I’ve previously talked a bit about my love for Taylor Swift’s 2012 album, Red; in spite of the colossal popularity she achieved with 1989, I still find Red to be her most emotionally effective and musically enjoyable album, emanating passion, pain, and sometimes both in every track. Ironically enough, on my first listen, only a few songs actually clicked with me and I’d written off the album, but the more times I listened through it, the more I’d listen to songs and couldn’t help but say, “How did I not love this song the very first time I heard it?” Most of the album has transformed like that for me over the past nearly four years, but one song that had yet to fully click with me until very recently was “The Last Time,” a piano ballad with building volume and emotions, and effective accompanying vocals from Snow Patrol lead singer Gary Lightbody.
The song is almost a counterpart to the upbeat, derisive tone of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Both look at a relationship that’s gone back and forth with the ultimate decision being to end it, but whereas the former is strictly from one perspective and is more of the public farce, abdicating all indication that Swift cares for the subject, “The Last Time” is the emotional core, where you see how it’s straining both parties, and where you see Swift admitting that she cares about the other person so much but she’s too heartbroken to handle the whiplash any longer.
Lightbody effectively leads off the vocals after a soft piano intro, with Swift taking the second verse. The two of them harmonize on the pre-chorus and into each chorus, which increase in volume with accompanying orchestration, plus building drums and guitar. The most powerful piece of the collaboration by far is the bridge, where a brief instrumental interlude quiets down for the two to alternate lines that emphasize that it’s the end for both of them, “the last time” that they fight for each other or take any part in the relationship that is breaking apart.
It doesn’t have the same evident edge as some of the other ballads on the album, which I think is why it took me so long to see its full merit, but the desperation in “The Last Time” is tangible in its repetition and the frantic back-and-forth through the bridge. Truly, any emotional ending to a relationship can be poignant; however, this concept that love is there, but one party just is not invested enough for the other party and so they have to give up fighting to spare themselves further hurt is particularly effective, and it’s what makes “The Last Time” stand out among the stellar works on Red.