“Renegade” is the culmination of the Swift-Dessner collaboration

Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner accept the award for Album of the Year at the 2021 Grammys™. (Credit: Kevin Winter. Courtesy of the Recording Academy)

It was only a matter of time before Taylor Swift collaborated with Big Red Machine, the indie folk band made up of Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner. On Friday, the band released their latest single “Renegade,” with Swift singing lead vocals and credited as a co-songwriter.

Dessner and Vernon are of course no strangers when it comes to collaborating with Swift. Between folklore and evermore, Swift’s quarantine albums, Dessner and Swift had already worked on more nearly thirty songs together and won Album of the Year at the Grammys™ this past March. Vernon, too, collaborated with Swift on two songs last year.

But while the songwriting on folklore and evermore felt more like an assembly line (many of the tracks literally began as Dessner instrumentals, which Swift wrote lyrics over),“Renegade” feels more like the natural culmination of both artists’ songwriting strengths.

On pre-folklore projects, Swift was known for writing sharp but punctuated lyrics ⁠ — lines that could cut like a knife, and that notably stood on their own. On “Renegade,” the lyrical sharpness is still there, but the lines flow right into another, more similar to Dessner’s previous work.

Upon release of the single, Swift tweeted “When @Aaron_Dessner came into my life, I was ushered into his world of free-flowing creativity where you don’t overthink, you just make music.”

That “free-flowing creativity” created a stream-of-consciousness that guides the listener through the jumbled emotions of the song. “I tapped on your window on your darkest night / The shape of you was jagged and weak / There was nowhere for me to stay, but I stayed anyway” Swift sings at the start of the song. The ending of each line propels itself into the next one. Swift clearly has a lot on her mind, and not enough time to get it all out.

The lyrics repeat and twist themselves until finally in the end the voices of Swift and Vernon battle for your attention. In that moment, their voices fit together melodically while the layered lyrics mirror the confused emotions of the characters. Vernon sings “Are you really gonna talk about timing in times like these / and let all your damage damage me” as if Swift’s words have gotten stuck in his head. Swift momentarily cuts through the noise, just long enough to sing “get your shit together.”

At the end, the song fades and we’re left without any real resolution. That kind of ending would have felt uncharacteristic of Swift during her country and pop eras. Here, though, the decision is effective. These are not simple issues, and there will not be simple solutions. There may be no solution at all, for that matter.

That’s because on “Renegade,” Swift tackles an aspect of mental health issues that’s rarely discussed: the effects of those struggling on the people around them.

It’s notable that the narrator in this song doesn’t blame their partner for their struggles. Instead, she sings with brutal honesty that the emotional labor of remaining patient and sympathetic has become too much. “And if I would’ve known / How sharp the pieces were you’d crumbled into / I might’ve let them lay,” she sings with a softness that suggests she feels guilty for even thinking such things.

“Is it insensitive for me to say, “Get your shit together so I can love you?” It could very well be insensitive, but that’s kind of the point.

It’s a tough issue to tackle in a five-minute song, and the final result is one that to a casual listener could be easily misunderstood. But that speaks even more to the power of Swift and Dessner’s collaboration. Dessner’s world, according to Swift, is one where “you don’t overthink, you just make music.”

As recently as 2019, Swift may have overthought the lyrics, maybe even made them more to-the-point, and in doing so make them less effective in their emotionality. In 2021, though, Swift just makes music, and trusts that we will understand.

writing about arts and culture / also technically an award-winning comedy writer / @jhcansler