You know the rest: The original “Fearless” made Swift a superstar, sold more than 10 million copies, won a Grammy for album of the year, and kick-started one of the most impressive and enduring career runs in pop history.
Swift left her longtime label Big Machine in 2018, and her master recordings wound up in the hands of Justin Bieber manager/mustache-twirling supervillain Scooter Braun, one of several longtime nemeses. Swift vowed to rerecord her first six albums note for note to devalue Braun’s (presumably) nine-figure purchase and effectively return her early recordings, or at least a simulation of her early recordings, to her possession — something that, in retrospect, seems like an awful lot of work. “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” is her opening salvo.
The OG “Fearless” remains one of Swift’s finest creations. It’s a great album, charming and assured, and a near-totemic achievement for the 18-year-old woman who co-produced it and at least co-wrote all of its tracks. It’s almost certainly the strongest collection of songs ever written about Swift’s ex, Joe Jonas.
“Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” is a 26-song collection of originals, bonus tracks and contemporaneous songs from the vault, all newly reworked, though it sometimes functions less as an actual, overstuffed album and more as a delivery system for nostalgia and revenge. The redone tracks from the original release, which make up the album’s first portion, are almost uniformly better than their forebears: warmer, crisper, more clearly enunciated. They sound newer and, at the same time, more lived-in. Adulthood and years on the road have filled out Swift’s voice and broadened her range, but the songs are otherwise as familiar as anyone would hope, save for a changed word here, a clipped inhalation there.
None of the tweaks seem like artistic necessities, more like Easter eggs proffered to the legions of Swifties who know these songs by heart. Most sound essentially unchanged: “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” seem slightly sped up, and better. “White Horse,” still mighty, now drags a little.
The album’s second half offers reworked bonus tracks (most notably former soundtrack song “Today Was a Fairytale”) and unused songs from the “Fearless” era reimagined by present-day collaborators Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff. They work the same themes the originals did — a sadder-but-wiser young woman pines for, then steels herself against, an unappreciative guy, with diminishing returns.
They’re most interesting as forerunners to other, better Taylor Swift songs. The bonus track “The Other Side of the Door” evokes a later classic, “Back to December.” “You All Over Me,” a vault highlight with a harmony vocal from Maren Morris, is a precursor to “Clean.” The Antonoff-produced “Mr. Perfectly Fine” suggests the later, gentler “The Story of Us.” Like many of the project’s most caustic tracks, it’s almost certainly about Jonas, who really just continues to be a disappointment.
“Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” is wonderful, although at 1 hour and 46 minutes, there perhaps didn’t need to be so much of it. It’s the third Swift release in nine
months, close on the heels of the folk-leaning “Folklore” and “Evermore,” the former of which is arguably the best album Swift has ever made.
“Folklore” is what happens when the young woman in “Fearless” grows up and discovers Joni Mitchell. Its success makes these rereleases seem even less necessary. Even Swift, currently at the height of her creative powers (and not far removed from her “1989” commercial peak), can make only a limited claim on the cultural attention span. To spend so much artistic capital and audience goodwill looking backward seems unwise.
Things may get more difficult from here, and there are presently more questions than answers: How will the rest of the albums roll out — will she save fan favorite “Red” for last, to keep everyone interested? Will she even remake “Taylor Swift,” which many newer fans have little affection for, or just hope everybody forgets about that one? How will she handle the (relative few) lyrical land mines in her catalogue, which are coming up fast, like the decidedly non-sisterly “Better Than Revenge,” which slut-shames a romantic rival widely thought to be actress Camilla Belle? What happens when an enterprise powered by nostalgia gets to the newer albums that no one’s actually nostalgic for yet, like the of-its-time “Reputation,” which might deserve a reconsideration most of all?
In its time, “Fearless” avoided trendiness the best it could. It’s hard to imagine “Reputation” or even “1989” aging as well. It helps that Swift, now 31, hasn’t outgrown her preoccupation with high school romance. Tracks like “Fifteen,” one of the most compassionate songs ever written about terrified freshman girls, wouldn’t sound out of place next to the teenage love triangle songs on “Folklore.”
For fans who grew up on Swift, who retain muscle memory of these widescreen tales of teenage heartbreak that were sentimental even when they were new, there’s an added pathos to these revamped versions. It’s grown-up Taylor revisiting songs that a younger Taylor wrote about an even younger Taylor; nostalgia piled on nostalgia, longing on top of longing. For Swift, it’s a powerful flex, a brilliant example of fan service and an exercise in high-minded pettiness, all at the same time.