Acoustic Sounds

Taylor Swift

1989 (Taylor's Version)

Music

Sound

1989 Taylor's Version

Produced By: Taylor Swift, Christopher Rowe, Jack Antonoff, Ryan Tedder, et al

Engineered By: Various

Mixed By: Serban Ghenea

Mastered By: Randy Merrill at Sterling Sound

Lacquers Cut By: Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound

By: Malachi Lui

October 31st, 2023

Format:

Vinyl

‘1989 (Taylor’s Version)’ Searches For A Sound We’ve Heard Before

New re-recording of Taylor Swift’s most important album falls short

In 2022, one in every 25 vinyl LPs sold in the US was a Taylor Swift record. That’s 1.7 million LP sales across her catalog last year, almost 945,000 of which came from her latest album, Midnights. Swift’s vinyl success not only represents her continuing fame, but also her smart marketing tactics and ability to still sell albums. Midnights comes in four cover variants, which with the associated wall mount forms, on the back, a clock. To many artists and consumers, records are merch, merch that conveniently boosts album sales and chart numbers. Cynicism aside, Swift's dominance is impressive to where an LP sales panel at the recent Making Vinyl conference in Haarlem the Netherlands was titled "Thank You Taylor Swift" (Tracking Angle’s Evan Toth was a panel participant).

It’s an understatement to say that Taylor Swift is everywhere. Just when everyone thought she couldn’t get bigger, or that she’d enter her 30s and settle down, she’s more strongly than ever asserted her place as the biggest pop star of a lifetime for anyone born after 1980. Her stadium trek this year, the Eras Tour, made her a billionaire and caused a measurable economic boost wherever she played. New music plus the “Taylor’s Version” re-recordings of her earlier albums means that since 2018, there hasn’t been a year without one, if not two, “new” Taylor Swift releases.

That’s not to mention everything else: earlier this year, I couldn’t browse my favorite band’s subreddit without seeing something about her fling with the frontman, and apparently it’s been impossible to watch Kansas City Chiefs games without the announcers shoe-horning her name and lyrics into every other sentence. She’s the American masses’ parasocial bestie with a dangerous amount of (indirect) power—if she publicly advocated for nuclear war, missiles would start flying within 10 seconds. Though she hasn’t (yet) sold as many records, Swift’s sheer cultural dominance amidst countless bids for your attention might make her bigger than the Beatles, and thus, bigger than Jesus. Speaking of which, her fans defend her with religious fervor; the Eras Tour is like a traveling megachurch, and dare you say anything slightly critical, because the Swifties will viciously attack. (Many journalists and reviewers have learned this the hard way.)

As an atheist, what to make of the Religion of Taylor? To start, she’s indeed a very good songwriter—her vivid imagery and articulate descriptions convince you that her side of the story is the only one that’s accurate or morally correct—though her duds are really, really bad. Her business acumen is undoubtedly incredible, especially considering how it extends to the music itself. 2020’s folklore, produced primarily by The National’s Aaron Dessner, got loads of flannel-clad bearded men to acknowledge Swift’s songwriting legitimacy, and it doesn’t sound overly pandering. (For the record, I’m not saying that folklore was intentionally crafted to win over flannel-clad, bearded, aging millennial dudes.) The re-recording series, born from a sale of her first six albums’ master recordings, has only furthered her exhausting cultural oversaturation, even as it’s moved from symbolically meaningful revenge to shallow cash grab. Somehow, she always picks up more fans and never loses any. Like it or not, Taylor Swift is among the very last remains of a dying monoculture, an absolutely massive superstar of the likes which we’ll never see again.

1989 (Taylor’s Version) is the re-recording series’ latest and most important entry. Upon its 2014 release, 1989 completed Swift’s transformation from country-pop crossover sensation to full-fledged generational megastar. No matter your reluctance, you’re already familiar with it; my rockist younger self took pride in listening to “real” music, but “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” were everywhere back then and thus are a part of my musical DNA. Despite some filler, nearly a decade later the original 1989 holds up as one of the quintessential 2010s pop records. “Bad Blood” is still grating and I always found “Welcome To New York” too cliche (“Everybody here wanted something more/Searching for a sound we hadn’t heard before/And it said ‘Welcome to New York, it’s been waiting for you’”), but in general, you cannot argue against a record that has “Blank Space” and “Style” right next to each other. Regardless of subjective quality, 1989 will always be a mid-2010s time capsule, an infectiously slick synthpop confection about breaking free as a (rich) young adult, and all the messiness that comes with it as both a human and a tabloid fixture.

As such, the original 1989 has maintained chart prominence for nine years; at least for now, Taylor’s Version threatens to tank the original’s sales. All things being equal, the public would rather support a re-recorded work that Swift owns herself instead of the original that she doesn’t. The Taylor’s Version series’ goal is to mimic the originals so precisely as to render them obsolete, yet this one has so many minor oversights that make for an immensely frustrating listen.

