Taylor Swift continues her re-recording project, this time with a dramatic and mature new version of her critically acclaimed 2014 album, ‘1989.’
by guest writer Blake McMillan
Stream: ‘1989 (Taylor’s Version)’ – Taylor Swift
Myself a Taylor Swift fan account, I had endured snake aesthetics, drawn glittery hearts around my eye, done pandemic-time forest photoshoots (twice!), revisited old whims, and stayed up way past midnight.
For all of summer 2023, I was admittedly burned out on Taylor Swift.
There are many sacred traditions to beheld as a die-hard Swiftie, one being… the Target trip. As a teenager, I had danced in Target, filmed it, and posted it onto the Internet in the name of Taylor Swift, in hopes that she may like or repost my photo of me posing in a public space holding albums with her name and face. I am one of those annoying individuals that pop up in your area. We are in your grocery stores, your schools, even Target, parading around with glee. But the sheer uptick had been become concerning to me.
Prior to folklore and evermore, I was the friend (or enemy) who explained what Taylor Swift had been up to. She was my escape from work, school, life, but for some reason, now, at work, school, life, people were finishing my sentences on what she was up to. And not to silence me, but to agree that they had seen her post, heard that lyric, watched that clip. I know Taylor Alison Swift is not an underground artist, but I had gotten used to behaving like she was one. Call me terminally online; I am aware how ridiculous and niche and first world this issue sounds. But my little escape from the world had entered the world. Taylor Swift, the artist that I secured tickets to see in 2018 and again in 2019, was not my escape anymore.
When I did see Swift live in May 2023, the next day, my mom asked what my favorite part was. “I’m not sure?” I replied. When Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) released in July, I was not ecstatic; if anything, underwhelmed. I decided to forgo the Target trip. I did not see The Eras Tour in theatres on opening night. Or opening week. Or opening month. An old co-worker asked what I thought of it and when I said I hadn’t seen it yet, she looked back at me stunned. I started having terrifying conversations: Who was I, if not a Swiftie?
So, an hour before the release of 1989 (Taylor’s Version), when the album’s prologue from the liner notes leaked on X (the app formerly known as Twitter), excitement rushed through my bones for the first time, that special sort of excitement you get only as a fan whose favorite artist is about to do something very wondrous. “I was born in 1989, reinvented for the first time in 2014, and a part of me was reclaimed in 2023 with the re-release of this album I love so dearly,” she wrote. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the magic you would sprinkle on my life for so long.”
Named after the artist’s birth year, 1989 was released on October 27, 2014, by Taylor Swift under Big Machine Records. At the time, Swift had been a consummate country singer-songwriter with mainstream success that landed her on pop radio. Though I would not become a full-fledged Swiftie until 2017, I was part of the English-speaking language at the time and therefore knew “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” and “Style.”
Rolling Stone wrote of her first sequin-clad performance at the VMAs, “Taylor Swift, the pop artist, had an official coming-out party,” adding that she was “shedding any threads to country.”
The album 1989 was, up until this decade, her most commercially successful album cycle (or era). It spawned six singles (for demonstrative purposes, 2022’s highly acclaimed pop album Midnights that slungshot Swift into her current new ether of attention only spawned half that many). The LP won Swift her second Album of the Year, making her the first and only woman to win it twice.
At Big Machine Records, Swift recorded her first six albums: 2006’s Taylor Swift, 2008’s Fearless, 2010’s Speak Now, 2012’s Red, 2014’s 1989, and 2017’s reputation. When her contract expired in 2019, she chose not to renew it, seeking more creative control at Republic Records where she now owns her master recordings. Following her departure, it was announced music executive Scooter Braun purchased Swift’s back catalogue. Swift responded that she was allowed to and would be re-recording her previous albums to gain the royalties to her work; in 2021, she released Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and (Red) Taylor’s Version, and in July 2023 released Speak Now (Taylor’s Version). She announced on August 9th at the last night of the US leg of The Eras Tour that 1989 (Taylor’s Version) would be released on October 27, 2023, nine years to the date of the original release.
Taylor’s Version makes way for improvements. 2014’s larger-than-life “Blank Space” had an interesting three-part harmony at the chorus as Swift sang, “Boys only want love if it’s torture / Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya.” But as far as harmonies go, it was just that: backing vocals. The new version is less subtle, as it seems the leading vocal is quieter to allow all three to shine, a trio of Swiftian dreams.
