Deep Dive: “Begin Again” by Taylor Swift

For no particular reason, here’s an in-depth analysis of the 2012 song “Begin Again” by Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift’s fourth album, Red, ends with the ballad “Begin Again.” It’s the closest any of her music has sounded to “country” since her Fearless days. Swift and co. released it as Red’s second single – preceding the release of the actual album by three weeks. For one week, “Begin Again” hit the top ten. It cratered out of the top 40 just one week later; the single’s front-loaded sales seem to have been driven by the public’s hype for the album more than their interest in an understated country ballad.

Taylor has the lone songwriting credit for “Begin Again.” The glossy pandering that hampers “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and the other Max Martin-produced tracks from Red is completely absent. Instead – like almost all of the ballads on the album – “Begin Again” is expressive and engaging, thrumming with the personality and warmth that is the trademark of Swift’s more personal works.

That said, it’s a fairly simple song. Structurally, it eschews the more ambitious and discursive approach of “All Too Well” and “Treacherous” for the reliable verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus shape that defines the average pop song. The verses and choruses are well-balanced and -composed, and the track never lags during its four minutes.

Harmonically, the song is just as straightforward, with one notable twist in the chorus that I’ll get to in a few paragraphs. The song is written in G and hovers closely on the tonic during most of the verses.

The lyrics are the song’s strongest point. The idea is simple: Taylor recounts a first date that helps her overcome her pain from an old, broken relationship. She witnesses romance “begin again.” Though the content isn’t particularly flashy, Swift’s literary voice is in strong form; she crafts a strong, narratively-driven set of lyrics that bristle with the right amount of drama and present a complete, coherent thought.

Two aspects of this song I’m not inclined to spend much time analyzing or speculating upon: 1) The pleasant but remarkably plain music video, and 2) the gossip about which celebrities she might have written the song about.

Let’s take a closer look at the song from beginning to end:

Took a deep breath in the mirror
He didn’t like it when I wore high heels
But I do

After a placid intro, the song’s opening lines set the scene with impressive economy. Swift immediately communicates the setting — an important, carefully-measured social event — as well as the emotional stakes of overcoming a former lover whose memory still haunts her.

It also defines the song’s core conflict — between the dark, negative past and the forward-looking present. (Notice the contrast in tense between “didn’t” and “do.”)

Lastly, the opening lines set up the song’s primary rhetorical device: the use of the line “but I do” as a recurring contrast. It emphasizes Swift’s narrator as a character of agency.

Turn the lock and put my headphones on
He always said he didn’t get this song
But I do, I do

Continuing from the opening lines, Taylor also implies that she was hit emotionally hard by her past breakup. She continues to develop to both her narrator’s character, and the character of the ex-boyfriend — she as thoughtful and emotionally acute, he as crude and oblivious.

Walked in expecting you’d be late
But you got here early and you stand and wave
I walk to you

Just when the “but I do” hits the point where it might start wearing out, Taylor gives us a variation. We get clarification on what the narrator’s social event is, if we hadn’t already guessed: A first date. This new boy provides an immediate contrast to the ex; he’s identified as thoughtful and attentive.

You pull my chair out and help me in
And you don’t know how nice that is
But I do

We continue to see that Taylor’s primary lyric motif of the song is using “but I do” in different ways. While the first two instances had provided opposition contrast — Taylor holding one view, the ex holding the opposite view — here it’s used to emphasize the previous line expressing pleasant surprise.

And you throw your head back laughing like a little kid
I think it’s strange that you think I’m funny ’cause he never did

I really love the way Taylor hits high notes in songs like this. Pitch range has never been her greatest gift, but her vocal tenderness, emphasized by gently swelling production, turn the high notes into a delight.

