Thirteen years ago, Taylor Swift opened her song “Love Story” with a memory: “We were both young when I first saw you,” the precocious country star, then 18, sang in the lead single from her 2008 “Fearless” album, “I close my eyes and the flashback starts.”
Now she’s remembering that memory — and her recall is pretty close to total.
On Thursday night, Swift, now 31 and one of the world’s biggest pop acts, released a rerecorded version of the Romeo and Juliet-themed “Love Story” as the first sampling from a highly anticipated overhaul of “Fearless” due April 9. Co-produced by the singer and Chris Rowe (a longtime Nashville studio pro who worked on Swift’s early records) and featuring a number of the musicians who played on the original, the new “Love Story” — officially titled “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” — is virtually indistinguishable from the rendition that gave Swift her first top 10 hit.
Yearning vocals, winsome fiddle, uplifting key change — it’s all here, just as she left it.
That fidelity is by design, of course. Incensed by music exec Scooter Braun’s purchase of her old label Big Machine in 2019, Swift said that year that she planned to rerecord her first six albums as a way to potentially diminish the value of the master recordings newly held by Braun, known among other things for his work with Swift’s longtime nemesis Kanye West. (Ownership of an artist’s masters, which is typical of a major label, is what enables the label to profit from sales and streams and to control the use of the artist’s music in movies, television and commercials.)
Last year, Braun sold Swift’s catalog to Shamrock Capital, a Westwood-based investment fund, for more than $300 million. According to the singer, Shamrock offered to work with her, but she declined when she learned that Braun would retain a financial interest in her music. In a letter she posted on Twitter, Swift told Shamrock’s partners that she intended to proceed with rerecording her old music — the idea being that her new versions would supplant the originals in the marketplace.
So why remake “Fearless,” her second studio album, first? By some measures it’s her most successful LP, having sold more than 10 million copies and won four Grammy Awards, including album of the year.
But any Swift super-fan would also recognize the significance of her famous lucky number, 13, in the timing.
The new edition of “Fearless” — think of it as the album’s director’s cut — will feature 26 songs, including previously unreleased cuts she wrote around the same time as “Love Story” and hits like “Fifteen” and “You Belong With Me.” In a statement, Swift said “Fearless” chronicled “the adventures and explorations of a teenage girl who was learning tiny lessons with every new crack in the facade of the fairytale ending she’d been shown in the movies.”
In a way, the faithfulness of the new “Love Story” is a disappointment. Swift’s pair of 2020 albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore” — the former is up for five awards, including album of the year, at next month’s Grammys — are full of grown-up musings on romance and compromise; one song from “Evermore,” the haunting “Tolerate It,” seems to be narrated by a woman trapped in a loveless marriage.
One longs to hear what she might make of the starry-eyed idealism of “Love Story.” But then to veer too far from the original would be to endanger the chance that some music supervisor might license this rendition instead of the one Shamrock owns.
Does that make the whole enterprise sound more calculating than we want to believe pop stars are? If so, give Swift credit for talking about her dealings with Braun in starkly emotional terms — “Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work,” she said when he bought Big Machine — that have recast a business conflict as a battle over art.
Ditto the way she’s framing her remake of “Fearless” — a process, she said Thursday, that “has been more fulfilling and emotional than I could’ve imagined and has made me even more determined to rerecord all of my music.”
Don’t doubt that she’ll get it done.