The first issue is that Max Martin, the Swedish hitmaker who co-produced nine of the original’s 13 core songs, is nowhere to be found here. Martin’s subtle but immensely effective wizardry is crucial to the original’s success, and his absence leaves a musical void that Taylor’s Version engineer and producer Christopher Rowe can’t fill. Whatever the issue—industry politics, conflicting schedules, Taylor being stingy—it immediately makes the re-recording inferior. Thankfully, Jack Antonoff and Ryan Tedder return for their respective productions; Martin associate Shellback, credited on seven of the original’s tracks, only reprises his role on “Wildest Dreams.”

Average listeners on crappy systems probably won’t hear many differences, or they’re so far lost in the “Taylor reclaims her work” narrative that they don’t care. Those of us with good systems and trained ears, however, will notice a lot of small differences. Really, really annoying differences, which are so intertwined with my musical perception of 1989 (Taylor’s Version) that Tracking Angle’s separate music and sound scores become essentially useless. The original album is very good. Most of the songs are good, even great. But the re-recording lives or dies on how well it compares to the 2014 original, and thus gets a middling music score.

I won’t list every last production alteration or change in vocal inflection—though there are many—but I’ll dissect the most egregious issues. Overall, there are some serious defects that make 1989 (TV) sound cheap and half-assed. “Shake It Off” has inconsistent digital clicking in the second verse. It’s not on the original, nor does it sound artistic. The snare decay on “Blank Space” goes longer and is therefore less satisfyingly compact. “Style” is completely ruined: the bass synth sounds slightly out of tune, the snare lacks snap, the vocal reverb is too distant, and the chorus is a mess. A shame, as it’s one of her best songs. The whole album’s vocal pitch correction is just as obvious as on the original, but the processing doesn’t recreate the original’s starker contrast. Ignoring the Melodyne, it’s also a prime example of a singer being too good: Swift’s voice has clearly matured and smoothened out, which makes these songs less believable.

In addition to Swift’s vocals being smoother, they’re also mixed higher than on the original. The effect is that it feels more like she’s singing karaoke to her own songs. They’re now pushed too far forward and sort of left out to dry, whereas the original perfectly integrates the tightly multitracked vocals with the rest. Serban Ghenea mixed both the original and re-recorded 1989’s. The original has movement and impact and cohesion. The Taylor’s Version mix is still technically competent, but not nearly as enticing. It’s too clean and too bright. It doesn’t have enough bass, whereas the original has tons of exciting deep bass activity. When 1989 gets loud, you still feel something from the songs. When 1989 (Taylor’s Version) gets loud, it’s just a flat, stale brick.

The late Tom Coyne at Sterling Sound mastered the original, while Randy Merrill digitally mastered the re-recording. Some songs were louder back then, some are louder now. I prefer the warmer original, but the Taylor’s Version bass issue seems like a production and mixing problem.

The re-recording improves a few tracks: the Jack Antonoff productions sound bigger than they did in 2014, and the Imogen Heap-produced “Clean” is the one instance where Swift’s smoother 33-year-old voice better fits the material. I can’t say those improvements justify a $38.99 LP purchase though. She also re-recorded the original album’s bonus tracks, plus five Antonoff-produced “from the vault” songs which sound a lot like last year’s Midnights and are just as skillfully uninteresting. There’s a whole debate on whether or not those “vault” tracks actually originated in the 1989 era, but I’m not fluent enough in the Swiftie lore to engage in that.

Again, most people won’t notice these differences, and 1989 (Taylor’s Version) will inevitably be one of the year’s biggest releases. When played side-by-side with the original, however, much of it pales in comparison. The goal was to replicate and obsolete the original 1989, and this does precisely the opposite. One doesn’t have to be emotionally bound to 2014 to notice something wrong with the new re-recording, though you do need a good listening environment and decent familiarity with the original. With that, it becomes painfully obvious.

There are four physical covers of 1989 (Taylor’s Version), and a multitude of double LP color variants, including one that has a bonus track not yet streaming. I got the “crystal skies” light blue vinyl with the standard cover, which seems to be the default. Ryan Smith cut lacquers, and the vinyl sounds appropriately compressed but with better bass and imaging than the 48kHz/24bit digital master. It’s properly done for a pop album on vinyl, though the 7/10 for sound partly relates to do with how the re-recording compares to the original. The shrink wrap has a “Made In Germany” sticker and the LPs have Optimal plating symbols, though unlike other copies, mine doesn’t have Optimal matrix numbers (there are also MPO pressings). Whatever the case, my set was nice and quiet, the only issue being a minor warp on the second LP. The records come in printed inner sleeves with a gatefold jacket; the design is absolutely lazy compared to the original’s polaroid cover, but that’s a minor complaint now.

