Taylor Swift Continues To Reclaim Her Roots With ‘Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)’
Any release from a specific stage of an artist’s life might function as a time capsule, but few do this as perfectly as Taylor Swift’s 2010 album “Speak Now.” As the first album in which Swift wrote every song herself, the first entirely in her own voice, it was naturally the artist’s most personal work. At the time, there were still those who dismissed Swift as a manufactured product, a pretty face propped up by industry. Putting such calumnies to rest, she released an album that could hardly be mistaken for the work of anyone else. Granted, plenty of artists pen their own songs and draw material from their own experiences, but Swift delivered hers with a diaristic approach that came across as authentic even when it approached a caricature of teen girl fodder. Swift wrote the songs between the ages of 18 and 20, and a record of her mode and mentality is preserved in both the sounds and subject matter. Now, Swift re-records the album as “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” the third installment in the historic seizing-back of power that began in 2021, when she re-recorded both 2010’s “Fearless” and 2012’s “Red.” Like those, the new version is faithful to the originals, although with some notable changes, perhaps the most yet in the six-album rights reclamation effort that now reaches its midpoint. On her latest work, Swift’s 12th consecutive number one album in a row, the singer-songwriter has attained a surreal level of stardom. At age 33, she revisits a pivotal album in her career from what we would normally assume to be her apex but can only describe as the highest point yet in an indefinite ascent.
In the opening number, “Mine,” Swifts celebrates, “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter / You are the best thing that’s ever been mine.” Already, we hear the defiance of adolescence and the superlative language of a still untarnished romantic idealism. Moments later, she continues, ”But we got bills to pay / We got nothing figured out.” Even when she gets to the point where she must, “Brace myself for the goodbye…” the music has a jubilant feel, feeding off a surge of excitement in which the stir of emotions is far more potent than any of its individual ingredients. The country guitar leads bring this out in the original cut, but blur into overriding distortion in a less buoyant new mic. The details of our memories do fade over time, although it’s unlike Swift intended to demonstrate this. Still, other differences correspond. Swift’s delivery is slightly more restrained, her voice a bit deeper. An already modest degree of twang and the vaguely nasal fluctuations of something like a yodeling micro gesture appear further understated in the new version.
The title track of “Speak Now” would fit neatly on the soundtrack of the prototypal rom com that remains a guilty pleasure for the increasing numbers who roll their eyes at such fare. The song thrives in the silliest sort of romantic fantasy, which is, of course, also the most timelessly appealing. “I am not the kind of girl / Who should be rudely bargin’ in on a white veil occasion,” sings Swift, “But you are not the kind of boy / Who should be marrying the wrong girl.” There are multitudes who would only ever credit such lyrics as ironically clever in the context of their youthful naivete. But, cutesy as they might sound, don’t they capture the very ideal of romantic conviction? Swift’s giddy melodies fit the song perfectly, as this is, by all designs, a tune of girly gushing. On the new recording, Swift’s voice sounds strikingly less girly, which is understandable enough, as the singer is a 33 year-old woman. Yet, it also sounds less, say, conventionally sweet. The mischievous giggle she lets out after the last chorus has morphed into a relatively unbecoming, gnarly laugh.
John Mayer is commonly believed to be the subject of Swift’s “Dear John,” Swift posted a picture the night before the new release bearing the caption, “Please be kind.” Still, the contents of a time capsule aren’t meant to be altered. As it turns out, the new mix might actually suit the song better. The song always dragged at a slow pace, and now the music is faint, relative to Swift’s voice. It fits the notion of a painful memory whose impact remains on one’s psyche despite efforts to drown it out.
Long before Olivia Rodrigo remade Paramore’s “Misery Business,” Swift had come up with her own version that was arguably catchier than the original without directly snatching its melody. The newer cut has heavier guitars, which would seem appropriate for Swift’s punkiest song, but it merely cheapens the display. Much of the original’s shine came from how it came across with more punk energy and more pop appeal than most pop punk, while taking after those stylings only modestly, and still sounding like a Taylor Swift song. Swift’s acerbic turns of the tongue and dramatic flair are more subdued in the remake. Yet, there is one change that should win you over, reminding us how Swift’s instincts always seem to evolve in the right direction. The song decries a former boyfriend’s new girlfriend in a chorus that begins, “She’s not a saint and she’s not what you think / She’s an actress.” Swift’s original rhyme was “But she’s better known for the things that she does / On the mattress.” Sure, the lyrics stung, but is a reputation for bedroom prowess even a bad thing? Few would have thought so if the subject’s song had been a man. When lashing out, it’s easy to parrot the insults we hear around us without realizing that they wouldn’t even be insults if it weren’t for deeply-rooted double standards. Swift has replaced the line, removing the reference to a “mattress.” In an era of hyper-sensitivity, some might mistake this for her considering the lyrics too shaming, but it’s quite the contrary. It’s a rightful omission of a charge that has for too long been a source of shame for women, when it ought to be one of pride.
Of the new cuts, from the vault, several hint at some commentary on the original album. “Electric Touch” features Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, whom Swift has called her favorite lyricist, while “Castles Crumble” features Hailey WIlliams, whom Swift channeled in “Better Than Revenge.” “Speak Now” came out when the Vans Warped Tour was thriving, and the album was considerably informed by the pop punk stylings of that scene. It’s fitting that Swift should invite two of the biggest names from that general sound and era to the remake. Wentz’ voice doesn’t particularly gel with Swift’s over the duet’s arrangement, but Williams and Swift sound they are on the same wavelength, almost too harmonious for a song that appears to confront fears of life only going downhill after this degree of success.
“When Emma Falls In Love” is a rare Swift song with lyrics in the third person. The volatility of voice tone that animated the original “Speak Now” has already been tempered considerably over the album, but this is the song in which Swift’s tone is the most uniform. She exudes a new composure and confidence as she sings of the unidentified character Emma. “Well, she’s so New York when she’s in L.A.” Recall that Swift sang in “Mean,” “Some day I’ll be living in a big ole city / And all you’re ever going to be is mean.” Among her numerous homes now is an estate in Beverly Hills. Swift continues about Emma, “She won’t lose herself in love the way that I did / ‘Cause she’ll call you out, she’ll put you in your place.” In her final line, she admits, “And to tell you the truth, sometimes I wish I was her.” Emma could be Swift today, looking back at her younger self, ensuring that an album so fixated on heartbreak comes with a disclaimer.
“I Can See You,” which pairs Swift again with frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff, features entirely anticipated sounds. The song sways to guitars drawn from between ‘70s post-punk and ‘80s New Wave, as Swift sings with a debonair, almost icy cool, worlds away from the twang and giddy spells that filled the original “Speak Now.” In the chorus, she launches into classic Taylor Swift melodies, echoing countless early songs of her own, before returning unphased to her newfound, metropolitan cool. This has the effect of framing the artist’s earlier self, the young Swift who had only begun to assert herself in “Speak Now,” within the voice of the wiser, power-wielding superstar she has grown into.
“Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)” releases July 7 on Apple Music.