Taylor Swift has taken her newest step towards complete ownership of her music, with the much-awaited release of Speak Now (Taylor’s Version). With each re-recorded album, Swift has proved her ability to draw in listeners as if it were the first time. Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) continues in the path of its predecessors. This album, too, taps into the magic of its older version without pretending to be the same moment in time.
The naivete, excitement, and drama of fresh adulthood are the essence of Speak Now. Now, the album carries a hue of nostalgia and fondness as Swift calls her twenty-year-old self back on stage. This melding of different phases of life is especially heartwrenching in “Never Grow Up.” Again and again, decades apart, she sings “Oh, I don’t wanna grow up.” And you’re confronted, all of a sudden, with the existential reality of having to grow up forever while never being as grown up as you’re going to be.
The more you delve into the album, the more it convinces you of the specialness of the re-recording. On a cursory glance, one might ask– why would someone listen to the same album redone in the same way? And the answer is this– this album, even if it sounds much the same, is not the same. And that’s simply because it’s at a different moment in time.
It is like listening to a song at fourteen when you’re mad at your mom, at twenty-five when you have your worst break-up, and at thirty-three when you move to a strange new city. The song becomes a new experience every time because of the new meaning you infuse it with. So, the re-recording becomes a time capsule where Swift adds her keepsakes on top of the trinkets her younger self delicately saved. And the question that guides my curiosity as I listen to it is– what do the songs mean now?
Let’s take, for instance, “Last Kiss.” A decade ago, when Swift belted out the bridge, it sounded like a promise. In the previous version, she sings it with the sadness of someone who doesn’t think she could move on. So she sounds pleading, confused still that this is happening at all. When she returns to it today, the desperation and sorrow is replaced with sureness. This is the steadiness of someone who isn’t so baffled anymore but knows just what that feels like. You’d think this would take away from the song. But in songs like this where Swift was grappling with heartbreak she doubted she’d recover from, Taylor’s Version is both compassion and assurance.
The album is filled with shadows of heartbreaks that have changed over time. So you can still find your pain reflected in it, but renewed with the confidence that it will eventually find its way out. And if you listened to this album eras ago when you were in a heartbreak of your own, it’s almost as if you’re in a private balcony with Swift, watching your younger selves go through the motions of life on the stage below. And you whisper to each other– “Oh, if only we could tell them how things change!” But you can’t and you don’t, so you lovingly watch the people you had been.
Other hints of Swift’s changing feelings and opinions can be found across the album. In 2010, Swift was endearingly reckless as she sang about gatecrashing an ex’s wedding. You can hear this in her smug inflection of “You wish it was me/Don’t you?” Today’s Swift, while carrying the same determination, has the satisfaction of a person who has won a game of cards as opposed to only calling out someone’s bluff.
You also find this in “Better Than Revenge,” where teenage self-assurance is replaced with a confidence reminiscent of Reputation. Although, what you’d make of “Better Than Revenge” could differ widely based on how you perceive the much-discussed lyric change. If you think the song ought to retain the dramatic angst of teenage vengefulness, you might miss “She’s better known for the things that she does/On the mattress, woah.” And if you think the song should reflect growth from a misguided opinion, you would like “He was a moth to the flame/She was holding the matches, woah.”
“Better Than Revenge” is a stark reminder that Taylor’s Version belongs to the current time and not the one it is honoring. In many cases, this only adds to the song. But in some– like “Enchanted,”– you can’t help but miss the older version. The charm of this song lies in its giddy excitement, the wide expanse of possibilities filling you with a deep yearning for the future. But, to be fair, even an oracle from the future would tamper with a moment like this. A moment whose essence lies in the faith that tomorrow is both boundlessly unpredictable and hopelessly delightful. So, when Swift sings this track in the newer version, it doesn’t carry the same bristling excitement as the previous one.
Now, having said so much about the re-recordings, what about the new tracks? The ones Swift had tucked away into the vault?
The From The Vault tracks embed themselves seamlessly into the world of Speak Now, carrying the same heart-on-the-sleeve quality of the rest of the album. “Foolish One” is a quick rebuke to herself as Swift sees herself falling for the wrong person. “When Emma Falls In Love” conjures up a vivid and charming image of a girl who loves fervently and is loved easily. “I Can See You” glitters with the thrill of a secret longing. “Timeless,” a personal favorite, puts Swift’s storytelling prowess front and center as she weaves through time periods, promising that they would be together in every lifetime.
Among the collaborations, “Castles Crumbling” makes for a catchy song about falling from grace. But it feels a tad too introspective and resigned for this album. Speak Now has too much of a reckless abandon. It has the spirit of a bird flying for the first time and heading for the clouds despite ramming headfirst into the trees. “Electric Touch,” on the other hand, strikes a balance between cautiousness and optimism, allowing Swift to be doubtful and still put her heart on the line.
With Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), Swift has recaptured the essence of young adulthood, now cast in a fondly reflective light. In bringing twenty-year-old Swift back to the mic, she opens up the gates to the forgone, inviting us to take a stroll. And as we look down the hall of mirrors of all our past selves, it’s easy to remember that there’s someone in the future doing the same for us.
Album cover courtesy of Republic Records
Looking for more Taylor Swift reads? Check out this Swift playlist that writer Lana Ferguson shared with us.
Taylor Swift - "Speak Now (Taylor's Version)" - 7.5/10