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Taylor Swift ‘Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)’ review: stepping stone to super-stardom gets modern revamp

13 years later, a significant chapter in Taylor's rise to super-stardom is given a contemporary twist. The results are stunning.

5.0 rating

By Mark Sutherland

Taylor Swift (Picture: Beth Garrabrant)

If the Taylor’s Versions project has taught us anything, it’s that the past doesn’t have to be a foreign country.

Sure, they did things a little differently there, but with the right motivation (reclaiming the songs that were sold behind her back), Taylor Swift’s glorious history can be recreated almost exactly how it was when she first burned these songs onto the soul of a generation.

That approach, however, was always likely to face a few challenges along the way and ‘Speak Now’ – for true hardcore Swifties, perhaps the most cherished album in even her beloved catalogue – is one of them.

Because her third album saw Swift fearlessly taking control, writing every note of the record herself and boldly choosing to capture a snapshot of her unvarnished teenage truth.

So, ‘Speak Now’ is always honest, sometimes brutally so. No one batted an eyelid at it in 2010, but in 2023, such things tend to be viewed through a different lens.

So, this third in the series of Taylor’s Versions sees the first significant rewriting of her not-so-secret history. She replaces the controversial ‘Better Than Revenge’ lyric, “She’s better known for the things she does on the mattress” with the more sisterly, “He was a moth to the flame, she was holding the matches.”

The new line works well, even if it might not hit as hard. So, before the faceless suits that now ‘own’ Swift’s original albums celebrate that there might be at least one song in their vault to still get streamed after receiving the TV treatment, it should be noted that that is the album’s only real attempt to mitigate the raw emotions of the past.

Instead, it’s worth noting that ‘Better Than Revenge’ is followed by the wise-beyond-her-years philosophising of ‘Innocent’ in which Swift observes that, “Life is a tough crowd/Thirty-two and still growing up now”.

Swift was indeed 32 when she re-recorded those words but the empowering, elemental force and simmering hurt that made the original ‘Speak Now’ such a remarkable record remains strikingly intact. The snarky gown-shaming in the wedding-crasher title track remains wonderfully unfiltered. The wounded distress at teenage tormentors and bitter bloggers in ‘Mean’ still cuts every bit as deep. And the forensic disassembly of a gaslighting ex on ‘Dear John’, now with added protective wisdom for her younger self, is as quietly crushing as ever.

In short, Swift knows exactly where to draw the line. And, on ‘Speak Now’, the lines she draws are beautiful, showcasing the countless things Swift excels at beyond hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-teenager-scorned retribution.

So, the joyous shimmer of ‘Sparks Fly’ reminds you even this most heart-breaking record still had moments of unfettered delight. The nostalgia of ‘Never Grow Up’ remains as guilelessly devastating as ever, despite the fact that Swift is now as far away from the third verse’s uncertain adulting as she was then from the first verse’s childhood snoozing. And best of all, ‘Back To December’ – a serious contender for Swift’s finest song – shows that, actually, there is nothing Swift does better than regret.

Of course, Taylor’s Version offers her the opportunity to do what that song’s protagonist couldn’t: go back in time and change it. But, while the main album production (by Swift and Christopher Rowe, replacing Nathan Chapman) softens the Nashville neon and country vocal twang, she generally resists the temptation to mess with perfection.

Meanwhile, the ‘From The Vaults’ unheard tracks – with co-production from Taylor’s favoured 2023 colleagues Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner – showcase both where Swift was and how far she’s come.

As befitting SN’s status as her most emo album, her collaborators come straight from 2010’s alt-rock top drawer. So, Fall Out Boy elevate ‘Electric Touch’ to soaring pop-punk status and the presence of Paramore’s Hayley Williams on ‘Castles Crumbling’ makes it a duet for the ages, their voices gorgeously intertwining as they wrestle with the fear that the cheers may one day turn to jeers.

Everywhere, you’ll find foreshadowing of Swift’s supremely versatile future: the astute third-person observation of ‘When Emma Falls in Love’; the folk(lore)y mannerisms of ‘Timeless’; the edgy guitars/saucy lyrics combo of ‘I Can See You’.

Her current tour has made Swift a bigger star than ever but, 13 years on, ‘Speak Now’ remains the foundation stone that her songwriting empire was built upon.

It was, as the main album’s closer ‘Long Live’ notes, “The end of a decade/But the start of an age”. And even if things have changed a little since your last visit, this Swift era is still guaranteed to give you the time of your life, whatever dragons you may be fighting these days.