REVIEW: ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’ delivers everything of its predecessor & more

Taylor Swift’s latest project ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version) features re-recordings and never-before-released songs she wrote at 18 years old. Promotional artwork courtesy of Republic Records.

A little less than a year after taking home a Grammy for Album of the Year for her eighth studio album Folklore, Taylor Swift released the re-recorded version of her second studio album Fearless on April 9th. Swift wrote the album at 18 years old and also received a Grammy for Album of the Year for the project. The re-recorded album has 26 tracks (compared to the original platinum edition album’s 19 tracks) including “From the Vault” songs that Swift wrote over a decade ago but never released until now. Each song provides a refreshing throwback for fans and soulful country music for casual listeners as Swift shows off her improved vocal ability and developed musicality. 

Yet, considering all of Swift’s current success with folk-indie projects like Evermore, it begs the question: why revisit an album that is 13 years old? 

When Swift signed her first major contract with Big Machine Records all the way back in 2005, she also signed off her ownership rights of the masters (original recordings) of the songs she would go on to produce with the company. Throughout the duration of the contract with Big Machine Records that expired in 2018, Swift recorded six albums. Issues arose in 2019 when Big Machine Records was purchased by producer Scooter Braun’s company Ithaca Holdings. Braun then sold the masters of all six of Swift’s albums under Big Machine Records to another company against her wishes. 

Naturally, as soon as Swift was legally allowed to re-record her old pieces so that the masters of them would belong to her, she got right to work. And her work is incredible.  

Arguably the most anticipated tracks were those that put Swift on the map as a rising star. Songs like “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” defined much of her career and are still some of her most recognizable works. Of the two re-recorded editions of these tracks, “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” stands out a bit more in its improved musicality. The song itself follows Swift as she imagines herself in the story of star crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet while struggling in a forbidden romance. Compared to the original version, Swift’s voice is cleaner, fuller, more mature. She’s not a teenager anymore but an adult who has honed her vocal skills for years and this sense of growth is instantly present. Behind Swift’s voice are no longer plucky guitar strings but smoother, more well-rounded sounds of guitars, fiddles, drums, and harmonizing vocalists all working together. The song is still true to its nature, but there’s a new layer to this re-recording. Not only is Swift’s voice older, it is also wiser. She’s singing this iconic track for herself, not the rest of the world, and it creates an intimate warmth that the original Fearless album simply did not have. 

Other tracks from the album also shine in their re-recorded glory. Take “Breathe” for example, an emotional ballad featuring singer Colbie Callait. While the original version of the song was noteworthy, especially considering Swift’s age when writing it, the song was still undoubtedly performed by a young adult with the help of an older artist adding a fuller sound. Yet in Taylor’s Version, “Breathe” is breathtaking with an absolutely beautiful and somehow even more emotional touch. It’s the age behind the vocals, the emphasis on intonation (and of course the accompanying violin) that make all the difference, especially in the chorus as the singers lament, “I can’t breathe without you,” and the final lyrics repeating the phrase “I’m sorry.”  

“Tell Me Why” is another standout track when compared to its predecessor. This song goes from its original version as a peppy country tune about frustration in a manipulative relationship to an all out banjo jam session with flashy drums, complete with its trademark fiddle melody. Swift also sings some higher notes in this song, and while the original version might have hinted that she was straining herself while jumping into a higher range, you would never guess such a thing in the latest release. 

The rest of the album follows suit as familiar tracks are re-recorded but not reimagined — and intentionally so. Swift ensures that the integrity of the original songs is intact so that they are still, well, the original songs, but now owned by her. No lyrics are rewritten and there are no surprise additions of verses or bridges. Frankly, most minor changes like a new background instrumental or difference in pitch during a riff would only be noticed by “Swifties,” Taylor’s fans. But that is the magic of the re-recordings. They exist to be heard by casual listeners as the same songs yet still allow fans to revel in Swift’s growth in artistry and musicality over the years.