Music Specifications

Label: Republic

Catalog No: 060245554214

SPARS Code: DDA

Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 140 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Source: Digital Master

Presentation: Multi LP

Comments

  • 2023-11-01 11:23:40 AM

    Brenro wrote:

    A marketing phenomenon to be sure but does this really belong here?

    • 2023-11-01 11:32:28 AM

      Malachi Lui wrote:

      considering she sells more vinyl than anyone else right now, we thought that having a review also attuned to her vinyl quality would be good. as stated in our launch announcement over a year ago, we have reviews 'spanning all genres and formats'.

    • 2023-11-01 02:14:00 PM

      Anton wrote:

      Well, she is under 70, so I see what you mean. But, it is a reissue, so that fits our criteria.

    • 2023-11-01 03:07:20 PM

      bwb wrote:

      what an odd comment. Curious what you would consider worthy of inclusion in such a spiritual place such as "here." A review of a release by one of the most popular, largest selling, highest grossing concert artists of all time seems like it might deserve to be included. I do understand that fat, balding, past middle aged men like myself might not be her intended audience, but hopefully there are a few younger people hanging around here who are. Now where was that review on the 518th version of "Kind of Blue" so I can go over it again?

      • 2023-11-02 05:22:05 PM

        Jeff 'Glotz' Glotzer wrote:

        Lol. good one! And that's 519... err 520.

    • 2023-11-01 08:33:41 PM

      JuzDisGuy wrote:

      Caution: old man yelling at clouds. A better question might be “Do you belong here?”

  • 2023-11-01 12:30:45 PM

    Lemon Curry wrote:

    I'm very pleased this record has been reviewed here. How can it not? It would be like ignoring A Hard Day's Night in 1964. I announced to my friends and family that I was jumping in with 1989 (TV) and with Swiftmania in general. I wanted to see for myself what is going on with this artist, her movie, and this record. So here I am.

    What is good about this record is also it's fatal flaw: it's a carbon copy of the original. Little details aside (and they ARE little) what we are getting is a version of 1989 that Swift owns the masters to. Sure there are some bonus "vault" tracks, but that is just marketing fluff. I need to ask the question, "why buy this instead of the original?", and the ONLY real answer is: so Taylor Swift makes more money. There isn't the slightest hint of reimagining anything here, no thought of "gee I'm in my 30s now, how might I apply my experiences to the tracks?". Zero, zilch. Almost every little nuance is right where it was before, occupying the same place in the soundstage. There is no "art" here, it is pure product. Because Swift wants to totally destroy her old record company. Well Boy Howdy that's pretty special, but it's not a case for ME to buy it. So, for me, to review the album is to basically review the original. They are 99% interchangeable. And for this, someone my age needs to get into a mindset, one that Pitchfork helpfully explains: this is a Tinder app generation set of songs. Imagine the song protagonist logged into Tinder on the streets of the NYC meat market district at midnight, and it all makes sense. It makes sense to her fellow travelers who also live in this strange new dating world. And from that perspective a guy like me can lock into the emotions within. I get it.

    But.. this will be it for "Taylor's Versions" for me. Ka-ching I made my contribution. But enough. Can you just let it go, Taylor? If you were a man... you'd look plain greedy.

    So, if you don't own 1989, you could buy either version. The new one has a few extra tracks, if that matters. For me, I will probably buy the original to get my hands on the original art, as such things have meaning for me.

  • 2023-11-01 03:02:50 PM

    Dan wrote:

    Thanks for the review Malachi, I agree 100%. I haven't had a chance to listen to the new vinyl yet, so I have only compared the digital files in my car, but I noticed right away that the production is lacking on the new version. I've sometimes wondered if she needs to make her new versions somewhat different in order to avoid a lawsuit? Maybe not, but the electronic parts in the songs, and to some degree the execution of the parts are somewhat off. As a whole, the new version is noisier and less focused than the original. I listened to it a lot this summer with my teenage daughters while driving in the car, so I got to know the catchy parts of the catchy songs. 1989 is a good record and I was thinking this was going to be an improvement.

