Pop

Taylor Swift's 'Love Story' Re-Recording Gently Reinvents a Modern Classic

Taylor Swift
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Taylor Swift performs onstage during MTV's Total Request Live on June 16, 2008 at the MTV Times Square Studios in New York City.

So much can happen in a four-minute pop song. And so much time has passed since 2008. 

Back then, Taylor Swift’s second album Fearless was well on its way to establishing her as the brightest new country star of the 2000s. “Love Story,” the album’s lead single, crossed Swift over from country into pop radio for the first time, becoming a cultural touchstone on a similar scale to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” the year prior. At one point the highest-selling country single in digital history, “Love Story” felt like the one blockbuster song that would inevitably define the rest of her career. Instead, Taylor Swift reinvented herself time and time again, eclipsing “Love Story” with several even bigger hits.

On Thursday (Feb. 11), Swift officially announced that her re-recording of that album, now known as Fearless (Taylor’s Version), would come out on April 9, with the lead single, “Love Story (Taylor’s Version),” to premiere at midnight. It might seem counterintuitive not to start her mission to re-record her whole catalog with her 2006 self-titled debut album, yet it makes sense that she’d reintroduce herself with the song that made her a household name.

On your first listen to “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)”, you might notice that it sounds remarkably similar to the original version in your memory. But with each subsequent play, it becomes clearer that this is indeed a reinvention -- if not the radical reinterpretation some may have preferred.

The most drastic difference is in the mixing. The original was a product of its time: a tasteful Nashville session-musician arrangement, with a loud, dynamically flat mix and master designed to burst out of FM radio speakers -- much like “Hot n Cold” or “Waking Up in Vegas,” Max Martin and Dr. Luke’s pop-rock hits with Katy Perry at the time. 

The re-recording contains all the same instruments: banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin -- playing the same parts note-for-note. The attention to detail is such that they feel impressive, not uncanny. But now that modern streaming services have ended the loudness wars, tracks no longer need to be hyper-loud to stand out on playlists. So this new mix feels far more open-ended -- although you might need headphones or well-balanced speakers to notice all the details. It feels lush, yet comfortable, like you’re Taylor Swift standing amidst her band. It vastly enhances the rose-tinted, dreamy atmosphere of the song.

In the original’s chorus, every melodic instrument seemed to blend into one big wall of sound. Yet in “Taylor’s Version” you can finally pick out the individual instruments, including not just the tone of each drum, but the physical ambience of the room the kit was recorded in. The bass instruments are louder and much more clearly defined, although the song’s signature backing harmonies are significantly lower in the mix. The final chord of the song even rings out for a few seconds longer -- a small, more organic shift that feels like how the song should always have ended.

According to the credits of “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” on TIDAL, this re-recording was produced by Swift alongside Christopher Rowe, who first worked with her on a radio remix of her 2006 single “Our Song.” It’s notable that none of the original musicians played on the new version, including one big absence: Nathan Chapman, beloved by fans as the lead producer and co-architect of Swift’s first four records.

Although engineered by Serban Ghenea, one of pop’s most prolific mixers, the new “Love Story” feels like a truly live recording, in no way mixed according to modern electronic pop trends. This seems like an intentional move to create a continuity between these re-recorded albums and 2020 twin sets Folklore and Evermore. It allows Swift’s older songs to sit more comfortably alongside the new, highlighting her artistic progression as a songwriter.

As soon as the re-recordings were announced, questions arose about how Swift would sing them. Would she redo the youthful Nashville twang of her first three records? Somehow, the answer is both yes and no -- it exists in some mysterious space in between. Swift makes the curious choice to enunciate each syllable with essentially the same inflection as the original recording. However, her emotional performance, and the physical timbre of her voice, are noticeably different -- most notably in the last chorus before the key change, where her voice feels rounder and fuller, as if she’s not just waiting for Romeo, but calling out to him.

“Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” is best described as a restaging of a memory. It conjures the feeling of walking back into your childhood home for the first time in years. Swift isn’t imitating herself, so much as she’s imagining her current self performing in that old headspace, on that “balcony in summer air.” She’s done this before: on Fearless single “Fifteen,” which she sang as a then 18-year-old looking back three years; or on Folklore standout “Betty,” a song that portrays first love with more nuance than she possessed in her younger years, that she performs from the perspective of a naive teenage boy. 

The young Swift was a songwriting prodigy, but not yet a fully mature vocalist. On the original "Love Story," her performance was a tad strained; she was pushing her voice to its limits for her most ambitious pop song to date. For an 18-year-old, it was a perfectly honest performance. But after hundreds more live shows and studio recordings in multiple genres, the 31-year-old Taylor Swift has grown to become an extraordinary singer; a storyteller who breathes nuance into every word she writes. This new version feels graceful

In 2021, “Love Story” feels relaxed, at peace, almost as if she’s indulging in every second of the performance. She’s singing about Juliet falling in love for the first time, while rediscovering her own love for the song. It takes the skill of a true master to reinvent herself through familiarity, like Frida Kahlo painting her self-portrait over and over through her lifetime.

Time hasn’t altered the heart of “Love Story,” but it has added another dimension to its meaning. Swift wrote the song of her own accord, changing the tragic ending of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Yet in its lyrics, love is something that happens to her. She is the passive princess waiting to be rescued and swept off her feet; Juliet’s father gives Romeo permission to propose to her. But if there’s one lesson Taylor Swift’s learned in the last five years, it’s that she no longer needs a male authority figure’s permission to do or say anything: not Romeo, not her frenemy Kanye West, and especially not former Big Machine Records head Scott Borchetta.

The Taylor Swift who sings “Love Story” in 2021 is entirely in control of her own narrative. She’s spent 13 more years writing love songs in every color of the spectrum, from red to jet-black. Most of all, she’s written about love as an adult in a long-term relationship: a bond that has its ups and downs, but endures, unconditionally. Yet that in no way contradicts the teenage rush of emotion that is “Love Story.” It felt, and still feels, true in the moment -- not just for her, but hopefully for anyone who’s listening. Maybe it’s only fitting that “Love Story,” one of the defining hits of 2008, can also be one of the best new songs of 2021.

So will “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” replace the original? The truth is -- the question is moot. Taylor Swift does not have the power to overwrite the originals, delete the original’s 406 million Spotify streams, nor erase them from the memories or MP3 collections of anyone who owns them. It doesn’t even matter which version you prefer, or if you care at all about Scooter Braun’s business dealings with Big Machine Records. It matters that Swift chose to re-record her first six albums. She’s letting us make our own choice, every time we listen to one of those songs.

A truly great song doesn’t just exist in its moment. It changes with each listen, growing in meaning as you too grow older and wiser. The lyric video to the new “Love Story,” filled with pictures of 2008 Taylor with young fans, makes us reflect on that journey. Watching it, we see who they were then, and wonder who they are now. We hope, perhaps, that Taylor’s music inspired them to be better people.

Once upon a time, Taylor Swift introduced herself to the world: “We were both young when I first saw you/ I close my eyes, and the flashback starts…” In 2008, it was a prediction. Now, in 2021, that flashback’s finally come true.