Taylor Swift ‘Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)’ Vault Tracks Review: Key Co-Stars Include Hayley Williams, Fall Out Boy and… Grandmother MarjorieJuly 7, 2023
Sorry, Hayley Williams and Fall Out Boy: Marjorie has stolen the show again. Not that Taylor Swift’s beloved grandmother actually puts in a vocal appearance from the great beyond, as she did on the “Evermore” album three years ago. But Marjorie Finlay still manages to be a dominative force in the Vault Tracks for the newly released “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” by having her photos appear throughout the lyric video for the closing track, “Timeless,” and having her relationship with Taylor’s granddad be a focus of the inspirational ballad. Twenty-first-century pop-punk or emo can hardly compete with that emotional a capper.
But for those less sentimentally inclined, Paramore’s singer and Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump will be way up there in what Swift fans immediately take away from the six previously unheard compositions that have been appended to the previous 16-track running order of 2010’s “Speak Now.” The duet with Williams, “Castles Crumbling,” is particularly pungent, as a lament that just about could have been an outtake from the more recent “Folklore” or “Evermore” instead of an album that came out a full decade before those. As for the FOB-aided track, it’s the farthest thing from a Swift classic. But — having been written, like the rest of these tracks, when the artist was 18 or 19 — the number does hark back to an era when girls (and Fall Out Boys) could just wanna have fun.
A more careful inspection of the 16 re-recorded tracks will have to wait, since the details of what feels the same or different bear a certain amount of forensic analysis, or at least repeated A/B comparisons. (Of course, the whole world has just done an instant side-by-side of the altered lyrics of “Better Than Revenge” — see our story about that here.) But before we figure out how more or less haunting the new “Haunted” is, here are insta-reactions to the six never-before-heard tunes.
“Electric Touch”: Although the recreations of the 16 original songs credit Christopher Rowe as Swift’s co-producer (filling in for O.G. producer Nathan Chapman), when it comes to the six Vault Tracks, Swift splits those producing collaborations between her two modern-day mainstays, Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff. Neither guy gets to do anything either as modern-sounding or eccentric as they have on Swift’s last few albums — they stay true to the stylistic spirit of 2010, for the most part, with the organic pop-rock band sound she favored at the time. “Electric Touch” is probably the least immediately interesting song here, compositionally; it lacks any of the truly great, peculiar lines that mark a Swift song as unmistakably hers (or “Mine”). Yet embedded underneath the hopeful, anthemic and — honestly — somewhat generic rock veneer is a lot of the pessimism and self-doubt that goes so far toward making Swift our most relatable superstar. “I’m trying hard not to look like I’m trying,” Stump sings, stealing some of 19-year-old Taylor’s lines, “’cause every time I tried hard for love it fell apart.” It’s the uneasy tension between luck and predestined loss that gives this one a little tension amid the breeziness, before it tips on the side of even the losers getting lucky sometimes.
“When Emma Falls in Love”: Dessner is at the co-reins again on this one, but this time leading things off with a lilting piano that lends the song a childlike spirit. On the scale of sweet songs about fictional girls that have Swift doing a little third-person projecting, “Emma” is close to being up with there with “Betty.” “She’s the kind of book that you can’t put down / Like if Cleopatra grew up in a small town / And all the bad boys would be good boys / If they only had a chance to love her.” Any chance this could actually be about a small-town gal from Reading, Pennsylvania? Nah, because Emma makes all the right moves and figures out that’s how you get the boy. It has a happy ending right out of “Love Story,” but by the time of making what was her third album, Swift was feeling like she had to assign something that cheerful to an alter ego.
“I Can See You”: Well, now, here is a groove. Jack Antonoff comes on board for the first time on the revamped album, and you might have to look to “1989’s” “Style” to find another song in the Swift catalog that benefits as much from the simple electric funkiness of a well-played rhythm guitar. (This particular riff sounds especially fine in headphones, landing just off the beat and bouncing between ears ever so slightly.) Swift never had an office job, but must have attended Take Your Daughter to Work Day just enough to wonder what it’d be like to seduce a guy in a suit and tie. “I could see you up against the wall with me,” she sings — because she knows places you two can hide, and they’re just around the corner from the copy machine!
“Castles Crumbling”: As mentioned, this sounds like a flash-forward to the Swift Songbook of 2020, and surely would have had a different production in 2010 than it gets now with the artist and Antonoff updating as a more modern mood piece. Williams is her duet partner on this one, and it recalls Swift’s vocal collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers on the previous “Taylor’s Version” just a little, in that both this song and “Nothing New” have her writing about foreseeing the end of her fame, or at least her acclaim. In a way, its paranoia prefigures the defensiveness against a fan base she sees turning on her that would come to real fruition in later years on the “Reputation” album. But in another sense, this is the less chin-up mirror image of “Mean,” a song that obviously did make the original “Speak Now.” “Mean” had her bucking up against a blogger who told her she “can’t sing,” and in this number, it’s as if she imagines a whole nation of fans as that blogger, turning backs on her. It’s like she’s following that maxim about imagining the worst and you won’t get disappointed.
“Foolish One”: A strummed acoustic guitar starts this one, and although a bit of drum programming soon kicks in that probably isn’t what Nathan Chapman would’ve done, it still belongs distinctly to the turn of the decade it came from. As with “Electric Touch,” this teeters back and forth between possible optimism about the outcome of a relationship and fatalism, but lands on the side of one-sided love doomed to go to heck in a handbasket. It still sounds impossibly cheerful, in the way that Swift’s falsetto tips up at the end of lines, as is so often her trademark, with a final realization: “He just wasn’t the one.” What’s with this gentle acceptance, for a singer we want to obsess over scarves forever?
“Timeless”: The most truly “organic”-sounding of all the bonus tracks on this new edition — it has ukulele and flute floating in the background behind those acoustic guitars and organs — “Timeless” is a ballad you can imagine Swift having considered for a “Speak Now” album-closer at the time, instead of the brotherhood-of-the-road anthem “Long Live.” Most of the initial lyric videos Swift put up on YouTube have visuals of the static or circular screen-saver variety, but this one is the exception, consisting largely of a lot of photographs of Swift’s grandparents, modeling a great love she believes would have happened in any era, falling just shy of putting in an endorsement for reincarnation. It’s not the emotional tour de force that the song “Marjorie” was — there’s no otherworldly soprano reaching out from beyond the grave to jerk your tears, here, and good, since fans can only handle so much of that in one lifetime. But the grandmother’s solely visual cameo may still ply misty from you.
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