Posted inCultures

“We’re not ‘perfectly fine’”: ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’ – Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift has been the saviour of the new decade so far. With the surprise releases of Folklore and Evermore, she really pulled through for Swifties everywhere. To give the World not one but two albums in the midst of a global crisis, when inspiration was at an all-time low, was the best form of therapy many could ask for. Dancing to “Long Story Short”, wallowing in “Champagne Problems”, and breaking down to “Marjorie” have been common occurrences. But it was in Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the rerecording of her break-through album Fearless, that nostalgia hit us like a “pick-up truck you never let me drive”. You could argue that this is far from exciting; we have heard all the songs before, we know all the words, we have moved on from the Kanye West “You Belong With Me” VMA saga. Yet none of this matters when your speaker blasts out the first few chords of “Love Story”’s melody. We have to question if the old Taylor really is “dead”.

The first impression you get when listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is quite how similar it is to the original. One might question if anything has changed at all. The album retains the sonic cohesion of the original, and the ‘vault’ tracks that have been added only enhance the musical excellence that garnered Swift’s first ‘Album of the Year’ win at The Grammys in 2010. She has since become the first woman to win ‘Album of the Year’ three times for Fearless, 1989, and most recently for this year’s win with Folklore. Unsurprisingly, the real standouts of the album are the ‘vault’ tracks. “Mr. Perfectly Fine” exudes the pettiness and sarcastic humour that characterises much of her earlier work. Without question, it is a God-Tier track. Her collaboration with Keith Urban on “That’s When” grounds Swift in her country roots. Swift is impressively able to morph back into her tonal cowboy boots and yee-haws for this album.

It is only after several listens that you begin to pick up the changes made. As Swift famously said: she will “never change, but … never stay the same either,” and this is exactly the logic she has applied to the re-recordings. When discussing the recording process, Swift stated that she “wanted to stay very loyal to the initial melodies” and meticulously went through each song “line-by-line” to see where they could be improved. For this reason this album could equally be called Fearless (HD Version). With age and experience her vocals have matured and strengthened, leaving every song enriched with a greater power and depth that sometimes lacked in the originals.

This is understandable given that the gap between the different versions is more than a decade. The surprise of the album was the way in which the new songs matched the tone of the main tracks. In some this is due to lyrical similarities; in the new song “Mr. Perfectly Fine” Swift sings “Mr. looked me in the eye and told me you would never go away”, mirroring the lyric “looked me in the eye and told me you loved me” from “Forever & Always”. In others the instrumental similarities are abundant; both “White Horse” and “We Were Happy” begin with defined but mellow fingerpicking and string instruments. The album gains coherence from these parallels that is replicated in the continuity of imagery that encompasses Fearless (Taylor’s Version). Key motifs relating to rain, eyes, and fairytale romance are scattered throughout the originals and the ‘vault’ songs.

The joy of these new additions is that they draw together all of Swift’s work. For years the bridge of “All Too Well”, from her album Red, has crippled many. Even the hearts of those which have never been broken are pierced by the layers of anguish expressed in the lines: “You call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest.” It is only now that we discover that this lyric of so much raw emotion and hurt is not a new one. In the strikingly and contrastingly upbeat “Mr. Perfectly Fine”, Swift mockingly nicknames her subject – a certain Joe Jonas – “Mr. Casually cruel”. Not only does this attest to Swift’s ability to hold onto things, but it also outlines how much she has matured over the years. The biting lyric in question is fuelled by pettiness in the new, but older, song and yet in “All Too Well” it is loaded with genuine pain. With the re-recorded album and previously unheard songs we can see the full extent of Swift’s character; she is not a machine churning out hits, but a person who remembers the universal and unchanging feeling of heartbreak.

It is heartbreak and betrayal that was the catalyst for the creation of Fearless (Taylor’s Version). While not romantic, this stabbing in the back is arguably more painful than the end of a relationship. In 2019, Scooter Braun bought ‘Big Machine Records’, the label Swift was signed to that was run by Scott Borchetta. Borchetta was the person to give a platform to her music; she was the person to make him millions. But, after years of success the sale of the label equated to the sale of her masters. Swift was denied the opportunity to own her work and Scooter Braun was lauded as the man who ‘bought’ Taylor Swift by many on social media. As someone who is so closely connected to her music, for Swift to lose control of the songs that she described as diaries was an insurmountable blow. When we consider that her third album, Speak Now, was entirely self-written we can begin to appreciate the personal loss. Over a decade of her highs and lows, her wants and dreams, her pain and tears were suddenly ripped away. Swift even had to request permission to perform songs which had been her greatest hits. It is in this that we can understand why Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is so similar to Fearless. Swift does not change anything because this isn’t a new album; this is a memorial. With Fearless (Taylor’s Version) Swift regains control. She regains so much more than ownership of some songs, because they are so much more than songs. In doing this Swift has taken back what was and is the literal narrative of her life.

Whether by accident or design, everything in Swift’s album aligns. For anyone who knows anything about Taylor Swift, you should be aware of the significance of the number 13. Before there was the legacy of Track 5, before we were counting holes in the fence, before 1989 was the first thing that appeared when you googled the date, there was 13. Swift could have been logical; she could have chronologically rereleased her work beginning with her debut, Taylor Swift. But this is Taylor Swift. 13 years after Fearless was released we were graced by the presence of Fearless (Taylor’s Version). To make the whole situation even more “unhinged” (Swift’s own description of her psyche) she released the album on the 9th April… 09/04… 9 + 4 … need we say more? It is evident that Swift’s attention to detail has reached a new level. If you want proof, go and count the number of times she sings “Mr.” in “Mr. Perfectly Fine” – you’ll notice it matches the length of a certain phone call made by the man in question. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) has lost none of the elements that blazed the path of success seen 13 years ago. Instead, it has matured like fine wine; it is an album to discover, to rediscover, to come back to. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is there for you when you need to laugh, cry, or scream. In that respect the album might well be the epitome of all of her work, as it certainly laid the foundation for the rest of it. If this is anything to go by, Taylor Swift’s remaining rerecords will be saving the whole decade, not just the dismal start we have already seen.

Image: Creative Commons Taylor Swift Fearless Tour by WEZL is licensed under CC BY 2.0