Taylor Swift learned quickly that being on top meant a rougher landing at the bottom. The year after she released sophomore album Fearless should have been joyful: The album helped begin her transition from country wunderkind to veritable pop star thanks to the five Top 10 hits it birthed. She would find herself as often the youngest or only country star amongst mainstream pop, rap, and rock heavyweights — incuding at the MTV VMAs where “You Belong With Me” took home Best Female Video. She would even take home her first Album of the Year award in February 2010, making her the youngest artist to win the award until Billie Eilish won it a decade later.
Each win became marred by a loss: At the VMAs, Kanye West would infamously interrupt her acceptance speech to say she didn’t deserve it. After the Grammys, critics would pan her talent after a below average performance with legend Stevie Nicks during the ceremony. Her writing talent as a teenage star was questioned on the regular, many believing that she owed more to the adults in the room with her than she was owning up to. All the while, she was in the midst of the first truly tabloid-frenzied year of her life as she endured a very public breakup with fellow teen idol Joe Jonas and became the center of a media storm trying to piece together who the heartbreak princess would choose next.
With Speak Now, Swift was sending a message. She wrote every song herself, making for her first full album of sole writing credits. And instead of leaning deeper into the pop power of “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me,” she began leaning into some of her rock taste while still maintaining her country dominance. And with each song, she methodically responded to the critics, exes, and public enemies with withering levels of cutting insults and teenage angst.
Thirteen years later, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) is the third installment of Swift’s monstrous re-recorded album project, one prompted by the sale of her masters after she parted ways with first label Big Machine Records. Like all the re-recorded albums, this comes with a collection of songs the prolific talent had penned during the era, songs that help expand our idea of who she was and what was on her mind at these times.
The Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) vault tracks showcase a very specific side of Swift: a burgeoning songwriter growing up and beginning to build the foundation for the rest of her career. These unearthed songs are some of the most peak Swift lyrics she could write, the kind of concepts and themes she would chase for 13 years to come and learn to perfect in her approach with each passing project.
“Castles Crumbling,” a soft, magical ballad featuring longtime friend Hayley Williams, has Swift assessing the damage done during her first year of true superstardom. The imagery of a fallen empire is almost a rough draft for what she would sing on Reputation seven years later, following an even more harrowing time in her career. “My castle crumbled overnight,” she would sing on “Call it What You Want” as an older, wise, and more world-wearied version of herself.
With standout track “When Emma Falls in Love,” she writes a character study of someone in her life. Presumably about a close friend named Emma, Swift takes the concept of Fearless single “Fifteen” one step further, penning a gorgeous tribute to the romantic highs and lows the titular Emma has faced in seeking love. Stepping outside of her own heartaches and fantasies, Swift is a thoughtful observer of Emma’s emotional journey, seeing beneath the “little miss sunshine” exterior. She would do the same on “Starlight” one album later, examining Ethel and Bobby Kennedy’s love story. By the time she releases Folklore and Evermore, she is a master of this type of incisive storytelling, for both real people and those she has created.
On “Timeless,” the most purely country of the six vault tracks this round, she stumbles into an antique shop and creates a whole universe from the vintage photos of strangers she finds. It’s one of her first and finest “quill” songs, as she once described her approach to antiquated stories and writing styles inspired by some of her favorite writers, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Dickinson.
As more and more new-old songs emerge from the vault, Swift makes it clear that the writer who had been repeatedly disrespected and misunderstood had also been in the process of becoming the writer who would be ultimately celebrated as one of the best of her generation more than a decade later. And like any great writer, she was building out her lore right in front of us, whether she realized it or not.