In celebration of the re-release of Speak Now, we break down Swift’s third (and thirteenth) studio album track by track
Every single one of Taylor Swift’s albums is a fan favourite, but you’ll have to trust us when we say that Speak Now is particularly dear to early listeners. The singer’s third album is a sparkly, string-filled affair packed with detailed love stories and some truly excellent country pop choruses – but it’s also a frank portrait of a young woman between the ages of 18 and 20, growing into adulthood but not entirely ready to leave her teenage years behind. What makes Speak Now special is that Swift, weary of accusations that she wasn’t the mind behind her material, opted not to work with any collaborators and wrote every track on her own.
At a recent concert, Swift reminded her fans that the events described in Speak Now occurred a long time ago. She’s fine now, she said, and she doesn’t need them to go to war for her when the re-released album drops. Listening through the record, the reminder feels necessary. It may have been thirteen years since the original album dropped, but Speak Now’s saddest moments still hit home even heard in Swift’s more mature, 33-year-old voice. The years won’t lessen the impact of Swift asking in ‘Dear John’: “Don’t you think nineteen’s too young to be messed with?”
There’s plenty of joy in Speak Now as well. Swift leans into big, theatrical arrangements featuring dramatic strings, big drum fills and many of her most recognisable guitar riffs. She tells stories from beginning to end – songs that, despite their formulaic country structures, feel like precursors to the work she’ll eventually do on albums like folklore and evermore. She’s partial to a spoken ad-lib. “Now go stand in the corner and think about what you’ve done,” she tells the other woman before launching into ‘Better Than Revenge’. “The end,” she announces at the close of ‘Story Of Us’.
Of all the re-records so far, Speak Now is the most notably different from the original album. Arrangements sound different, with Swift ‘polishing’ more than she has previously and almost always vastly improving the tracks. Decisions have been made not recreate certain tones, deliveries and shaky, emotional breaths. There’s even been a lyric change. And then there’s the new material: the ‘From The Vault’ tracks. These widen the sonic landscape of Speak Now, with many sounding like they could comfortably fall earlier or even later along Swift’s discography. But the sparkly, dramatic, romantic core of the album, with its big emotional swings and its coming-of-age story, is undoubtedly preserved.
On the original ‘Mine’, Swift sounds young and shiny, delivering a deliberately pop vocal on the album’s lead single. From the very first vocal riff, the Swift in ‘Mine (Taylor’s Version)’ is noticeably more mature. The instrumentation is cleaner, no risk of Swift’s vocals being buried by over-enthusiastic drums. But despite the noticeable changes, ‘Mine’ retains its wide-eyed sparkle, still as infectiously youthful a track as when it was first released.
The song tells an entire love story from the first meeting to the decision to go all in, and the original music video takes it even further – a fresh-faced Swift is proposed to in a rowboat and raises two blonde, tousle-haired sons with her lover. Her next record, Red, is a little more cynical about the possibility of it all working out, but on Speak Now we can rely on Swift to provide us with a fairy tale ending.
2. Sparks Fly
As previously mentioned, there’s a ton of instantly recognisable opening riffs on Speak Now. ‘Sparks Fly’ features one of the best, over the top of a busy, over-excited instrumentation that suggests things are moving at an unprecedented pace. The new version of the track with its slicker production allows this guitar line to shine even more than in the original, with every small lick crystal clear. Swift describes an undeniable, powerful chemistry that draws her in the direction of someone she knows is bad news (as we’ll come to discover later in the record, she’s right). It doesn’t matter. “Drop everything now, meet me in the pouring rain,” she demands. Swift tackles the song with the same drama as she did thirteen years ago, but ‘Sparks Now (Taylor’s Version)’ lacks the cheerful chaos of the original arrangement, noisy drums and guitar pared back so as not to infringe on Swift’s vocals.
3. Back To December
This power ballad is significant for being one of very few breakup songs in which Swift is the guilty party. “This is me swallowing my pride, standing in front of you, saying I’m sorry for that night,” she tells an ex. In the original, Swift’s vocals carry, the instrumental second player other than a fantastically dramatic bridge where the strings get a chance to shine. In the new recording, everything has been polished. Now we can properly appreciate that soft picked guitar in the verse, those cellos in the pre-chorus, that brief electric guitar solo in the middle. It all builds towards a gloriously rich final chorus. It’s not the ‘Back To December’ we know, but it is a significant improvement.
4. Speak Now
Swift does battle with Busted for the best song about wedding crashing. ‘Speak Now’ follows Swift’s tried and tested formula – verses that set the scene, a chorus that provides stakes, a narrative push in the bridge and a sprint off into the sunset – but with an original and at times comedic concept. Swift schemes to interrupt the nuptials of a former lover who is “marrying the wrong girl” by speaking up at the appropriate moment in the ceremony.