    • 2023-11-01 03:16:36 PM

      bwb wrote:

      https://www.billboard.com/pro/taylor-swift-re-recordings-labels-change-contracts/#! check out this article on how record companies are moving to change the terms of new contracts. "For decades, standard major-label recording contracts stated artists had to wait for the latter of two periods to expire before they could put out re-recorded versions, Swift-style: It could have been five to seven years from the release date of the original, or two years after the contract expired. Today, attorneys are receiving label contracts that expand that period to 10 or 15 years or more "

  • 2023-11-01 07:37:44 PM

    Michael Fremer wrote:

    I reviewed the original "1989" on my "previous endeavor" and many of the comments were similar to the ones here. I really liked the original version. One comment was "The girl has an analog rig and Mikey falls head over heels for her. Cute". My response was: "Confession: When Taylor commands "Right here, right now", I put on a dog collar, barked at the speakers and had an involuntary release of precious fluids"

  • 2023-11-01 08:28:39 PM

    JuzDisGuy wrote:

    “The goal was to replicate and obsolete the original 1989”.

    I disagree. No artist would want to make their original work obsolete, or erase it completely, especially not for purely profit reasons, as another poster here suggests. These re-recordings have been about sticking it (financially) to her former record label and the sleezeball they sold the company to (all men of course). Why? Because even though she wanted to, and had the means to, buy the rights to HER music, her record company decided to screw her instead. I say all the power to her! And clearly these record labels have learned nothing from this, and rather than treat artists with the respect they deserve, have instead resorted to placing more legal restrictions on their work. Ironically, this has also been playing out in Hollywood, with both writers and actors pitted against the bottomless greed of the big studios. Taylor Swift is a smart woman, and I’m sure she realized these would simply be imperfect copies and could never capture the soul of the originals, which were created in the moment. That’s ok, they exist as their own creation, modern versions sung by a more mature TS. It’s the same reason why seeing the Stones in concert in their heyday is a completely different experience than seeing them today. Sure they’re singing the same songs, but they are different experiences. I’m also not sure what was the point of dissecting the two versions to this degree. It’s a pop album! The original was made when she was a girl, the new version at almost twice the age she was then. It’s a variant, basically. And to call her out for this or ask, “who needs that?”, seriously?? We audiophiles who gleefully own on average anywhere from a few to a dozen different pressings of our favourite artists, lol! I am a fan of TW. I like the re-recordings both for their fierceness of spirit (hitting back at asshole record companies) and welcome their differences to the originals.

    • 2023-11-02 01:51:43 PM

      Lemon Curry wrote:

      I'm sorry, but the contract that she signed didn't give her the masters. Her dad, aka the financial whiz, didn't see any problem with that at the start, either. And the investor who bought the masters for the purpose of making tons of money on them for many years, can be excused for saying no.

      There's more than a little Ahab and the Whale going on here.

      I came in on 1989 TV. Swift was simply not on my radar screen other than a curiosity. I now possess both versions of 1989 on vinyl and I must say I'm with Malachi that the original has a genius touch that is missing from TV. On TV her voice is clearer and usually unprocessed. We're hearing Taylor. But the processing on the original, which clearly was thought out, is essential to the feel of the tracks. A good case in point is This Love, which is magical on the original, but just ok on TV.

      I'm not a Swiftie, I'm not cheering for her to "stick it to the man". That original record deal worked out amazingly well for Swift. But that's not good enough, she wants it all, and will go to insane lengths to get it.

      The original of this album is better, so people will keep buying it. Move on, let the whale go.

      • 2023-11-02 07:42:02 PM

        JuzDisGuy wrote:

        You sound like a bitter, weird little person.

  • 2023-11-02 11:19:44 AM

    Patrick Brennan wrote:

    Five is a very poor score for what I consider to be a pop masterpiece, and Taylor is a remarkable talent. I'm somewhat confused by the marking here.

    • 2023-11-02 12:27:08 PM

      Malachi Lui wrote:

      the original gets a much higher rating

  • 2023-11-02 03:26:31 PM

    Silk Dome Mid wrote:

    I'll never comment on a Taylor Swift release because I'm not familiar enough with her music. Oops! Just did it!

  • 2023-11-03 02:39:19 AM

    MatzeW aka audiophile_berlin wrote:

    The best „1989“ is the Ryan Adams cover album - and the second best is that the Berlin Wall came down 😍

  • 2023-11-03 12:20:40 PM

    PeterPani wrote:

    When the original is better... Maybe she tries a third time?

  • 2023-11-06 06:02:35 PM

    Michael A. Arlt wrote:

    With all the money Taylor Swift has now, she could pull a Neil Diamond (Bang) move and buy Big Machine to get the rights back to her catalog, then sell the label to Sony or Universal to recoup the purchase. I also read somewhere that Dolly Parton did the same thing with Monument in the early 80's to control her early albums. Taylor Swift should have added a reversion clause to her contract which would have saved her heartbreak and doing remakes of her old albums which don't have the spark like the originals.

    • 2023-11-08 12:10:21 AM

      Malachi Lui wrote:

      it's said that taylor tried to purchase back her masters but scooter braun (or scott borchetta, or whoever) wouldn't let her. but yes, she definitely has more than enough money to do that now if the current owner was willing to sell.