For most singer-songwriter types, advancing to the wizened age of 31 and then thinking about recording something you wrote as a high school student and didn’t think was strong enough to release then would seem about as agreeable as volunteering for a waterboarding demonstration. But then, most singer-songwriters are not Taylor Swift, who did win an album of the year Grammy for the songs she wrote and recorded at that age on “Fearless,” so maybe it stands to reason that her adolescent castoffs aren’t as embarrassing as almost everybody else’s. Still: does she really want to be 18 again, even for three and a half minutes?
She does, and is, in “You All Over Me,” a previously unreleased song from her teen days that the superstar has recorded anew, issued late Thursday night as the first of the bonus tracks that will be appended to next month’s “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” album. An immediate verdict: In her overall catalog of deluxe-edition extra songs about being frozen and unable to get over somebody, it’s not a tenth as brilliant a song as “Right Where You Left Me,” one of the bonus tracks off her three-month-old “Evermore” album. That said, it also happens to be very good, or at least has a lot of terrific lines that remind you how almost-fully-formed as a song stylist she arrived, as a relative kid. If you’re a pop writer and can say you would be bashful about having come up with this song at 28, 38 or 48, you’re probably either lying or Joni Mitchell.
The song you’ll compare it to most isn’t off “Fearless,” but “1989”: Lyrically, it’s kind of a prequel to that album’s “Clean,” in being a song about feeling un-clean… although it sure doesn’t sound dirty. “The way the tires turn stones on old country roads / They leave it muddy underneath, reminds me of you,” she sings, and that’s a vivid metaphor for slimy romantic upheaval that maybe even Joni wouldn’t feel about having come up with. There’s a precocious cleverness to how she echoes the “reminds me of you” punchline a half-stanza later with a comparison to a overly worn dollar bill: “You can’t change where it’s been — reminds me of me.” “The best and worst day of June was the one that I met you”… well, he’s her favorite mistake. What makes the song click is the chorus kicker, the one that’ll remind everyone of the even more rueful but more optimistic “Clean” from a few years later, when Swift sings, “No amount of freedom gets you clean / I’ve still got you all over me.” There’s a double entendre of emotion and symbolism there — “all over me” as in filthy stench, and “all over me” as in the dude has moved on — well, that’s kind of classic country, right there.
Aaron Dessner, now most famous as her “Folklore” and “Evermore” collaborator, but someday maybe to be famous again for his rock band, returns as Swift’s co-producer here, but doesn’t bring any kind of freak-folk stamp to this unfreshly minted tune. Or almost none. The mandolin dominance and sweet musical tone are in keeping enough with what still marked Swift as country in 2008 that, without knowing that Dessner had a hand in it, or that Maren Morris is singing the harmony part, you could just about guess that the entire track had spent the last 13 years on Nathan Chapman’s hard drive. Except for that abrasive (but not too abrasive) electric guitar in the background, which does momentarily make it feel like your FM tuner is edging into a college station playing the National. That touch is subliminal enough, though, that it mostly still feels like 2008 heartland radio, with Gary Allan, Phil Vassar or early Lady Antebellum coming up after the next break.
The release of the song now is a lesson in all sorts of things: how Swift was good enough as a writer then to be coming up with individual lines you can’t believe she left on the cutting room floor… and how she was also smart enough as a self-editor to know that there was no song on “Fearless” that should have been kicked off for this one (back when her track lists were always limited to a lucky 13). Not one of her all-time earworms, it’s still ear-worthy, and makes you even more curious what was just good enough to have been track 14 or 15 on those early albums. We’re about to find out.
Meanwhile, a toast to the guy who surely must be happier than any Swiftie about the release of “You All Over Me” this fine night: Nashville songwriter Scooter Carusoe, who finally gets his first co-credit on a Taylor Swift song after probably 13 years of trying to convince friends he really had one. (Not that he’s had nothing to show for himself since then, having had hits with Kenny Chesney, Chris Janson and others.) At least there’ll be one Scooter extremely pleased if “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” becomes a streaming monster.