Taylor Swift’s project to re-record her albums to reclaim legal ownership of the music begins with 2008’s Fearless, an almost identical, polished, and somewhat melancholy version of it.
When Taylor Swift announced that she planned to re-record each of her albums to effectively take control of her masters and stick it to famed music manager Scooter Braun, the move was quintessential Taylor: strategic, savvy, and easily mapped onto an empowerment narrative. This wasn’t simply a cynical IP grab with purely financial implications; this was also a woman quite literally reclaiming her past selves. For listeners, however, the value proposition seemed less clear. So much of the relationship between pop star and fan revolves around the idea of “blessings,” with the generous artist bestowing gifts to her listeners. With “new” versions of old albums, Swift seemed to ask her fans to accept the re-done albums as a new canon to replace the beloved decade-old records.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is the first of six of these planned “new” versions. Starting with her second album is a deft choice; her writing is stronger than on her 2006 self-titled debut, and Fearless contains some of her more iconic and commercially successful tracks. Instead of cosplaying a caricature of her 18-year-old self, we get present-day Taylor in conversation with the Taylor of the past with a wrenching intimacy.
What is to be gained from parsing the gap between remix, recitation, and reincarnation? Dissecting the Easter eggs tucked into Swift’s songs has always been part of the Taylor listening experience—decoding which lyric corresponds to which break-up, tracing the lineage of each biting remark. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) presents a different puzzle: spotting the difference between the original and this almost-identical copy. These versions are slightly more polished, like photos touched up on Instagram with a press of a button: the sound is brighter, the mix is clearer, each peal of guitar is sharper. Most of the alterations to original songs are barely noticeable, besides an invigorating blast of fiddle on “Love Story”; each song’s runtime remains either exactly the same or off by a single second.
Most obviously changed is her voice, which has strengthened and deepened over the years. Her choruses are a bit less breathy, and she glides into belting without sounding strained. There are micro-changes in inflection: “You ask me for my love and then you push me around,” she cries on “Tell Me Why,” the note a bit more strangled and snarling. The seconds-long “Hallelujah” in the bridge of “Change” sounded exalted on the earlier version; here it sounds more like a sigh, somewhere between relief and remorse.
The songs on Fearless surge between hope and pain, bitterness and awe. The tension in Taylor’s early albums drew from that dichotomy: to reach for fairytales while listing their fallacies, to decry white horses and still believe there’s redemption in the perfect dress. “Today Was a Fairytale,” a song she wrote to accompany her cameo in the 2010 rom-com Valentine’s Day, slots right into this context with buoyant guitar and Swift’s ode to “magic in the air.” The other “new” songs on Taylor’s Version, released from her famed vault, blend into that bland, twangy sweetness—with the exception of “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” a delightful, strumming takedown. “I don’t know how it gets better than this,” she sings on the title track, and that glow remains even as she describes a breakup that leaves her breathless.
“Forever and Always” is Fearless’ best song, but the shock from the original album gives way to something cooler—more disgusted than aghast. In the 2009 version, Swift sounded wounded as she sings: “You looked me in the eye and told me you loved me/Were you just kidding?” In the newer versions (she also includes a slowed piano iteration among the bonus material), her voice is subdued but more full as she sings those lines, no longer litigating the cruelty of an ex, but allowing the sorrow that comes with accepting your own anger.
That mournfulness hangs over this new recording session. It’s hard to distinguish whether there are actual sonic differences in how she re-performs a song or if the knowledge that a 31-year-old is embodying songs she wrote as a teenager permeates each track. On the new recording of “Fifteen,” she clings to the last note of “Count to ten” for an instant longer than the original before she cries: “This is life before you know who you’re going to be.” Part of listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Version) involves tracing its link back to our own past selves, when we could pretend that wanting was worth more than knowing, that wanting could be everything. The meta-layers of control and contrition tangle in these recordings; Swift was 15 herself when she signed the deal with Scooter Braun. She is making some of the best music of her career now, and presumably putting that on hold to wrangle control over her old records. The past always becomes a difficult place to revisit.
Buy: Rough Trade