In ‘Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)’ Swift doesn’t have any personal stakes in the story. She doesn’t sing about the bride and her pastel-clad family as if she has any personal grudge against them and she isn’t desperately pleading with the groom to meet her around the back of the church. Her delivery might be more detached, but she sings with a control and clarity we don’t get on the original. This is a track she’s far more vocally equipped for thirteen years on.
5. Dear John
Swift’s fifth tracks are famously some of her saddest. ‘Dear John’ fits the mold. It sees Swift describe a relationship with a much older lover who leaves her reeling after the romance ends. She details the ways in which he treated her poorly and asks him if he feels it was all fair to do to someone not yet out of their teens. “You are an expert at sorry and keeping lines blurry/Never impressed by me acing your tests,” she sings, searingly.
Across much of the original Speak Now, Swift sounds younger than her age. On ‘Dear John’, she ages years. The new recording lacks the heaviness of that noticeable switch, but there’s an extra gut punch in hearing the grown-up Swift insist that her teenage self deserved better.
Speak Now’s most unapologetically country track, ‘Mean’ has become an anti-bullying anthem. It sees Swift fire back at critics who don’t like her vocals or songwriting. “Someday, I’ll be living in a big old city/And all you’re ever gonna be is mean,” she sings cheerfully over a strummed banjo. It’s simply written, but infectiously joyful. And yes, Swift doesn’t sound like a wronged teenager anymore, but the new recording is every bit as fun.
7. The Story Of Us
Swift delivers another a fantastic guitar riff – grunge-ified to spectacular effect on the new recording – along with her most gloriously dramatic chorus so far. Swift describes the breakdown of communication in a relationship over some very expressive drums, ramping up to a final chorus that no listener could possibly be immune to. In the original version Swift is a brilliantly huffy teenager, rolling her eyes as she announces that we’re onto the “next chapter” and hyperbolising every perceived slight. Swift does a pretty convincing impression of her younger self in the new recording, only with more vocal power than before. She also makes the excellent decision not to polish the noisy arrangement too much.
8. Never Grow Up
There’s nowhere for Swift to hide on the soft, contemplative ‘Never Grow Up’ – it’s pretty much just her and a guitar. Her younger self delivered a pretty rendition, but the older Swift blows the original recording out of the water. “Even though you want to, just try to never grow up,” she sings. She could be talking directly to the dramatic, reactive teenage authoress of Speak Now.
Coming in at nearly six-minutes, ‘Enchanted’ is the peak fairy-tale moment on Speak Now. Swift describes a love at first sight scenario in which a chance meeting has her “wonderstruck, blushing all the way home”. The original ‘Enchanted’ dampens the impact of a magical chorus by burying Swift’s vocal in the mix – the new version makes no such mistakes. And in case you haven’t had your fill of dramatic strings yet (and trust us, you haven’t), you’ll encounter plenty more here. “Please don’t be in love with someone else, please don’t have someone waiting on you,” sings Swift with her whole chest as we ramp up to that huge final chorus. It’s no wonder that this was the Speak Now track chosen above all others for the Eras tour setlist.
10. Better Than Revenge
This is an interesting one. The more problematic elements of ‘Better Than Revenge’ have been much-discussed in the last decade – Swift wasn’t a vocal feminist back in 2010 and pulled no punches when it came to her ex’s new girlfriend. “She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress,” reads a lyric from the original track. Despite this, fans have newly embraced the track in recent years, with jokes about ‘switching off’ your feminism to listen to ‘Better Than Revenge’ becoming popular on social media.
That’s because, despite a problematic sentiment, ‘Better Than Revenge’ is incredibly catchy. Swift has fun with her lyrics here and leans into a Paramore-inspired instrumental, giving us a taste of what a pop-punk Taylor might sound like. Some fans will be saddened by a lyric change that turns the biting ‘mattress’ line into: “He was a moth to a flame, she was holding the matches,” but ‘Better Than Revenge (Taylor’s Version)’ still isn’t exactly PC – and it’s still just as much of a guilty pleasure.
Thought to be written in the wake of Kanye West’s stage invasion at the 2009 VMAs, ‘Innocent’ assures someone who’s made mistakes in life that there’s still time to turn things around. “Who you are is not where you’ve been/You’re still an innocent,” sings Swift. Thirteen years on in her career, having navigated a fluctuating relationship with the press and public for two decades, the track hits home more than ever, especially when lines like “thirty-two and still growing up now” become more relevant to Swift than West.
