Taylor Swift Turns on a Facsimile Machine for ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’ and Its Ingenious Recreations: Album Review
There is no “best actress” award at the Grammys, perhaps for obvious reasons, but maybe there should be this coming year. And the Grammy would go to… Taylor Swift, for so persuasively playing her 18-year-old self in “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” her beyond-meticulous recreation of the 2008 recording that did win her her first album of the year trophy back in the day. It’s impossible to overstate just how thoroughly the new version is intended as an exact replica of the old — all the way down to her startling ability to recapture an untrained teen singing voice she’s long matured and moved on from. It’s a stunt, to be sure, but a stunt for the ages — mastering the guile it takes to go back to sounding this guileless.
There are two different, very solid reasons to pick up or stream “Taylor’s Version,” regardless of whether you share her ire for the Big Machine label, whose loose ways with her nine-figure catalog precipitated this, the first in a six-album series of remakes where she’ll be turning on the facsimile machine. One is to marvel at her gift for self-mimicry on the album’s original tracks, where she sounds as possessed by her younger self as Regan ever was by Pazuzu. The other reason is, of course, to check out the six “vault” numbers that Swift wrote during that time frame but has never released before in any form, which dispenses with stylistic fealty to the late 2000s and frames her “Fearless”-era discards in production and arrangements closer to “Folklore.” Those half-dozen (kind of) new tracks really do sound like modern Taylor Swift covering her old stuff.
But those original lucky 13? It’s the same damn record… which is kind of hilarious and marvelous and the kind of meta-ness that will inspire a thousand more think-pieces than it already has, along with possibly efforts at forensic analysis to figure out how she did it.
It would not be surprising if, as we speak, Big Machine was putting a combined team of scientists and lawyers on the case of the new album’s waveform readouts, to make sure it’s not just the original album, remixed. Honestly, it’s that close. The timings of the songs are all within a few seconds of the original tracks, if not coming in at exactly the same length. The duplication effort doesn’t allow any detours. If “Forever and Always” had a cold open then, it’s going to have a cold open now. If the 2008 “That’s the Way I Love You” had slamming rock guitars with an almost subliminal banjo being plucked beneath the racket, so will the 2021 “That’s the Way I Loved You.” A drum roll to end the old “Change”? A drum roll to end its body-snatcher doppelganger. And if she chuckled before the final chorus of “Hey Stephen” 13 years ago, so will that moment be cause for a delighted giggle now.
Of course, much analysis will be put into whether the new laugh is a more knowing-sounding laugh. And that will be part of the fun for a certain segment of audiophile Swifties who will go looking for the slightest change as evidence of something meaningful. When “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” first came out weeks back to preview the album, there were reviews written that swore she’d subtly changed up her phrasing to put a contemporary spin on the song. And maybe they were right, but, having done a fair amount of A/B testing of the two versions of the album, I found myself feeling like I do when vinyl buffs insist there are significant sonic differences between the first stamper version of an LP and one that was pressed a year later. If you can spot those very, very, very modest tweaks, go for it.
But my suspicion is that if Swift has decided to turn a phrase a little differently here or there on this album, or done anything too differently aside from brighten the sound, she’s doing it more as an Easter egg, for the people who are on that kind of hunt, than anything really designed as reinterpretation. Because the last thing Swift wants most of her fans doing is A/B-ing the two versions, the way I did. The whole point is to have folks retire the OG “Fearless” from their Spotify playlists, right? The Swift faithful were already threatening to rain down damnation on anyone caught sneaking an audio peek at the old version after midnight. What she intended was to come up with a rendering so faithful that you would never have a need to spin the vintage album again. In that, she has succeeded beyond what could have been imagined even in the dreams of the few self-forgers who’ve tried this before, like a Jeff Lynne.
Is there any reason to find value in the new versions if you couldn’t care less about the issues of masters and contracts and respect in business deals that made all this strangely possible? Yes, with the first one being that the new album just sounds like a terrific remastering of the old — the same notes, and you’d swear the same performances, but sounding brighter and punchier just on a surface level. But on a more philosophical one, it’s not just a case of Swift playing with her back catalog like Andy Warhol played with his soup can. It’s really a triumph of self-knowledge and self-awareness, in the way that Swift is so hyper-conscious of the ways she’s matured that she has the ability to un-mature before our very ears. With her vocals, it’s virtuosic, in a way, how she’s made herself return to her unvirtuosic upstart self.
On Swift’s earliest albums and in those seminal live shows — at the time when she was famously being told she “can’t sing,” to quote a song from the follow-up album — there was a slight shrillness around the edges of her voice that, if you lacked faith, you might’ve imaged would be there forever. It wasn’t. That was partly youth, and partly just the sheer earnestness with which she wanted to convey the honesty of the songs. She’s advanced so much since then — into one of pop’s most gifted modern singers, really — that the woman of “Folklore” and “Evermore” seems like a completely different human being than the one who made the self-titled debut and “Fearless,” never mind just a woman versus girl. It wouldn’t have seemed possible that she could go back to her old way of singing at the accomplished age of 31, but she found and recreated that nervous, sincere, pleading voice of yesteryear. And maybe it was just a technical feat, of temporarily unlearning what she’s learned since then, but you can sense that maybe she had to go there internally, too, to the place where she was counseling other girls to guard their sexual virtue in “Fifteen,” or wondering whether to believe the fairy tale of “Love Story” or the wakeup call of “White Horse,” or proving with “Forever & Always” that writing a song telling off Joe Jonas for his 27-second breakup call was better than revenge.
