Fearless (Taylor’s Version) review – old wounds take on new resonances
In 2012, Def Leppard announced in robust style that they would be rerecording their biggest hits. It was provoked by a dispute with their former record label, designed to “punch them in the bollocks”, said frontman Joe Elliott. “We fucking built that company. We built their penthouse sushi bar, wherever it may be, and they just treated us like shit.”
This is a sentiment with which Taylor Swift may empathize. She hasn’t actually threatened harm to the testicles of her former label boss Scott Borchetta – and Scooter Braun, the manager who bought the master rights to her first six albums, then sold them to an investment fund for an estimated $300m – but if an album ever seemed like a musical equivalent of a painful knee to the groin then Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is it.
It is the opening salvo in Swift’s plan to rerecord all of her material that was sold without her consent, and she clearly means everything: it contains not just Fearless, but extra tracks from the original album’s deluxe edition, a contemporaneous track from a film soundtrack and six previously unreleased songs from the era. It’s the best part of two hours of music.
Her fans will no doubt support the rerecordings, and the wider market doesn’t seem to care whether or not they’re listening to the definite article – for instance, Take That’s “reimagined” greatest hits album Odyssey went platinum, a compilation of rerecorded ELO hits made the Top 10. Moreover, Swift still owns the publishing rights to her songs and can block owners of the original recordings from using them in films, TV shows or ads.
Her decision to start the rerecording process not with her debut, but its 2008 successor seems telling.
Her debut went seven-times platinum in the US, but her songwriting came into sharp focus on Fearless, revealing an 18-year-old who could not only knock out indelible melodies and choruses with the efficiency of a Nordic pop factory – a facility that, if anything, seems more remarkable listening to the rerecordings 13 years on – but who also wrote lyrics that spoke directly to a teenage audience.
Fearless deals in wistful reminiscence about female adolescence: “When you’re 15, feeling like there’s nothing to figure out … this is life before you know who you’re going to be,” as one of its most celebrated songs puts it. You could raise an eyebrow at the worldly-wise tone emanating from a woman at the ripe old age of 18, but that was the point.
The best writing on Fearless offers a brilliant fixing of the understandable teenage impulse to mythologize the recent past, to carry on as if it’s ancient history, because teenage lives are in constant flux and forward motion, packed with events that invite nostalgia because they can only happen once: no one has a second first kiss or loses their virginity twice.
As a result, Fearless is the kind of album in which fans have a genuine emotional investment. If you want to construct a narrative of a beloved female artist pouring her heart and soul into work that resonated with her audience – writing the songs that saved your life, as the Smiths put it – versus the dead-eyed male music-industry operatives interested in nothing but money, it’s a very smart place to start.
It is tempting to suggest that the lyrics on Fearless might take on a different hue sung by a woman now in her 30s, but the new recordings militate against it.
Backed by her touring band, her voice sounding essentially the same as it did in 2008, Swift has resisted any temptation to alter the songs’ pop-country arrangements or lyrics, even when the latter could have used a nip and tuck. (Perhaps the more experienced songwriter might have shied away from mentioning kissing in the rain with such alarming regularity.)
Attempting to compare these new recordings and the originals is vexing. Is the production slightly brighter? Is her vocal a little more forward in the mix? But obviously that close similarity was the objective.
The six “new” songs aren’t blockbusters – there’s nothing here to challenge Love Story’s superb Springsteen-in-a-prom-dress saga of romance and escape for the title of the best thing Swift had written by that point, a song that could have appeared on any of her subsequent albums – but there’s fun to be had speculating on why Swift plucked them from unreleased obscurity now.
Take Mr Perfectly Fine, a story of a blithe former squeeze that seems to take on new resonances given the backstory of her rerecordings project and the singer’s description of Scooter Braun as “the definition of toxic male privilege”: “Hello Mr Casually Cruel, Mr Everything Revolves Around You … he goes about his day, forgets he even heard my name.”
She sings it with a certain relish, like someone whose anger is mitigated by the knowledge that she’s successfully put one over on her nemesis.
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