Before Taylor Swift was a renowned political activist, she was something of a songwriter. Recently, I found myself savoring “Back to December,” a single on Swift’s last full-country album, “Speak Now.” The song, which is about regretting an abandoned relationship with a selfless partner, sees Swift at the peak of her Nashville game, with her writing recalling, in composition and theme, Diane Warren’s “How Do I Live,” made famous by competing releases from LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood. Swift retains the wistful longing of Warren’s song but sheds much of the narrator’s helplessness. When she raises the idea of a rekindled romance, she quickly adds, “If the chain is on your door, I understand.” Getting back together with the ex is oft-explored in song, but rarely is it done with such emphasis on the agency of both parties, or with such serious consideration of the merits.
“Back to December” was co-produced by Nathan Chapman, who would help form Swift’s sound for the first decade of her career, and who places the track on the pop-country fault line that defines much of his work. (Chapman has had success with acts ranging from Kylie Minogue to Lady Antebellum.) The moving, understated arrangement begins with mandolins and banjos plucked over layered strings—a sound typical of pop-country in the early two-thousands, before the genre aggressively appropriated hip-hop—and an acoustic version included on “Speak Now” ’s deluxe edition is lovely.
Critics and writers have, at times, dismissed Swift as superficial on matters of love. Lizzie Widdicombe, in a Profile of Swift, from 2011, noted that the social frenzy around the singer centered on the bits of celebrity gossip in her songwriting, which is often autobiographical. “After [“Speak Now” ’s] release, public scrutiny of her love life blossomed into something like a stalker school of literary criticism,” Widdicombe wrote. It can be easy to diminish such subject matter as simple, and Swift has famously taken turns rejecting and embracing the gaudier attention to her relationships. But “Back to December” shows that there is nothing simple about recognizing when pain has been caused and trying, openly and honestly, to make amends.
More Info: newyorker.com