‘Haunted’ has always been the unsung hero of Speak Now. Swift takes everything that was excellent about the original track – Those huge drums! Those frantic strings! The pealing of the bell! – and dials it up to eleven. ‘Haunted (Taylor’s Version)’ features what might be her best vocal performance of the new album, as she pleads with her lover not to go. “C’mon, c’mon, don’t leave me like this/I thought we had this figured out,” she begs. The whole thing sounds like Carrie Underwood meets Evanescence, in the best way.
13. Last Kiss
This waltz-time break-up song feels like a warm-up for Red’s ‘All Too Well’ – Swift describes feeling stuck after a split, unable to understand how the other person has moved on so quickly. “All that I know is I don’t know how to be something you miss,” she sings mournfully. The new version lacks some of the raw emotion of the original recording, with no shaky, tearful breaths, but Swift’s gorgeous vocal delivery makes up for it.
14. Long Live
Another great guitar line opens the Speak Now’s original closer. Written after her first big stadium shows on her Fearless tour, Speak Now is a love letter to the fans that turned out in droves to support Swift. “It was the end of a decade but the start of an age,” sings Swift, with more insight into the truth of the lyric than her twenty-year-old self ever could have had. Speak Now has some devastating break-up tracks, but no moment on the album is as moving as Swift asking her fans to pass on the memories and music to their children. “Tell ‘em how the crowds went wild, tell ‘em how I hope they shine,” she sings, to a generation of fans now old enough to be doing exactly that.
The first bonus track on the original album, ‘Ours’ is a cheerful love song about blocking out outside noise. Swift’s country accent is far less prominent – her ‘e’ vowels don’t become ‘ay’s anymore, which feels like a loss – but as is true across much of the record, her stronger vocals and sharper arrangement only elevate the original material.
The last track before the new ‘From The Vault’ songs sees Swift idolising a guy who flies in and out of her life, waiting until he decides to land and spend time with her again. Whilst Swift no longer sounds like the starry-eyed teenager in the song’s lyrics, the new recording works almost as a satire of her younger self, living to her boyfriend’s schedule in a way that it’s hard to imagine an adult Swift doing.
17. Electric Touch feat. Fall Out Boy
The first ‘From The Vault’ track and one of the album’s two collaborations, ‘Electric Touch’ sees Swift cautious after the hurts she’s suffered across Speak Now. Still, she’s back out on a first date with someone new, hoping this one will help her rather than hurt her. Fall Out Boy echo her sentiments, Swift and Pete Wentz both holding themselves back before inevitably falling hard anyway.
18. When Emma Falls In Love
Whoever Emma is, Swift clearly adores her. “She’s the kind of book you can’t put down/Like if Cleopatra grew up in a small town,” she sings. Swift watches her friend fall in and out of love, knowing that every boy Emma encounters will “never be the same” afterwards. It’s a pure country track, the kind of thing that would have felt very at home on Swift’s self-titled debut but stands out against the big instrumentals and gentle streams of consciousness on Speak Now.
19. I Can See You
‘I Can See You’ opens with a drastically different sound from the rest of Speak Now – a little soft-rock, a little disco, a little indie pop – before resolving into a classic Swift pop country chorus. Swift and the object of her desire are playing games with each other, neither ready to admit to having feelings for the other. Swift knows he wants her, however. There’s a self-assurance in the way she speaks on ‘I Can See You’ that feels closer to the Swift of Reputation than Speak Now, which is maybe why the track didn’t make the cut the first time around.
20. Castles Crumbling (feat. Hayley Williams)
Paramore’s influence is felt in a few places across Speak Now so Williams feels like a logical choice for a vault track feature. ‘Castles Crumbling’ is unexpectedly soft, however, with Swift, backed by Williams, expressing a fear that the public that used to adore her is turning on her. “Never wanted you to hate me,” she almost whispers.
21. Foolish One
“Foolish one, stop checking your mailbox for confessions of love,” Swift chastises herself in the album’s penultimate track. She dresses down the unapologetic romantic she’s been across Speak Now and attempts a reality check. Although written along with the rest of the original album, the track works better coming from an older Swift, indulgently rolling her eyes at her past self. “Maybe one day when we’re older, this is something we’ll laugh about,” she sings.
Swift wonders into an antique shop and looks through old photographs, imagining how her own love story might have played out in a different era. The song’s fun conceit sees her describing her and her lover facing various obstacles in various time periods but always finding their way back to each other. Like much of Speak Now, the track is a story-telling exercise, narrative-driven with Swift guiding us through the song’s multiple locations over a guitar-led instrumental. It could have easily been on the album’s original track-list, but Swift played it all exactly right in the end – wrapping up your re-recorded album with a track called ‘Timeless’ really couldn’t be a more perfect fit.