Like many pop icons, Taylor Swift’s career has operated on a cycle of deaths and rebirths. In order to convince her audience of each album’s cycle’s legitimacy, she rejects the aesthetics of her previous ones. Lover turned reputation’s growling basslines and hooded black costumes to bubblegum pop and tie-dyed Stella McCartney sets. 1989 turned away from Red’s rock-inspired approach to heartbreak and dove headfirst into skater skirts, New York City, and synths. And of course, no one has taken this act of death-to-resurrection cycle quite as literally as Taylor Swift (“The old Taylor can’t come to phone right now…why? Oh, because she’s dead!).
Seeing artists with a catalogue as rich and controversial as Taylor’s re-encounter their previous work is a rare and sometimes disappointing experience. It can be difficult to accept that an artist’s most iconic music is rooted in a past version of themselves and can never be fully re-experienced as it once was. But Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is not just a creative exercise in re-interpretation, nor is it a vanity project. It’s the most direct and publicized attempt of an artist to regain control of their masters in modern music, and Taylor’s relentless commitment to her own art is the fire that gives spark to this project.
On the whole, the album is sonically richer than its 2008 predecessor, and Taylor’s voice has improved by leaps and bounds. Some tracks even adopt an entirely new meaning. “Change (Taylor’s Version)” is significantly stronger than the original; Taylor’s teenage vocals couldn’t support the bombastic U2-inspired production, and she’s able to support it today. But lyrically, the updated track feels a bit grim. Taylor wrote the song as a tribute to her humble beginnings at Big Machine Records, a scrappy young Nashville label that soared to success bolstered by Taylor’s early commercial success. Given how her relationship with label head Scott Borchetta has soured since he first met her at the Bluebird Cafe in 2005, “Change” feels conflicting at its worst but subversive at its best. You can almost feel her throwing lyrics like “It’s a revolution, the time will come for us to finally win” right back at Borchetta.
“Fifteen (Taylor’s Version)” is another particularly cutting moment on this version of the album. Hearing an early-thirties Taylor sing “back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday/but I realized some bigger dreams of mine” would make even the most casual fan catch their breath. More than any other song on the record, “Fifteen” feels like an absolute artifact.
While some moments of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) are bolstered by Taylor’s earthier vocals (“Hey Stephen” has never sounded better), some songs can’t revive the wide-eyed charm of the original record. “Fearless,” the title track, sounds more like a country power anthem than the tinny mandolin-driven song of 2008, and “You Belong With Me,” unfortunately, has lost a smidgen of its misogyny-fueled magic. But it’s impossible to perfectly recreate a thirteen-year-old album, and it’s clear Taylor and her team were painstakingly equipped to come as close as possible. The improvements eclipse the momentary lapses in charm.
To grow public interest in the re-recordings, Taylor included six previously unreleased tracks “from the vault” with varying levels of success. While the vault tracks are a gift for the fans and remarkable glimmers of the songwriter Taylor would soon become, most of them, while pleasantly catchy, are dull compared to the feats she achieves on the original Fearless tracks. The two singles, “You All Over Me (ft. Maren Morris)” and “Mr. Perfectly Fine” are the standouts: the former a metaphor-laced heartbreak ballad and the latter a “Forever and Always”-esque break track.
In the rest, there are some standout melodies (the chorus to the Keith Urban feature “That’s When”) and lyrics (“I do recall a good while back we snuck into the circus/You threw your arms around my neck, back when I deserved it”); from “We Were Happy,” but on the whole, the vault tracks lack the original Fearless magic. This is partially because they’re produced by Taylor’s current production team, Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner; the tension between the album’s original twangy naivety and Taylor’s current sensibilities is palpable. But even then, eighteen-year-old Taylor Swift’s proverbial trash is another artist’s treasure. “Bye Bye Baby” and “Don’t You” are as charming and well-written as a number of songs on the country charts.
Perhaps the most appropriate way to measure the success of this album (and all future re-recorded albums) is its ability to replace the original. For nearly every situation, it can. Some fans will yearn for certain vocal stylings that thirty-one-year-old Taylor couldn’t possibly have recreated, but nearly everyone else will be satisfied enough to replace “You Belong With Me” with “You Belong With Me (Taylor’s Version)” on their playlists.
But looking past the business objectives, as a fan, it’s refreshing to watch an artist become a disciple of their own lore and a student of their own past. It’s exciting to witness an artist be unapologetic in the pursuit of artistic agency. And, frankly, it’s joyful to witness one of the most formative albums of the 2000s enjoy a second life in the public eye, in spite of its shortcomings.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is out now.