It’s 2009. I’m fresh out of first grade and on the neighborhood swim team. For my eight-year-old self, it’s a good time to be alive – hours under the sun, wasting my time playing handball in the sand pit and sharks and minnows in the pool. At practice, my friends and I would race each other, and at meets, we’d sit in the bleachers and cheer each other on. There, on these metal benches, is where I’d make one of my earliest memories of music – where else better to scream “She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers”?
Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” was a small part in her domination of the late 2000s. Her second album, “Fearless,” sent five singles to top ten of the Billboard 100 on its way to becoming the best selling album of 2009 and her first of three Album of the Year Grammys. As an unmitigated success, “Fearless” was a glorious sunset for broadly-appealing country music before the genre became overwhelmed by bro-country in the next decade.
13 years after the album was first introduced to the world, Swift released “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” as the culmination of a years-long effort to reclaim the ownership of her discography. After her old record label denied her the opportunity to buy the masters for her first six albums, instead secretly selling them to music industry bogeyman Scooter Braun, Swift decided to fight back.
Because Swift has songwriting credits on every song in her discography, she has the legal right to re-record all her music. Doing so devalues the original investment while creating a version of her art that she owns and is a bold statement for artists’ rights to own their music.
For Swift’s statement to work though, her new version of the album needs to be better than the original to get people to listen to her rerecording. Thankfully for Swift, “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” does that and more thanks to her vastly improved vocals and six previously-unreleased songs, marketed as “From The Vault.” These, plus the movie soundtrack song “Today Was A Fairytale” and the six deluxe tracks from the 2009 platinum edition of the album, bring the tracklist up to a whopping 26 songs. That makes “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” an exhausting listening experience, although if you can manage the 106-minute runtime, you’ll be greatly rewarded.
The best way to listen to “Taylor’s Version” is probably to break it up into halves. The first thirteen songs comprise the standard edition of the album, and before “Folklore” was released in 2020, that album was her most cohesive to date. On “Taylor’s Version,” the highs and lows alike are improved from their original versions, sometimes drastically.
The most obvious improvement is closer “Change,” a power ballad for the 2008 Olympics that was perhaps a bit too ambitious for 18-year-old Swift’s voice. Now, it’s an obvious standout in an album full of standouts, Swift’s vocals effortlessly carrying each “Hallelujah” as if they were nothing. However, you’d be remiss to forget about “The Way I Loved You,” arguably Swift’s best song pre-“Red.” Here, she compares a perfectly boring boyfriend to an ex that had her “screaming and fighting and kissing in the rain” with all the emotion and more of her teenage self, backed by an even more crisp production (instruments played by her old touring band, of course) than the original. If you listen to only one song and nothing else from “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” make it “The Way I Loved You.”
The second half of “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” is not nearly as cohesive as its earlier counterpart, but its sonic diversity gives it the all-over-the-place charm also seen in Swift’s “Red” and “Lover”. An early favorite here is “Untouchable,” a cover of a punk rock song by the band Luna Halo reinterpreted as a shimmering ballad. In retrospect, it’s clear that “Untouchable” was a prelude for 2010’s “Speak Now,” Swift’s entirely self-written album and foray into country-rock.
Other songs, in retrospect, also serve to foreshadow some of Swift’s most iconic musical moments. “The Other Side Of The Door” has a song-ending bridge, a trick Swift would later develop into fully-fledged double bridges, a tactic saved for only her best bridges (see: “Treacherous,” “Cruel Summer” and “August”).
Most interesting are the “From The Vault” outtakes that never made the cut a decade plus ago. Jack Antonoff, longtime producer and friend of Swift, continues to prove his versatility by producing four of these. Together, Antonoff and Swift push the boundaries of country – synth-country “Don’t You” is closer to her 2014 album “1989” than it is to anything else on “Fearless,” and promo single “Mr. Perfectly Fine” has a melody that could strike fear into the heart of “Shake It Off” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
“Bye Bye Baby,” the final vault track for “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” is eerily premonitory for a song written in 2007. “Bye bye baby / I want you back but it's come down to nothing / And all I have is your sympathy,” Swift sings – is she addressing some ex-lover, or did 17-year-old Swift foresee her future struggle to own her own music? Regardless, for Swift, this is the point of no return. She isn’t getting her old music back, so she might as well say her goodbyes.
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