Audiophiles will also enjoy this version of “Out of the Woods,” a track about a relationship doomed from its start. The production’s intro, sonically complex then and now, is akin to a car engine starting and stopping that conveys a foreboding. When Swift’s voice arrives, she smoothly drives listeners into the first verse. But by the bridge, someone has hit the brakes too soon, and the entire production comes crashing around Swift’s emotive vocals: “Remember when we couldn’t take the heat? / I walked out, said, ‘I’m setting you free’ / But the monsters turned out to be just trees.” Behind her vocals, painstaking descending harmonies that one couldn’t hear before are crystal clear and makes the ride all the more painfully enjoyable.
On other tracks, though, like the opener “Welcome to New York,” something feels amiss. Elevator-like chimes open and repeat through each chorus, though a lack of reverb will leave keen-eared fans feeling like they are on a Brooklyn-bound train enroute to LaGuardia. Elsewhere, the guitar riff on “Style” has left some feeling empty handed. While I personally cannot find a difference, Internet chatter has said that the tone of the riff “sounds punishingly compressed,” “as though the mastering is off.” And on “Clean (Taylor’s Version),” Imogen Heap’s gruff high note after the bridge sounds the same, which… is the goal, but could have been elevated.
As an incentive to stream the new version (and to add to her canon of lore), Swift included five “From the Vault” tracks. Lyrically, they cut deep, and are the most Taylor Swift that Swift ever was. “‘Slut!’” takes contemplative debate of should-we romance amidst mid-2010s critiques of Swift’s love life. The angsty disco-pop “Now That We Don’t Talk” is sung chillingly over thrumming synths, invoking regret of cutting contact – but not without taking hits at his new lifestyle created in her absence. Emotional complexities range from “What do you tell your friends we shared dinners, long weekends with?” to “I don’t have to pretend I like acid rock / Or that I like to be on a mega yacht / With important men who think important thoughts.”
Maybe suffering from underdevelopment, a few have awkward first verses, like “Suburban Legends”: “You had people who called you on unmarked numbers / In my peripheral vision / I let it slide like a hose on a slippery plastic summer.” On another track, she pains through the puzzling line, “Once the flight had flown” over production elements that some commentators have called bird-like. Strangely, it becomes the beginning of the very best vault track: “Is It Over Now?”
The track is as echoey and drum filled as “Out of the Woods,” but thematically controverts it. There, Swift realized they were doomed from the start and meant to end, but on “Is It Over Now?” she insistently asks if this really the end. The closer on Taylor’s Version, it’s a standout from the other vault tracks. Despite its rocky start, Swift falls down a rabbit hole of over-analyzing accusations: “You search in every maiden’s bed for something greater / Baby, was it over when she laid down on your couch? / Was it over when he unbuttoned my blouse?” By the end, she squeals into the ethers that she deliberates on jumpin’ off of very tall somethin’s just to see him come runnin’.
Both dramatic and mature, the new version of 1989 captures everything that Swift was at 24 years old during its original release.
Swift has been devotedly tight lipped for her entire career on what is to come next. Concerning the re-recordings, though, she’s done the process out of order, ignoring the chronology of their releases. She’s successfully generated the needed hype, keeping fans guessing her next move. It’s worked thus far, but with each new recording, less and less remain; now, only her self-titled 2006 debut album and 2017’s reputation.
As for me, dramatic and 24 myself, I woke up the morning of October 27th and marched dutifully into my nearest Target. I didn’t dance this time. Holding the album, I was reminded of narratives that were wrapped up in slick production, something that made being really annoying really fun. So, I posed for photos there, in the aisles of Target once more, and out of the corner of my eye felt the confused stares of the other shoppers. Mostly better than my past self, still flawed, I knew how to shake this sort of thing off immediately.
Blake McMillan is a music journalist from Mississippi, living in Jersey City and studying at The New School for Social Research in Manhattan. He is also the creator of the pop music-inspired audio drama “Cassette Tapes from August.” He can often be found talking way too much about pop music. McMillan can be contacted by email at blakemcmillan13[at]icloud[dot]com or Instagram at @ablakespace.
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