There are lyrics throughout Taylor Swift’s breakthrough record Fearless that nearly 13 years later, feel prophetic. “In your life you’ll do things greater than dating the boy on the football team” she sings on “Fifteen”; “The walls that they put up to hold us back will fall down” on “Change”.
In 2008, her songs then crystallised the experience of being a teenage girl, and captured the spirit of an adulthood and a stardom not quite fully formed. They chronicled feelings that were universal then – breakups, dreams, frustrations, first kisses – and still feel timeless. No matter what she does, there is reverence for her teenage work, and her whatever the genre, her music returns to explore those same themes.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is the first of the six early albums Swift is re-recording after she lost the rights to her masters. In reclaiming her life’s work, it is the natural place to start: Fearless was the record that changed her life. Its lead single “Love Story” was the pop crossover hit that forced the world to take notice of her formidable, prodigious talent. The expanded, 26-track new version – with six new songs “from the vault” that she was not allowed to include the first time around – is a symbolic triumph.
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For it to be a financial one, too, it relies upon her fans returning to these versions, instead of the old ones – and for the casual listener not to know the difference. She has honoured her 18-year-old self remarkably closely: imitating nearly every breath, inflection and cry – many of the band members from the original have returned. It is meticulously faithful – and nostalgic for her old innocence – the intervening years adding wisdom and depth without trying too hard to emphasise the growth between “then” and “now”.
Where there are changes, they feel well-chosen: “Tell Me Why (Taylor’s Version)”, an upbeat album track about a boy who sends mixed messages, throbs with exciting renewed venom, the line “you ask me for my love and you push me around” transforms into a full-throated wail. Album tracks are perhaps where she has allowed herself the most creative freedom – “Forever and Always (Taylor’s Version)” adds a beautiful string descant and rapid percussion, it feels sudden, urgent, and fresh.
Songs “from the vault” are where it is clearest how much she has matured as a songwriter: these are the feelings of a teenager from the mouth of a 31-year-old.
“Mr Perfectly Fine” is playful and sharp; the devastating “We Were Happy” feels most in keeping with the original record; and the sparse and wounded “Don’t You” the most contemporary. If Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is Swift’s bid to tell us her full story, how satisfying that it should sound so familiar to the one we already know.