If at first you’re not inclined to notice that Swift has re-adopted a completely different singing voice for the “Fearless” remakes, the realization may kick in when those “vault” tracks start appearing in the later stretch of this hour-and-50-minute album. The writing on the six songs that have been pulled up from the 2008 cutting room floor seems primitive, even a little bit by the standards of the “Fearless” album; there are great lines and couplets throughout the rescued tracks, but you can see why she left them as works-in-progress. But she doesn’t use her youthful voice on these resurrections, nor does she employ the actual style of “Fearless” very strictly. Of course, she feels more freedom on these, because there are no predecessors in the Big Machine catalog she’s asking you to leave behind. Her current collaborators of choice, Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, divided the co-producing work on these fresher songs, as they did for the two all-new albums she released in the last year. (The “Fearless” recreations are co-produced by Swift with Christopher Rowe, someone who worked on remixes for Swift back in that era.) They co-produce the vault songs in a style that sounds somewhere between “Fearless” and Folklore”… a more spectral brand of country-pop, with flutes and synths and ringing 12-string guitars and a modicum of drum programming replacing some (but not all) of the acoustic stringed instruments you’d expect to be carried over from “Fearless” proper.
Of the previously unheard tracks, Swift was right — she’s always been her own best self-editor — in putting out “You All Over Me” first, in advance of the album. With its imagery of half-muddy stones being upturned on the road, this song has advanced lyrical conceits more of a piece with the level of writing she’s doing now than some of the slightly less precocious songs that follow. Still, there’s something to be said for the sheer zippiness with which Swift conveys teen heartbreak in “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” which has a lyric that shows Swift had long since absorbed the lessons Nashville had to offer about how to come up with a high-concept song — the concept, in this case, being just to stick the word “mister” in front of a lot of phrases relating to her shallow ex, as if they were honorary titles to be conferred for being a shit, while she employs the “miss” for herself more sparingly.
Some of the remaining outtake songs go back more toward the sedate side of “Fearless”-style material; she didn’t leave any real bangers in the can. “We Were Happy,” the first of two successive tracks to bring in Keith Urban (but only for backgrounds on this one), employs fake strings and real cello as Swift waxes nostalgic for a time when “you threw your arms around my neck, back when I deserved it.” It’s funny, in a good way, to hear Swift at 31 recreating a song she wrote at 17 or 18 that pined for long-past better times. The next song, “That’s When,” brings Urban in for a proper duet where he gets a whole second verse and featured status on half a chorus, and it’s lovely to hear them together. But, as a make-up song, it doesn’t feel as real or lived-in as the more personal things she was writing at the time — and the fact that its chords are pretty close to a slightly more balladic version of the superior “You Belong With Me” was probably a pretty good reason for dropping it at the time.
the 18-year-old Taylor Swift is a great place to visit, but “Folklore” and “Evermore” are the place you’ll want to return to and live, unless you have an especially strong sentimental attachment to “Fearless”… which, sure, half of young America does. It’s not irreconcilable to say that the two albums she issued in the last year represent a daring pinnacle of her career, but that “Fearless” deserved to win album of the year in 2008. Has there been a greater pop single in the 20th century than “You Belong With Me”? Probably not. Did the album also have lesser moments you probably haven’t thought about in a while, like the just-okay “Breathe”? Yes. (I looked up to see whether Swift had ever played that little remarked upon number in concert, and according to setlists.fm, she did, exactly once… in 2018. Because she’s Taylor Swift, and of course she did.) It’s not certain that her duet with Colbie Caillat really needed to be resurrected, except it’s fun, because hey, she even roped former duet partners back into her time warp. But there are so many number that have stood the test of time, like “The Way I Love You,” an early song that really got at the complicated feelings about passion and fidelity that she would come to explore more as she grew into her 20s… and just kind of a headbanger, too, on an album that does love its fiddles and mandolins.
It doesn’t take much to wonder why Swift put up “Fearless” first in this six-album exercise; it’s one of her two biggest albums, along with “1989,” and it’s 13 years old, which does mean something superstitious in the Taylor-verse. In a way, it’ll be more interesting to see what happens when she gets to more complicated productions, like “1989” or “Reputation.” But maybe “Fearless” did present the opportunity for the grandest experiment out of the gate: to recreate something that pure and heartfelt, with all the meticulousness a studio master like Swift can put to that process now, without having it seem like she’s faking sincerity. Let the think-pieces proceed — because this is about six hundred different shades of meta. But, all craftiness and calculation aside, there’s a sweetness to the regression that’s not inconsequential. It harks back to a time when she only wondered if she could be fearless, before she learned it the harder way for sure. What they say about actors “disappearing into the role”? That really applies to Taylor Swift, playing herself.
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