Although the album lands squarely within the range of expectations, it’s a worthwhile reinvigoration of a classic album.
Taylor Swift is hard at work these days. While most artists have grown accustomed to the two-year album cycle, in the globally tumultuous year and a half since her seventh studio album Lover dropped in the summer of 2019, Swift has dropped three full-length LPs: Album of the Year winner folklore, its sister album evermore, and now Fearless (Taylor’s Version). The re-recording of her first Album of the Year winner, 2008’s Fearless, is a direct response to the bartering of her original master recordings by industry tycoons Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun.
One of the nuances of reviewing a project like this is that, unlike standard LP releases, Swift controls the assignment and the rubric. She’s not trying to reimagine the original recordings but revitalize them: “In terms of production, I really wanted to stay very loyal to the initial melodies that I had thought of for these songs,” she said in an exclusive with People Magazine. “And so we really did go in and try to create a ‘the same but better’ version. We kept all the same parts that I initially dreamed up for these songs. But if there was any way that we could improve upon the sonic quality, we did.” After all, the intention here is to supplant the dominance of the original recordings to make them worthless to the current owners. Given that “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” is already up to 70M streams on Spotify, her plan appears to be working.
And if there was ever a time for her to re-record these projects, there’s no time like the plagued present. At 31-years old, Swift is nearing her vocal prime, and the pandemic has afforded musicians like her a new, heightened focus on the recording aspect of their artistry instead of live performances. The contrast between the original and new recordings is stark, to Swift’s benefit. After being panned for her pitchy performance at the Grammys in 2010 – in a controversy that embroiled the likes of Stevie Nicks and Kelly Clarkson – the vocals here project strength and wisdom without losing the wide-eyed optimism of the originals. Her vibrato is a proper flutter and not a croak, and her Country twang that has been lost to dubstep breakdowns and trap beats actually sounds more polished than ever before. And while many critics have caught onto this point, what has seemingly been overlooked is that the instrumental performances from her accompanists on mandolin, steel pedal, and guitar are also stronger as well, adding new flourishes to their respective musical lines.
Moreso than her other projects, Fearless’s critical and commercial success was heavily rooted in Swift’s youth. Initially released when Swift was only 18, the album managed to traverse demographics and resonate with audiences outside of secondary schools across the United States. Her unabashed lyricism, pining over boys with a defenseless head and heart, made her the endearing “America’s Sweetheart,” who the country wanted to protect even more after the world showed how cruel it could be at the 2009 VMAs. But the updated performance on “Tell Me Why (Taylor’s Version)” exemplifies that her stronger vocal chops today are actually worth trading over some of the youthful naiveté that made the original release so endearing. She still emulates a youthful sound by brightening her tone, with the visions of a teenage songwriter still feeling preserved.
Besides these relatively minor alterations and improvements upon the songs that the public has spent thirteen years with, Swift also bundled six new bonus tracks from her personal “Vault” of demos and unreleased tunes, none of which deserve placement on the standard tracklist. Even though “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” the backhanded compliment for Joe Jonas, is expected to break the Top 40 this week, the melody and lyrics are rudimentary at best, adding nothing more to the album beyond additional streams and context for fans. As a shrewd businesswoman, Swift uses these tracks to deal yet another blow to Scooter Braun and his associates more than improve the album’s narrative.
Although the “Taylor’s Version” formula works well for Fearless, what remains to be seen is whether or not the rest of her discography will respond as well. Her adolescent self-titled debut will likely put up some resistance to being revamped, and the scorn of reputation might feel less potent now that Swift has had five years (and a Kimye divorce) to heal her wounds. Only time will tell what tricks Swift has left up her sleeves.
Stream ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’ here.