By Will Groff
One senses that, even with the re-record, Speak Now may not ever fully get its due.
2. Sparks Fly
3. Back to December
4. Speak Now
5. Dear John
7. The Story of Us
8. Never Grow Up
10. Better Than Revenge
13. Last Kiss
14. Long LIve
17. Electric Touch (featuring Fall Out Boy)
18. When Emma Falls In Love
19. I Can See You
20. Castles Crumbling (featuring Hayley Williams)
21. Foolish One
Change is an essential part of fandom. We expect pop stars to vary their sound and image with each new release, occasionally resurrecting old material during live shows but always moving toward something bigger and better.
Even country stars, who are more often change-averse, must inevitably succumb to changes in the voice, in the body, in the size and devotion of their audiences. But we expect the songs themselves, or at least the recordings, to stay essentially the same.
With her re-recording project, and perhaps most pointedly with Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), Swift puts this expectation to the test. The third of six albums Swift is re-recording as part of a dispute with her former label, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) finds Swift reassembling her old band and turning in vocal performances that are fairly faithful reproductions of the originals.
But there are inevitable moments of slippage as Swift revisits songs she first recorded over a decade ago. These moments beg an interesting question: What if our favorite songs sounded slightly different? What if the vocals were stronger, or less angry, or cleaner? What if a line in one of the verses was changed? What about in the chorus? Would we still love the songs? Could we love them even more?
The original Speak Now is something of a black sheep in Swift’s early catalog. If Fearless was her major critical and commercial breakthrough, and Red marked the moment when she began stepping out of country and into pop, Speak Now is harder to pigeonhole.
At the time, Swift positioned it as her “grown up” record. All of 20 at the time of its release, Swift shared in interviews that she was living on her own for the first time and that the album reflected a more “mature” perspective. Swift wrote each of the album’s 14 tracks herself, supposedly because was touring and didn’t have co-writers around, but probably because just to prove that she could.
The album arrived a year after Kanye West famously interrupted her at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, one of two traumas that marked Swift’s first public brushes with backlash. The other is her pitchy duet with Stevie Nicks at the 2010 Grammys, the public response to which was downright brutal.
When the dust settled, loads of people rushed to Swift’s defense in the Kanye debacle (including then-president Obama), and the Grammy moment blew over pretty quickly, but the two events had an outsized impact on young Swift, who was still relatively new to superstardom and would soon gain a reputation for being extra-sensitive to criticism.
Then there were the romantic traumas, which began with Joe Jonas breaking up with her on a 27-second phone call, continued through to her regret-tinged fling with Twilight star Taylor Lautner and apexed with a torturous dalliance with John Mayer.
Each mini-event had it’s moment across Speak Now’s original 14 tracks (even the Grammys performance is alluded to on the excellent “Mean”), which mostly occupy country-pop territory but also incorporate elements of pop-rock, pop-punk and even Mayer-style blues-pop.
The re-record, which arrives to considerably less fanfare than Red (Taylor’s Version) did two years ago — there’s no SNL appearance this time, but there’s also no “All Too Well (Ten Minute Version)” — is lyrically identical to the original, with one glaring difference.
The biggest change is, of course, the altered lyric on ‘Better Than Revenge’, which has already unleashed a slew of think pieces and hyperbolic tweets. The new version nixes a catty, pointedly slut-shamey lyric (“She’s better known for the things that she does / On the mattress”) in favor of a toned-down, slightly unintuitive replacement (“He was a moth to the flame / She was holding the matches”).
It’s a jarring change for those who know and love the original, but that kind of postgame edit isn’t out of character for Swift. She quietly removed the widely loathed “Hey kids, spelling is fun!” call out from ‘ME!’ not long after releasing the song in 2019, and then there’s of course the “homophobic version” of ‘Picture to Burn’, which occasionally still makes the rounds in the form of this deranged supercut.
Production-wise, there are some updates on Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), but they’re mostly subtle and likely only to disturb extremely devoted fans of the originals. There’s nothing here as pronounced as the deflated we-eeees on ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together (Taylor’s Version)’, though fans of the “shaky breath” on the original ‘Last Kiss’ may beg to differ.
Swift’s voice, however, is another story. Hard as she may try, she’s simply not able to perfectly reproduce the vocal performances of her teenage self, a fact that has divided fans and critics.
I tend to side with those who think Swift’s more mature vocals actually enhance the material — especially considering how much her vocal limitations were a point of contention for critics at the time — though I must confess that ‘Enchanted (Taylor’s Version)’ in particular gives some credence to the re-recording detractors. There’s a sense of emotional distance in Swift’s voice that you just don’t hear in the original, and you find yourself feeling briefly wistful for the other version.
As for the vault tracks, they’re a mixed bag. The inclusion of Paramore and Fall Out Boy on the tracklist offers the potential for pop-punk excellence — something on the level of ‘Story of Us’ and ‘Better Than Revenge’ — but neither of the collabs live up to their potential. ‘Electric Touch’ has more in common with Fall Out Boy’s tepid recent output than their mid-aughts pop bangers, while ‘Castles Crumbling’ is a plodding and melodramatic take on themes Swift explores more artfully on reputation.
The beloved Taylor Lautner makes an appearance in the video for ‘I Can See You’, which has vaguely horny lyrics and a catchy guitar riff but is otherwise forgettable. The best of the new songs is ‘When Emma Falls in Love’, a warm, piano-driven number that finds Swift looking at a female friend with a mix of bewilderment and admiration. It’s interesting to consider how the song may have been received in 2010, when Swift was already developing a reputation for being single-mindedly fixated on male love interests.
One senses that, even with the re-record, Speak Now may not ever fully get its due. In the years since the original release, none of the singles have had the staying power of a ‘Love Story’ or ‘You Belong with Me’, which is a shame (for my money, ‘Mine’ has one of Swift’s best-ever choruses).
‘Enchanted’ is the only song from the album that’s a permanent fixture in the Eras Tour setlist, despite the fact that several of the other songs were major country hits. Even during the “release party” at last week’s shows in Kansas City, Swift declined to play any of the singles, instead opting to add the celebratory ‘Long Live’ to the set, with a pair of other non-singles appearing as surprise songs.
It’s a reminder of the way Swift and her fans have re-contextualized her catalog over the years, casting aside songs that once received major radio pushes and thrusting others to the top of streaming charts. In fandom, as in life, change really is the only constant.
Taylor Swift's 2023 re-recorded album Speak Now (Taylor's Version) is released July 7 via Republic Records.
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