“It was the night things changed,” Taylor Swift sings on “Change (Taylor’s Version),” the 13th track on her album Fearless (Taylor’s Version), released Friday. The album is a newly recorded version of Swift’s 2008 sophomore release by the same name, sans parenthetical, which made her a breakout star with songs like “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me.” “Change,” an arena rock-y ballad about overcoming long odds, was a minor work from the original relative to those hits, but it takes on a much greater significance in the rerecorded version.
Swift wrote “Change” as a tribute and thank you to her then-fledgling label, the Nashville-based Big Machine, and its head Scott Borchetta. But lyrics like “fight for what we’ve worked for all these years’’ resonate differently now, given the reason Swift released Fearless (Taylor’s Version) in the first place. In August of 2019, Taylor announced that she would be rerecording her first six albums to reclaim ownership of her back catalog after Big Machine, which owned those master recordings, sold them to mega-manager Scooter Braun, a longtime Swift adversary, who in turn sold them to a private equity group. Friday’s release was the beginning of Swift’s efforts to regain control over her music.
The decision was motivated in part by economic imperative: Swift wants these rerecordings to replace her original albums on streaming services, in TV, movies, and on the radio. “I’m very excited about it,” she told Good Morning America, “because I just think that artists deserve to own their work.” But there is also a creative, philosophical challenge: To capture the spirit of the songs fans fell in love with more than a decade ago, Swift would need to strike the right balance between embodying her 18-year-old self and taking advantage of the ways in which she’s grown since then. If Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is any indication, the old Taylor and the new Taylor can easily coexist on the rerecorded songs. Listening to Swift’s latest rendition of “Change” doesn’t diminish the original recording; the layers of narrative and meta-narrative weave both the young woman who wrote it and the adult reimagining it into the same song. Taylor’s Version feels like spending time with an old friend, the kind with whom you can pick up right where you left off, no matter how long it’s been.
For the most part, the rerecordings bear a stunning resemblance to the originals. They’re in the same keys, at the same tempos, and use the same instruments to recreate 2008’s glitzed-up country sound. Colbie Caillat does the backing vocals on “Breathe” just as she did on the original. The laugh on “Hey Stephen” is back, too, and immediately transports one back to 2008.
One significant difference is the inclusion of six tracks “from the vault” that were written around the same time as the rest of Fearless, but didn’t make it onto the album. The vault tracks were mostly produced with Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff, Swift’s collaborators on her two 2020 releases, Folklore and Evermore, and don’t sound like the rest of the album, production-wise, but a few of them are stellar. “Bye Bye Baby” deserved a spot on the original Fearless, but it’s worth a 13-year wait.
Another noticeable difference is Swift’s voice, which is substantially different, often for the better. Simply put, she sounds great. At 31, Taylor has more depth and warmth to her voice than she did at 18 and can glide confidently over high notes that used to require an audible windup. There are a few spots in the rerecorded versions—the outro on “Breathe” and throughout “Tell Me Why”—when it sounds like there are some higher harmonies that either weren’t on the originals or have been brought further forward in the mixes on Taylor’s Version. They sound lovely against the richer new vocals. Songs like “Jump Then Fall” shine with fullness.
There are moments when the new recordings don’t capture the yearning edge of the original versions. This was always Swift’s challenge: How does a singer recapture the emotional sincerity of an event that happened so long ago? The new recording of “Forever & Always” is not as biting when castigating an ex over broken promises. “Were you just kidding?” has lost some of its venom and, therefore, its catharsis. Joe Jonas, the inspiration for that song, was recently invoked in another Swift lyric from the song “Invisible String” on Folklore: “Cold was the steel of my ax to grind for the boys who broke my heart / Now I send their babies presents.”
Time has healed some wounds. When Taylor released “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” a vault track also about Jonas, two days before Friday’s release, Jonas’s wife Sophie Turner posted it to her Instagram with the caption “It’s not NOT a bop,” a post Taylor in turn shared. You can hear in some places that some of these nerves are no longer as raw as they once were. “Forever & Always” is the only track that truly suffers from this in a significant way, but there are other diluted moments. On the original version of “Fifteen,” the line “we both cried” comes out as a climactic yelp; it is more subdued on Taylor’s Version. She unfurls the phrase “all you wanted was to be wanted,” more patiently now, missing the original recording’s frantic desperation to get from one word to the next.
More often, though, the overlay of 2021’s perspective onto 2008’s material enhances instead of detracts. “The Best Day,” a tribute to Taylor’s mother Andrea, is wrenching to listen to now with the knowledge of Andrea Swift’s battle with cancer. The lyrics “I don’t know who I’m going to talk to now at school / but I know I’m laughing on the car ride home with you,” refer to an impromptu window-shopping trip mother and daughter took after Taylor realized that girls from her school had lied to her, telling her they were too busy to hang out when they were actually going shopping without her. Now, these same lyrics sound like a bridge to “Soon You’ll Get Better,” off 2019’s Lover, which is about Andrea’s health and includes the lines “Who am I supposed to talk to? What am I supposed to do if there’s no you?”
Another line from “The Best Day”—“I know you’re not scared of anything at all”—turns bittersweet with one of the difficult realizations of growing up: Parents are mortal and can be afraid or hurt or sick or in need. In this case, the rerecording doesn’t paper over the youthful, semiblind adoration of the original—it shines a new light on it, revealing deeper meaning.
Taylor’s Version was released at midnight, and a friend, not a self-identifying Taylor Swift fan, but someone who, like me, was just starting high school when the original Fearless came out, stayed up with me to listen to the new versions. “When are ‘Love Story’ and ‘You Belong With Me?,’” he kept asking, annoyed by my insistence on listening to every track in order. He’s a lawyer now; our conversation toggled between the legal and business entanglements that led to the rerecording project in the first place and the high school dances when we screamed the words to those songs with our friends, packed into sweaty clusters of bodies dancing on linoleum cafeteria floors.
Fearless made Swift a breakthrough star—the album went diamond and she won the first of her three Grammys for Album of the Year—in large part because it crystallized the joy and anxiousness and exuberance of teenagehood, particularly teenage girlhood. The stories and the themes were thoughtful but unapologetically youthful, the melodies catchy, compressed, and perfect for belting in unison. This was powerful, in part, by existing in opposition to the idea that young people, young women, especially, are inclined toward the trivial. There is a risk that hearing a 31-year-old’s rendering of these songs would undercut the original, but Fearless (Taylor’s Version) doesn’t do that at all. Swift never sounds like she’s talking down at her old self or revising history; she sounds more often like she’s looking back and marveling at the perspective she had then.
It’s been a parallel experience listening to Taylor’s Version and talking about it with friends in the past few days. What is at its core a financially motivated business decision became a nostalgic and celebratory event for Taylor fans—they can reminisce and celebrate past experiences while listening to the music that helped them process those moments. Looking back on your younger self fondly is a wonderful feeling.
Taylor has lived, and—to paraphrase a line from the vault track “You All Over Me”— she’s learned. But it’s nice to know that some of that growth served to validate the feelings and the findings of her younger self. In the liner notes for Fearless, Taylor wrote that her definition of fearlessness was “not the absence of fear” or doubt but living, loving, jumping, falling in spite of fears and doubts. “You have to believe in love stories and prince charmings and happily ever after,” she wrote. The happy ending in Taylor’s Version is an affirmation of youthful perspective even after so much has changed. Its ability to capture the spirit of 2008’s Fearless fits the purpose of the exercise, too. Not only does the rerecorded album make the new versions a viable alternatives for fans, it serves as a reminder that no matter whose name is on the copyright paperwork, these songs have always been Swift’s and always will be.