A power move and a poetic force
Kelsey Barnes
16:51 9th April 2021

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"Fearless is getting back up and fighting for what you want over and over again, even though every time you've tried before, you've lost” is one of the lines penned by Swift for the prologue in the album booklet for her second studio album, Fearless. At the time of release on 11/11/2008, she would’ve been 18 and wide-eyed, still reeling from the bubbling success of her self-titled debut and wondering where her music would take her.

After being the most awarded Country album of all time and receiving Album of The Year in 2010, it’s easy to argue no one would have guessed then that 13 years later she would be taking all of us back to the start again as she re-records her first 6 albums. Some might wonder why she’s going to such great lengths, but Taylor has been telling us all along: Fearless is getting back up and fighting for what you want, and what she wants is to own her life’s work.

Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is both a power move and a poetic force. Taylor has been outspoken about musicians owning their work and being rightfully compensated for it, whether it was penning a letter directly to Apple Music or when she cheekily stated she would be re-recording her music during an interview on GMA in August 2019 and sent the internet into a tizzy. Some blamed her for getting her teen self tied up in a contract that favoured everyone but the artist and now she’s looking for a way to make more money as her former label and manager-who-must-not-be-named shopped them around as if Swift’s first 6 studio albums were a used car. But, as always, Taylor knows better. She knows what has set her apart since her self-titled is her lyricism and storytelling and that regardless of who may think they own her life's work, they don’t know the narratives behind each one. 

When comparing the two records, they do seem the same with just a breath of fresh air in 'Taylor's Version'. Rather than trying to make a version of Fearless that buckles to what is considered popular in music now, Swift is creating a bridge between two worlds; one where she’s merging older, timeless songs with a mature voice and outlook. Where some spots on the original recording can feel slightly timid and fearful, the re-recordings are full of robust power; tracks like ‘You Belong With Me (Taylor’s Version)’ is even more of a banger than its predecessor and the deeply underrated ‘The Way I Loved You’ will get its justice in the re-recordings as a song that has always been one of her best and, somehow, ‘Breathe (Taylor’s Version)’ is even more painful than the original with the violins teetering on the edge of haunting. 

Where there are slight changes — refined guitars, fuller drums — it’s clear they lift the song to another level without trying to overshadow her then 18-year-old self. Obviously, what has changed the most is her voice; the country twang she adopted as a teen is now gone. But rather than trying to use her now-experienced and smooth vocals, Taylor never tries to out-sing the teen version of herself. She’s always been good at both acknowledging and honouring the past, understanding the significance in things like the soft, welcoming giggle in ‘Hey Stephen’ that fans love so much, the breathless outro on ‘The Other Side Of The Door’, and the overly dramatic flair of ‘Forever and Always’. There are moments where you can both hear and feel Taylor’s age in the best way, like in the small vocal changes in ‘Fifteen (Taylor’s Version’ which means so much more when you think about her now, at 31, and all of the fans that have grown up alongside her since then.

Giving a nod to the new prologue in ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version) that references the reasons why she’s making this record (“The artist is the only one who really knows that body of work [...] Only I know which songs I wrote that almost made the Fearless album”), Swift includes 6 tracks from ‘the vault’, songs written during the Fearless era that didn’t make the final cut. They are, to put it simply, quintessentially baby Taylor; full of expressive teen angst and melodrama, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘We Were Happy’ is the standout, a mixture of the songwriting skills she learned during her time as a country artist and the folklorian roots she’s been leaning towards. If you’re feeling extra emotional while listening to ‘We Were Happy’ and ‘Bye Bye Baby’ in particular, it’s likely because both were co-written with the ‘All Too Well’ songwriter Liz Rose. She gets a hand from Maren Morris in ‘You All Over Me’ and Keith Urban in ‘That’s When’, both songs which fit perfectly alongside her other collaborations. 

In more ways than one, the standout track on the record is ‘Change’, a song originally written about the faith she had in her then-label. When thinking about how the label thrived due to Swift’s work, the song takes on an entirely new meaning; it no longer is about the faith she has in the industry, but the faith that she has in herself, her work, and her ever-devoted fans. Where you could hear the innocence in the original, you can hear the defiance and growth in Taylor’s Version — the bridge, in particular, hits the hardest when you think about how far Swift has come and what she’s gone through to get there. “Tonight we'll stand, get off our knees/Fight for what we've worked for all these years/And the battle was long, it's the fight of our lives/But we'll stand up champions tonight.” It’s a new rally cry for a new era, a call-to-arms with the mature vocals to match. A triumphant, defiant stance of her taking back her power.

The minuscule changes on ‘Taylor’s Version’ feel as if they were meant to be on the original in the first place and the bonus tracks are the perfect callback to an era in Swift’s discography that feels familiar but with a new outlook. No one has penned songs about teenhood better than Taylor Swift and during a period of life where everyone is feeling nostalgic, these rerecordings offer us the chance to look back on our own exaggerated melodramatic experiences and look at them with compassion and empathy. With these rerecordings, Swift is reminding us that, even though our teen lives might be stagnant and forever in the past, it doesn’t mean it’s not important to remember who we were at that time.

All of this is to say not much has changed, but everything has changed at the same time. She said it herself when she declared “I think it's important that you know that I will never change, but I'll never stay the same either.” She knows the importance of history and whether to rewrite and rework it entirely or let it be, as it was, like a time capsule of memories. This morning, when I woke up to texts from outlier Swift listeners that asked, “What’s so different about this new record? It sounds basically the same.”  I replied: “She owns it.” I would say that is the biggest difference of all. 

Fearless (Taylor's Version) is out now.

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Photo: Press