“I lived, and I learned,” Taylor Swift sings 85 minutes into the expanded, rerecorded version of her breakthrough 2008 album, Fearless. Less than two years ago, Swift announced she’d be redoing her back catalog to reclaim ownership of her early material after the master recordings of her Big Machine discography were acquired by industry mogul Scooter Braun. The goal of this ambitious undertaking is plain enough. To borrow a phrase from “Tim McGraw”: When you think Fearless, Swift hopes you think “Taylor’s Version.”
Musicians rerecording their back catalog following behind-the-scenes label disputes is an age-old music industry story. But there is little precedent for an artist undertaking the endeavor in as high-profile a manner as Swift, who has leapt into this project with the big-budget ambition and creative fervor usually reserved for a blockbuster album. In doing so, she’s positioned unromantic industry pragmatism as a retrospective celebration of her creative life: part die-hard fan treat, part legacy-artist archival reissue — think: The Bootleg Series (Taylor’s Version) — and part told-you-so pet project.
Swift begins her massive undertaking with Fearless, the album that established her as a crossover star. “I don’t know how it gets better than this,” she sings in the opening title track, now a provocation. But unlike most rerecordings, this time the new versions somehow sound less slick than the original. Her voice feels lower in the mix this time around, but for the most part she’s gone to extreme lengths to mimic the polished Nashville textures and soundscapes of the first Fearless; she brought back several of the album’s session musicians and even recruited Colbie Caillat (a primary influence on the 2008 version of Fearless) to redo her backing vocals on “Breathe.”
Swift has clearly studied her vocal intonations on Fearless, down to the awkwardly recreated laughs and hiccups sprinkled throughout “Hey Stephen.” But her thirtysomething voice is richer, deeper, and more sure of itself. She embodies her earlier country affectations but only to a point: No longer does she try to make “back” rhyme with “laugh” on the deep cut “Come in With the Rain.”
She has noble reasons to be rerecording her back catalog, but no amount of freedom gets her clean: As is inherently the case when an artist is carbon-copying their original recordings, no matter how artfully, it’s impossible not to miss the emotional heft and adolescent idiosyncrasies of the original, in all its tinny, mixed-for-country-radio glory: the way, in 2008, Swift’s voice broke into its strange Regina Spektor-meets-Shania Twain twang when she sang “Hey, isn’t this eas-aye” in “You Belong With Me”; or the way a teenage Swift delivers the high melodrama of “Fifteen” as only a prematurely nostalgic 18-year-old for whom three years is a lifetime can.
After making our way through the rerecorded Fearless: Platinum Edition bonus track portion of the record, the final half-dozen originals — all previously unreleased — are revelatory glimpses into Swift’s working process. There’s Swift’s vocal phrasing on “We Were Happy,” which hints at her Red-era deep cut “The Moment I Knew,” and the way her famous “casually cruel” phrase from 2012’s “All Too Well” first finds its way into 2009’s “Mr. Perfectly Fine.” Other songs, like “You All Over Me” or “That’s When,” collapse the Swift time-space continuum, deploying moody modern-day collaborators like Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner to tackle her buttoned-up mid-aughts Nashville country pop. This isn’t the first time Swift and Keith Urban have collaborated (remember “Highway Don’t Care”?), but it’s surely the first time Dessner has added his pulsing synth drum loops to a song (“You All Over Me”) co-written by a guy (Scooter Carusoe) who writes hits for Brett Eldredge.
Finally, there are the songs that feel more moving now than they did 13 years ago. Take “Change,” a song Swift delivers with a knowing bite. She initially wrote it about being on her upstart independent Nashville label Big Machine, and was moved to finish the tune after seeing label boss Scott Borchetta in tears when she won her first CMA award. Here the song’s meaning is darkly flipped, reflecting Big Machine’s journey from scrappy upstart to part of the fraught system a much younger Swift thought she and Borchetta might conquer. “The battle was long … We’ll stand up champions tonight,” she sings with a wink. What could Swift possibly do with such glorious irony? She’ll sing hallelujah.