‘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.