Fearless Taylor's Version

Taylor Swift Fearless (Taylor’s Version) review “these songs are worth the price of admission alone”

“Wish you could go back,” sings Taylor Swift on Fifteen, “And tell yourself what you know now.”

What would 2021 Taylor tell her younger 2008 self, we wonder? Probably something about reading the small print in recording contracts, as today she releases Fearless (Taylor’s Version), a sumptuous, full-scale re-recording of her beloved second album, designed to ensure that she herself – rather than the faceless men in suits who now own the original masters of these songs – sees the benefit of her artistry.

It is a pretty much unprecedented exercise in a career that has itself been pretty much unprecedented ever since Fearless came out and turned her into the biggest star in country music and the most exciting musician on the planet. When Swift first mooted re-recording all her old Big Machine albums – in the light of the label being sold to Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings without her being consulted – many doubted she would follow through.

But Swift – unlike the feckless senior boys and unreliable pop stars who are the subject of many Fearless songs – meant every word. And more as it turns out: Taylor’s Version of Fearless not only replicates its original lucky 13 tracks, nor even only its Platinum Edition’s additional six, but also throws in new versions of soundtrack song Today Was A Fairytale, a pop-dance Love Story remix (to recreate the way many UK listeners would have first heard her, mildly decountrified for commercial pop radio) and six previously unheard ‘From The Vaults’ songs that never got released at the time.

Those six songs will be of most interest to Swiftologists, uniquely allowing the older, wiser post-Folklore/Evermore singer-songwriter to interpret her younger self’s precocious songwriting talents with all the skills she’s since acquired.

Not to mention her contact book she’s filled out along the way. Her current collaborators Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff appear as producers on these tracks – and how mind-blowing a proposition that would have been in 2008, when Dessner’s band, The National, were uber-alternative favourites and Antonoff’s Fun were just starting their own alt-rock career – while country stars Maren Morris and Keith Urban (who Swift opened for around the Fearless era) pop up as collaborators.

Consequently, these songs are worth the price of admission alone: Swift’s authentic teenage fantasies filtered through the experience that comes with being the greatest star of the age, but without losing any of their initial charm. So, Mr Perfectly Fine is a chiming pop song that would have worked at any stage of Swift’s stellar career, even using the “casually cruel” descriptor that she later used to such devastating effect on All Too Well. The beautifully under-stated, Urban-featuring That’s When could almost have stepped off one of her incredible lockdown records. And You All Over Me, featuring Morris, shows her careworn lyrics were always way ahead of her tender years (“Like the dollar in your pocket that’s been spent and traded in/You can’t change where it’s been”).

These and the other songs are much too essential to be mere bonus tracks, and certainly far too wonderful to have been left languishing in the vaults this long (Swift herself calls them “the ones it killed me to leave behind”). But that is the difference between Swift now and then; in 2021, she’s in total control of such decisions.

And that’s why this new version of Fearless – “the entire vivid picture” as Swift calls it – is so significant. Braun no longer owns the masters to these songs, having sold them to Shamrock (indeed, Ithaca itself has been sold on to Hybe, formerly Big Hit Entertainment). But when the Shamrock sale was made, Swift was again denied the chance to claim ownership and Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is the sound of her reclaiming what’s rightfully hers.

Which is not to say it sounds notably different to the classic original record – the most awarded country album of all time, lest we forget, and the project that arguably made country music a viable global genre again, after years of being confined to North America.

Indeed, only Swift obsessives would note any significant differences. Her voice cracks slightly on the opening lines of Fearless, as if to illustrate the passing of time, and maybe there’s fractionally less country twang to the timbre of a voice that has developed significantly over the years, and the odd alteration in instrumentation. But, overall, these versions are a lot more faithful than most of the songs’ subjects.

That’s in part so that radio programmers and streaming playlisters have no excuses when it comes to which version to select, of course. But surely also because Swift recognises why songs such as Love Story, Fifteen, You Belong With Me, White Horse and The Best Day were so cherished in the first place; for their authentic, unvarnished take on the teenage experience. To her eternal credit, Swift resists the temptation to update even the songs’ more naïve elements, leaving them as true testaments to the times.

After all, Fearless’ impact was such that it remains a big seller. Her UK breakthrough, it’s double-platinum here, having sold around 650,000 copies, and moved over 20,000 in the UK alone last year. My sources indicate weekly UK unit sales for the original version of Love Story have actually held up since Taylor’s Version debuted as Swift’s first re-record, although the new version has outpaced it since release, racking up millions of streams. But if streamers and buyers move over to the new version of Fearless en masse around the world – and certainly for those purchasing the physical album, there is no real choice to make, so comprehensive is this package – that would represent a considerable impact on Shamrock’s investment.

Not to mention a sizeable lesson for the wider industry. Ever since Swift made her stand against Braun’s acquisition – she told me back in 2019 that she wanted new and aspiring artists to know that “they don’t have to sign stuff that’s unfair to them” – the movement towards greater artists’ rights may have been slow, but the momentum seems irresistible.

Contrary to popular belief, the industry contains plenty of music-loving people who want to do the right thing – Swift’s own, ground-breaking record deal with Republic/Universal, which grants her ownership of her masters, is proof of that. But Swift wants that freedom for everyone, and in a world in which the DCMS Committee is investigating streaming economics; the #BrokenRecord and #FixStreaming movements have won wide support; and even Jedward are protesting about unfair deals, change is surely on its way.

We hear a lot these days about how artists have more options than ever. But really it might be better to look at it the other way round: the music industry has fewer options than ever if it wants to maintain its relationships with those who create the music in the first place. Sooner or later, surely everyone will realise they can no longer take artists and songwriters for granted.

Exactly how best to redress the balance will take some working out but, in the meantime, this new take on Fearless – not to mention the other re-records of classics to come, with Swift declaring herself “even more determined to re-record all of my music” – will provide a glorious soundtrack.

And, when the moment arrives, Taylor’s Version of events will not only have been worth the painstaking work that has gone into replicating the lightning captured in a bottle lucky 13 years ago, but it may also have played a key role in changing the industry landscape.

Now that really would be something for Taylor Swift to go back in time and tell herself.