I’ve been spending the last eight months
Thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end

The one piece of “Begin Again” that’s truly fantastic and unexpected comes during the second half of each chorus. After setting a pattern early in the chorus of dissonance and resolution from line to line, the “break and burn and end” line concludes with a deceptive cadence, dragging out the tension. It amplifies the central struggle of the narrator — the lack of resolution and connection in her life, and provokes a visceral listening experience as we crave the harmonic closure.

But on a Wednesday in a cafe I watched it begin again

The tonic G chord right after the chorus ends is an extremely satisfying moment, a relief from the tension built up through the last few stanzas.

You said you never met one girl
Who had as many James Taylor records as you
But I do

Yet another twist on the “but I do” line — here, not used as contrast or emphasis, but as an actual line in the story narration. Very subtle and clever. (Curiously, there’s another song on the album, “I Almost Do,” built around a very similar lyric, but “Begin Again” generally uses the idea more effectively and cleverly.)

The specificity of “James Taylor records” is a charming touch and also a nod to the fact that Swift was actually named after the singer.

We tell stories and you don’t know why
I’m coming off a little shy
But I do

Taylor ends the verse bringing the narration back to the main conflict of the song — the narrator’s continuing struggle to overcome the emotional pain of her last, failed relationship. Hold that thought for the bridge after the next chorus.

But you throw your head back laughing like a little kid
I think it’s strange that you think I’m funny ’cause he never did

I’ve been spending the last eight months
Thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end
But on a Wednesday in a cafe I watched it begin again

The second chorus, instead of leading directly into the tonic chord and the next verse, dives into a short and understated guitar solo, the kind Taylor frequently used on her first two albums.

And we walked down the block to my car and I almost brought him up
But you start to talk about the movies that your family
Every single Christmas and I want to talk about that
And for the first time what’s past is past

The bridge is quiet and not particularly tuneful, but provides the resolution for the lyrics’ central conflict: The date’s warmth and personal connection is enough for Taylor to get over her soured past breakup. It’s a satisfying, redemptive lyrical moment.

The specificity of the catalyzing topic of discussion — movies watched every Christmas — is a bit bizarre, though typical of the type of homey warmth and nostalgia she uses to convey connection and comfort.

‘Cause you throw your head back laughing like a little kid
I think it’s strange that you think I’m funny ’cause he never did

I’ve been spending the last eight months
Thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end
But on a Wednesday in a cafe I watched it begin again

If you look closely at many Swift-penned songs (especially ones she has solo writing credit on), you’ll learn that one of her favorite tricks is to slightly reword the last chorus, often to integrate it into the narration of the song or twist it in some dramatically significant way.

“Begin Again” features basically the most minor and insignificant use of this technique — replacing the word “but” with “’cause” to improve the flow between the last line of the bridge and the start of the chorus.

But on a Wednesday in a cafe I watched it begin again

The song ends with a brief outro instrumental sequence, followed by repetition of the last line of the chorus, this time without the sonic satisfaction of hitting the final tonic one last time. This means the last chord we hear is a D rather than the G. I suppose this songwriting and production decision was to give the album a poetic, clean ending of unaccompanied vocals. Personally, my ears clamor for one last G chord to wrap the song up in a bow.

The song’s final moments present an interesting parallel to a moment from earlier in Taylor’s career: It ends with the words “begin again” — and, since it’s the last song on Red, this lyric also close the album.

This is a throwback to her self-titled debut from 2006. The last song of the album was “Our Song,” which closed with the line “play it again.” Swift liked the idea that it beckoned listeners to play the album again. “Begin again” as a closing lyric works the same way.

In conclusion, “Begin Again” is a well-crafted and pleasant ballad. While not particularly ambitious or innovative, it wonderfully executes its central narrative idea, and has a few inspired ideas, particularly the deceptive cadence in the chorus, and the motific use of the line “But I do.”

Though not a contender for her greatest song, it’s a great way to end Red, and a reminder that the streamlined, collaborative, radio pop-focused production of 1989 sacrifices a tremendous amount of warmth and personal charm that Taylor has the potential for.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

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