Enter the vault tracks. Six never-before-released songs that deliver the right amount of 2008 nostalgia mixed with a modern maturity. At the first listen it is somewhat easy to see why these tracks didn’t end up on the original Fearless album: most of them resemble the lyrical and musical styles of the other tracks and would make the project seem redundant, not to mention much longer. Several of the songs are also much simpler in terms of lyrics, making them a little less enticing but still thoughtful tracks that are worth the listen. 

One track that especially stands out from the vault is “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” a classic breakup song that describes the frustration of seeing an ex moving on while you’re still left in pieces over the relationship ending. Swift creatively characterizes the ex in question by giving him names like, “Mr. Casually Cruel / Mr. Everything Revolves Around You” and “Mr. Always Wins.” With its catchy lyrics, smooth but strong background instrumentation, and Swift’s voice sliding into notes gracefully and with flare, it’s a track sure to have you dramatically singing into your hairbrush after a couple of listens. 

A vault track very different from “Mr. Perfectly Fine” is the melancholy “You All Over Me” featuring singer Marren Morris. The song details an emotional journey of trying to move past a love that left you scarred. Swift brings the story to life through imagery and metaphors. At one point Swift describes herself as “the dollar in your pocket, it’s been spent and traded in / You can’t change where it’s been” in depicting how even though she’ll one day move on, she won’t forget what she endured to be able to do just that. Each lyric evokes the idea of a bittersweet memory, like when Swift recalls how “the best and worst day of June / Was the one that I met you.” It’s emotional From the Vault tracks like this that showcase how Swift’s lyrics have always been smart and crafted with care. Factor these poetic lyrics in with the soulful harmonica and soft guitar in the background, and you’ll be left with chills as you experience the story of a heartbreak.

“[Swift’s re-recordings] exist to be heard by casual listeners as the same songs yet still allow fans to revel in Swift’s growth in artistry and musicality over the years.”

The album as a whole is the recreation of a masterpiece, just as Swift intended. And it’s important that listeners realize this as they press play. They should not be gearing up for new music that has never been seen before from Taylor Swift, because this album is arguably more of a tribute to an era than the beginning of a new musical innovation. In terms of how it flows, the album is more like an anthology than one story. Swift compiled all of the songs from this period in her life into one record, and while the tracklist mostly follows that of the original album, listeners will be confused by the appearance of From the Vault tracks at the end if they are not understanding that Swift used this album more or less to showcase all of her work from the years in which she wrote and performed the original Fearless

Still, the album is far from messy or unorganized. The vault tracks placed at the end of the album are ordered in a way that balances out the upbeat songs with the more somber ones. The final track, a vault song entitled “Bye Bye Baby,” ends the project on somewhat of a note of closure as Swift, as you may have guessed, says goodbye to a lover who couldn’t be there for her. At the end of the day, it comes down to the fact that the album is simply long. With nearly two hours of music it is difficult to listen to in one sitting, and due to the nature of this project as a re-recording that is perfectly acceptable.

And so we are left with Fearless (Taylor’s Version): the new representation of a past era in Taylor Swift’s career. Yet despite this project being Swift’s most nostalgic, it still nods toward the future. The album itself is a symbol of all that Taylor Swift did and became for the music industry. It is the moment in time where she began to shift from influencing the music industry to defining what sounds and styles were popular. This is the album that inspired the next generation of pop artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Conan Gray, both of whom attribute their songwriting knowledge to Swift. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is in no way shutting the door on the era that was the original Fearless but rather reminding us that music impacts culture long after a song is over and a record placed back on the shelf. 

At a more personal level for Swift, she is also fighting for musicians to be able to own the masters of their music and not watch their talent, effort, and artistry be sold like property. As someone so powerful in the music industry, she uses this re-recording to stand up and say that what money-minded producers do is not ethical and should not be tolerated. 

And she makes this statement fearlessly.

Elizabeth Dyer is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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