On the heels of Taylor Swift’s historic Grammy triumph, where she received her third Album of the Year award, fans celebrate the re-recording of her first AOTY-winning album. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) (2021) is a soothing indulgence in nostalgia that evokes memories of where, and who, we were when the original version came out in 2008. Listening to Swift sing these beloved songs again feels much like opening a hermetically sealed chamber of memories and feeling the nostalgia rush out. The songs are elevated by maturity in her vocals and the wisdom gained through her own lived experiences over the past 13 years.
This release also marks the beginning of Swift’s fearless journey to own her work and reclaim her musical catalog. Under Swift’s initial contract with Big Machine Records, she does not own the masters for her first six studio albums. Despite attempting to purchase back her previous work, owner Scott Borchetta instead sold the label, along with Swift’s discography, to music mogul Scooter Braun in a $300 million deal. In a Tumblr post announcing the news, she shared her frustration about her masters specifically being in the hands of someone she associates with torment.
Swift therefore decided to re-record all of her pre-Lover (2019) albums in order to own the copyright on the music; this way, usage of her music in other media will not benefit Braun. Moreover, Swift has been very outspoken about her firm belief that artists should be able to own their work and be fairly compensated through streaming revenue. In her eloquent acceptance speech for the Billboard Woman of the Decade Award in 2019, she mentioned that when negotiating her contract with Universal Music Group, she insisted that they “contractually guarantee that the artists on their roster be paid upon any sale of their Spotify shares, unrecoupable.”
Swift has achieved immense success over the past decade, broken countless chart and streaming records—especially with her eighth studio album, folklore (2020), a surprise release—and gained a fiercely loyal following. Her raw songwriting talent has led to numerous mainstream chart-topping hits in multiple genres. Her ability to demolish genre boundaries and fully immerse herself in whichever one she takes on—whether it is country, pop, or alternative—only reinforces her musical savvy. But most importantly, the re-recording project she embarks on, with Fearless (Taylor’s Version) as its opening act, speaks volumes about the timelessness of her music.
With this 26-track time capsule, Swift effectively launches listeners back to 2008 and suspends them in time. One of the wonderful external aspects of the experience for fans is the opportunity to apply fresh meanings and interpretations to familiar and beloved songs while simultaneously enjoying the six previously unreleased “From The Vault” tracks excluded from the original cut of the album. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) stays faithful to the heart of the original but features an undeniable maturity in vocals as well as subtly refreshed production and instrumentation.
One might wonder if re-recordings compromise the integrity of the original musical work because the emotions driving those songs are perhaps not as raw as they were when the songs were written. However, Swift proves that assumption to be categorically untrue. If there was a mood board for angst, teenage or otherwise, “White Horse (Taylor’s Version)” would be on it. Swift expertly evokes the same emotional depth as the original, and listeners have no choice but to get caught in the undertow of the beautifully conveyed painful realizations that come with ill-fitting relationships. “Breathe (feat. Colbie Caillat) (Taylor’s Version)” features cinematic and wistful strings, telling the story of bidding farewell to a person you never thought you would need to live without. The clarity and fidelity of the production on “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” are much cleaner than on the original, as is Swift’s enunciation and diction in several areas. The essence of the song, about the intensity and earnestness of young love, is highlighted by the innocence of the fiddle in the background contrasting the energetic percussion.
As a love letter to her own legacy, Swift included sentimental nods to the first “Fearless era” in the lyric videos she published on YouTube. In the video for “You Belong With Me (Taylor’s Version),” she stitches in clips of her teenage self dancing around in the kitchen with headphones on. For “Fifteen (Taylor’s Version),” viewers see a touching tribute to friendship through a scrapbook-style slideshow of Taylor and her longtime friend Abigail, a subject of the song itself, in their teens. The video culminates with a recent snapshot of them together, showing how far their friendship has come.
The previously unreleased tracks are, unsurprisingly, lyrical masterpieces. In “You All Over Me (feat. Maren Morris) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault),” the tempo mimics a leisurely stroll down memory lane. The instrumentation and production are also redolent of the quality Swift achieved in folklore. The acoustic guitar and harmonica combination evokes “betty”, and the metronomic beeping at the beginning is certainly similar to “peace.” The opening lines of the song are a testament to her dexterity with imagery: “Once the last drop of rain has dried off the pavement / Shouldn’t I find a stain, but I never do / The way the tires turn stones on old county roads / They leave ’em muddy underneath, reminds me of you.” The lyricism in the very first vault track reminds listeners that her prosaic ingenuity is not a new development by any means; she has been a songwriting savant since the genesis of her illustrious career. Both her handle on language and her ability to effortlessly utilize lyrics to craft crisp visuals of personal memories are unmatched.
It is interesting to see how these shelved songs relate to tracks on later albums since the “From The Vault” tracks were written around the time when Fearless (2008) was being constructed. For example, “Clean” from 1989 (2014) features the following lines: “You’re still all over me” and “Gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean.” Comparatively, in “You All Over Me (feat. Maren Morris) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault),” Swift sings, “But no amount of freedom gets you clean / I’ve still got you all over me.” This shift in perspective that comes with age and experience is also brought alive in the vault track when she sings, “I lived, and I learned / And found out what it was to turn around / And see that we / Were never really meant to be.”
“Mr. Perfectly Fine (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)” also parallels Swift’s earlier work. “All Too Well” from Red (2012) features the phrase, “casually cruel”, as does the vault track. The instrumentation comprises a dancy, pop percussion that makes the song instantly catchy. It is highly reminiscent of her early sound, particularly 1989, whilst still meshing in subtle nods to her present musical sensibilities.
This seamless blend between her past and present musical styles serves as a common theme throughout these new tracks. “We Were Happy (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault),” produced by folklore and evermore (2020) collaborator Aaron Dessner, sounds like it could have simultaneously held a place on evermore and on the original Fearless. With harmonies sung by Keith Urban, the song’s melchonolic, lullaby-like crooning mourns the blissful memories of a love that has since faded: “We used to watch the sun go down on the boats in the water / That’s sorta how I feel right now / And goodbye’s so much harder ’cause we were happy.”
“Don’t You (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)” delivers gorgeously haunting harmonies and layered vocals that exude a dreamy wistfulness. Featuring production by seasoned collaborator Jack Antonoff, the song’s melody is distinct and accentuates synths and percussion. Out of all the “From The Vault” tracks, “Bye Bye Baby (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)” sounds the most like it could have made a home in the first Fearless album; the country twang in her voice, as well as in the production, manifests itself most clearly in the final track. It also highlights the undeniable evolution of her vocal power with her impeccable lower register and vocal runs near the end.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) displays Swift’s growth and exudes an air of sentimental reminiscence. The natural evolution of personality and perspective that undoubtedly occurs between the ages of eighteen and thirty-one imbues the album as a whole with an inherent grace and the benefit of hindsight. Ultimately, she breathes a new life into her musical catalog, revitalizing tracks over a decade old, and she broadens the Taylor Swift canon with the release of the “From The Vault” tracks. Upcoming re-releases will inevitably be just as effective at redefining past eras and, most importantly, reclaiming them. The anticipation builds every day.
VOICE’S CHOICES: “You All Over Me (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault),” “Breathe (feat. Colbie Caillat) (Taylor’s Version),” “Forever and Always (Piano Version) (Taylor’s Version),” “The Way I Loved You (Taylor’s Version)”