If you’d have told us years ago that Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon’s band Big Red Machine would make an album featuring Taylor Swift, we would’ve thought you were delirious. But times have changed drastically, and two “indie” albums later (co-written with both The National’s Dessner and Bon Iver’s Vernon, the former of whom also co-produced), Swift has proven that, while she might not have the indie sensibilities of an Angel Olsen or Sharon Van Etten, some of her best songwriting comes when she taps into that side of her muse. The pop star is featured on two tracks from the upcoming Big Red Machine album, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, and today, the band released her first contribution to the project, “Renegade.” It might be one of Swift’s best songs yet—so it’s a little surprising to learn she didn’t want it on either of her latest records.
Yes, it’s a Big Red Machine release, but it’s still very much Swift’s song. While speaking to Apple Music’s Zane Lowe about it, Dessner explains that Swift felt some of the songs she wrote for her last two records would better fit Big Red Machine. “After we finished Evermore, she wrote ‘Renegade’ and it was just like, again, getting hit by a bolt of lightning or something. When you get the chance to work with someone like her, she’s just... She’s a savant and just this incredibly hardworking and wonderful person. So it was just special,” he says.
“Every time we write a song together, we both are a little bit dumbfounded by it. Or sort of like, ‘How is this possible?’ because it feels like the shoe fits so well somehow. And I think something about the way that I think, or the way that I relate to music emotionally, and then her incredible acumen or her way of tracing music and her storytelling and her sense of melody, there’s something that really clicks,” Dessner elaborates.
You can tell Taylor Swift is behind the lyrics: “Is it insensitive for me to say ‘Get your shit together so I can love you?’ Is it really your anxiety that stops you from givin’ me everything? Or do you just not want to?” The musician often sings about the fantasies of what she wants in a partner: the fairytale ending, the lover who indulges in the whim of leaving Christmas lights up in January, the one who’ll stand by her side when she really needs someone’s support.
But Swift thrives just as much when she’s being brutally honest in calling out an inadequate love interest. (After all, there’s a reason why fans still love “Dear John” so much.) So while this call-out song doesn’t have the hyper-specific details of yesteryear, where fans can pinpoint which guy Swift is potentially writing about, it’s a more relatable track, one that rings true to anyone who’s been with an inadequate partner. And as is so often the case with her best material, she frames it in a way that undercuts the power of the person she’s addressing—the one leading her on without being able to commit—by turning the tables and forcing them to confront their shit via her lyrical zingers: “You fire off missiles ’cause you hate yourself / And do you know you’re demolishin’ me? / And then you squeeze my hand as I’m about to leave.”
If anything, this song proves why Swift’s new era as an indie-inclined artist works. “Renegade” is poppy—pairing gentle guitar, a simple drum beat, and rolling synths—but pared down enough to come across like something that, say, an artist like Adult Mom (another massive Swift fan) could’ve written. It’s a track could easily serve as the “fuckboi” anthem of the summer, reminding listeners that they’re worth far more than someone’s cheap excuses to not give them what they deserve. And really, isn’t that exactly what a lot of us need as we venture back out into the post-pandemic dating world?