Taylor Swift lovingly crafts a stunning time capsule back to her 2008 country pop classic.
Taylor Swift fans rejoice, the journey begins here.
Following the sale of her master recordings to Scooter Braun (and eventually Shamrock Holdings) in 2019, Swift announced her intention to re-record her first six studio albums in order to reclaim independent ownership of her catalogue, starting with defining work of her early career in the country pop masterclass of 2008's Fearless. It's a massive project to undertake for the pop superstar, just a few months removed from a year in which she released two of the most critically successful albums of her career, yet the thirty one year old is in rare form since the release of folklore last July. Thriving in the endless streak of productivity that modern times seem to have brought out in her, Taylor is very much basking in the prime of her career with a newfound confidence that has shined since the release of Netflix documentary Miss Americana at the start of 2020 and is burning just as brightly today, judging by the carefree and assured delivery of Fearless.
It's always a curious affair judging re-recorded projects, with the opportunity to contrast and compare song by song that's rarely encountered in an artist's career - perhaps the best example of recent times is a drastically different scenario in Car Seat Headrest's Twin Fantasy (Face to Face) from 2018 - Will Toledo's indie rock opus was a reworking of his sixth studio album Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror), a sprawling concept work that Toledo brought to life in thunderous hi-fi sound on its re-release in order to match the epic story that the original couldn't capture for practical and financial reasons (mainly due to a lack of professional studio equipment and sound recording techniques).
Granted, you may ask yourself how Fearless' 2008 version could possibly relate to an updated studio recording of an underfunded Soundcloud classic in Twin Fantasy (after all, Fearless benefitted from the very best production treatment that could be reasonably afforded to an artist in 2008 while Toledo was literally working from a garage in 2011), but the comparison is not as crazy as it may seem at first. Taylor's Version sees Swift execute the country pop ballads of her second album with a similarly production-heavy, sonically orientated upgrade. The original collection of aging mid noughties tunes undergoes a hi-fi makeover that emphasizes its instrumentation like never before. The result is a wonderfully crisp, impeccably clean sound that lifts each individual track and gifts Fearless a sheen and gloss that makes its predecessor sound like a recording you've been hearing underwater for the past fifteen years.
The changes that Swift and her production team (including long term collaborator Christopher Rowe, as well as Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner who return for the 'From The Vault' bonus tracks following their Grammy winning work on folklore last year) make on each track are subtle - Swift is not reinventing the wheel or rocking the boat with these arrangements, sticking to the same structure on each song while allowing the tastefully highlighted intricacies of these mixes to make their mark in a clear yet conspicuous manner - the instrumental work on piano, strings, banjo and acoustic guitar achieves a depth of sound that wasn't possible a decade and a half ago. Consequently, the songcraft and musicianship of Swift's original work is allowed to surface and evolve, an element of the Pennsylvania native's early releases that was probably glossed over at the time, in hindsight.
The most stunning reveal of these tracks though (and most immediately identifiable difference) is Swift's vocal performance. Taylor's voice sounds better than it has at any point in her career at this moment in time, with the intimate twang of folklore and evermore perhaps understating the incredible range of her current vocal abilities due to their acoustic nature, but Fearless unleashes the full potential of Swift's voice, with an utterly mesmerizing delivery throughout that showcases the bluesy maturation of the singer's tenor in recent years. In turn, these songs are gifted a level of richness and dexterity that was perhaps out of reach for Taylor as a performer in her late teens (Swift was just eighteen when the original album was released, a fact which makes the graceful aging of these tracks all the more impressive today).
The songs remain as effortlessly melodic and hopelessly romantic as ever - verified landmarks of the 21st century's popular musical canon in 'Love Story' and 'You Belong With Me' are as triumphant and charming as ever, leaning deeper into the country influence that made them the outstanding pop anthems of their generation. Deeper cuts 'Breathe', 'You're Not Sorry' and 'Tell Me Why' remain gems within an extensive tracklist, soaring thanks to Taylor's radiant vocal delivery and famed storytelling abilities, which provide these fan favourites with greater resonance in their advanced age.
Any fears of overwrought teenage drama and angst making for corny listening in a modern context are quashed as soon as you hear the disarming emotion that still carries tracks like 'Hey Stephen', 'White Horse' and 'Forever and Always' - these unabashed documents of teenage romance are as endearing and earnest now as they were once upon a time, with the sweet innocence and nostalgia of their twisted fairytales perfectly encapsulating the timeless, universal nature of Fearless now and then.
Taylor's eternal problem with curating a concise tracklist is the only source of contention here, as Taylor's Version comprises a staggering twenty six tracks that reach towards a two hour length without any split or division into sides or discs, at least on major streaming services or on Taylor's official site. While the first thirteen tracks make up the original Fearless, there is no gap between bonus material such as international edition tracks or the newly unearthed From The Vault pieces. The Vault tracks especially make for rewarding further listening but should really be defined as separate from the rest of the album on a second disc so as to avoid oversaturation and a lack of cohesion overall. Perhaps this will be clarified in due time, but as it stands Fearless clocks in at a full, uninterrupted twenty six tracks and 106 minutes which is a stretch to say the least. You be the judge as to whether this is nitpicking or a legitimate issue - either way, it's a small complaint to have in the grand scheme of this record.
Perhaps more so than for what Fearless achieves musically, Swift has to be commended for the statement she is making on an industry level here - to reclaim her work as her own in such inventive fashion (and with such a quality execution) is sending a message to labels that the ownership of work ultimately lies with artist over corporation, and not vice versa. Fearless (Taylor's Version) may be a trip to the past for its author, but Swift is trailblazing a brighter future for artists worldwide in the digital age with such a public victory over her former label, establishing herself as an independent creator who is calling her own shots and drawing a line in the sand.
Crucially though, in order for it to achieve the significance it aspires to within the record industry, Fearless (Taylor's Version) had to succeed from a musical standpoint, and it does so unquestionably. In fully realizing an evolutionary version of a milestone record in her rise to stardom, Fearless begins what is sure to be a remarkable journey with the most perfect time machine imaginable. Taylor's Version definitively establishes itself as the superior of its elder twin in almost every way conceivable - a perfect reflection of the growth that Swift herself has undergone in the past fifteen years, all the way from tentative, wide-eyed teenage star to transcendent generational icon.
8.0 / B+
Best Tracks: 'Love Story'/'You Belong With Me'/'Breathe'/'You're Not Sorry'
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