterpiece of the break-up ballad form’, Slant Magazine called it ‘arguably the finest song in Swift’s entire catalogue’ (as did Music Junkee).

So let’s unpack what makes ‘All Too Well’ Taylor Swift’s magnum opus — and why the ten-minute version could be a game-changer.

That Scarf In The Drawer

“I left my scarf there at your sister’s house, and you’ve still got it, in your drawer, even now.”

Taylor Swift’s lyric-writing prowess is at its very best in ‘All Too Well’. Swift leads the listener through the story of this doomed relationship by way of evocative vignettes and short, detailed verses. Perhaps the most significant element of this imagery is the now infamous ‘All Too Well’ scarf, allegedly still gathering dust in some drawer at Maggie Gyllenhaal’s place (it’s widely understood that ‘All Too Well’ is written about Taylor’s relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal).

Taylor establishes the scarf’s location in the first verse, and it’s the first indication that we get as the listener that this relationship is now over. She then takes us through the flashbacks — in the car, dancing in the kitchen in the refrigerator light, chatting with her lover’s mother; then devastatingly, crucially, bookends the fate of the scarf — kept by her ex in an attempt to hold on to lost innocence — in the final moments of the song.

One of the most difficult things to master as a pop songwriter is this kind of concise storytelling. The task of the lyricist is to relay as much evocative information and detail as possible, within an economical, catchy verse or chorus — and the remarkable thing about ‘All Too Well’ is the vivid nature of the imagery, how much detail Taylor has managed to fit into her tight, expository verses, and how neatly the story is wrapped up by the end of the song.

Not only does she let us know what happened to the scarf, but she pulls each vignette back into the spotlight towards the end of the song (“Wind in my hair, you were there, you remember it all/down the stairs, you were there, you remember it all”), mimicking the cruelty of memory; the way these painful moments linger for hours in the middle of a sleepless night or flicker for seconds even on a good day.

Towards the end, Taylor switches from the line “I remember it” to the accusatory “you remember it” — a simple, effective embrace of her own agency, and her ex’s role in the demise of this relationship.

Form Reflects Feeling

“You called me up again just to break me like a promise/so casually cruel in the name of being honest…”

Perhaps the most quoted, most universally adored line in ‘All Too Well’ is this tragic line from the first bridge section of the song, and for good reason. Before this bridge hits, Taylor builds slowly, surely, up to this moment, taking us through the best moments of the relationship before knocking it all down with this devastating line.

The relationship between lyric and vocal melody is a special, symbiotic one – often, almost like the literary technique onomatopoeia, vocal melodies sound like the feeling behind the words being sung. This line is a great example of this. Written in C major, ‘All Too Well’s vocal melody lingers around middle C, a comfortable, mid-to-low part of Taylor’s vocal range. Even the choruses do not really move far from here, only going up a fifth to a G.

The entire song builds to this bridge, both in vocal melody, lyric, and instrumental arrangement.

For this line, and for the first and only time in ‘All Too Well’, Taylor sings a C5, one whole octave (eight notes) above middle C. It’s the highest note in the song, a high section in Taylor’s vocal range, and it feels cathartic, almost hysterical — like a friend speaking about a breakup and, after having kept their composure for the entire recount until this moment, they break down, their voice getting higher and higher with emotion and hurt. It’s the shining moment — the entire song builds to this bridge, both in vocal melody, lyric, and instrumental arrangement.

Characterised by this climatic bridge, the structure of ‘All Too Well’ is unusual for a pop song by a mainstream artist. Ungoverned by the traditional verse/pre-chorus/chorus pop structure, ‘All Too Well’ embraces almost more of a folk song’s form, with multiple verses that contain the majority of the story, and choruses with ever-changing lyrics.

Instead of one bridge, ‘All Too Well’ arguably has two, with the first reaching the soaring heights of the famous break me like a promise line, and the second acting as an outro, a clever, sweeping play on the chorus vocal melody (“Cause there we are again, when I loved you so/back when you lost the one real thing you’ve ever known”) that flashes those pre-established memories back in quick succession, cementing the lost love in moments over time.

The track also has an enduring relatability that is at the heart of Taylor Swift’s songwriting. Everyone can relate to the heartbreak described: the confusion, the unadulterated pain, the questions, accusations — ‘All Too Well’ captures every conflicting feeling that accompanies a breakup. It’s a masterful example of the kind of writing that makes Taylor Swift’s music so universally popular — her ability to write music that touches practically everyone who hears it is unparalleled.

The impending release of the ten-minute version presents countless interesting hypotheticals — will it expand on the narrative of the lyrics, or will feel overindulgent in comparison to the trimmed version? Will it add more to the layers and the callbacks and the intricacies of the song, or will audiences be able to pinpoint why and how it was edited for the 5′ 29 version? Will it follow the same structure as the shorter version, or will there be an entirely new chord progression or section that comes out of the blue? And crucially, HOW will the word ‘fuck’ fit into all of this!?!?

Whatever the result, ‘All Too Well’ is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of song, written by an artist at a critical turning point in her career.

Eilish Gilligan is a musician and writer from Melbourne. She streams at and tweets at @eilishgilligan.

Photo Credit: Sandra Mu/TAS/Getty Images