In interviews, Taylor Swift often comes across all wide-eyed wonder, preternaturally sweet, and with girlish, bounce-on-the-bed enthusiasm. And, most importantly, she's very careful to reveal nothing.
It turns out that’s because she’s been saving all the good stuff for “Speak Now,” her new album out Oct. 25. Her first two collections, 2006’s self-titled effort and 2008’s “Fearless,” were just warm-up acts. On “Speak Now,” she’s slashed open an emotional vein and she’s let it bleed all over the tracks.
When “Speak Now’s” first single, “Mine,” came out in late summer, it sounded pretty much like more of the same, albeit in the romantic ditty she clearly was showing that she wasn’t a minor anymore. She even had a drawer at her boyfriend’s place, for gosh sake. The track wasn’t different enough to reveal if Swift was going to be able to make the leap from teenager to adult. Was she still the band geek swooning over the quarterback? Was she still singing about being 15 in a way that carried none of the emotional heft of the benchmark song about the hell of those teenage years, Janis Ian’s “At 17?”
In a word: no, she is not.
[More after the jump...]
The Swift on “Speak Now,” has a lot to say and you’re going to hear it. If you have ever done her wrong, she’s coming after you. For as popular as she’s become, Swift still comes across as an outsider looking in, easily hurt and some times befuddled by the actions of others who don’t treat her well. The slights--perceived or real--have left their scars. She remembers ever smite, every cross look and she has taken these brick bats and built a mighty wall of sound with them. Whether it’s her scathing missive, “Dear John,” allegedly about John Mayer, or her take-no-prisoners “Better Than Revenge,” she shows that underneath that sparkly exterior is a woman scorned who will retaliate if you throw the first punch.
A number of things make Swift so appealing here. First off, as we say in the south, she is wide open. She holds nothing back and is utterly fearless when it comes to revealing the gaping maw of her hurt in such an un-self conscious way that it seems almost possible to believe she forgot that other people--millions of them-- will hear her pain writ large. When she wistfully sings, "I don't know how to be something you miss" to an ex on the slow, echo-y "Last Kiss," it's heartbreaking.
Secondly, her skills as lyricist, always her strongest point, continue to evolve. Unlike so many current writers, she knows how to tell a story. I found myself listening to the songs unable to predict how they would end. Would she and her former love reunite on “Story of Us?” Does she get the boy in “Speak Now?” I’m not telling.
But let’s get back to “Dear John.” Singing slowly and mournfully, with a pedal steel echoing her melancholy, she pointedly asks: “Don’t you think 19 is too young to be played by your dark, twisted games when I loved you so?” and then ”Maybe it’s you and your sick need to give love and take it away.” I want to see her and Jessica Simpson on a very special episode of “Oprah” with Mayer left to squirm (Note to Taylor: if it's not about Mayer, you might want to say something).
Boys aren’t her only target. On the throbbing Kelly Clarkson-like “Better Than Revenge,” she lets loose on some starlet who’s gone after her man. The femme fatale may be fooling everyone else, but not Swift. “She’s not a saint, she’s an actress/She’s better known for the things she does on the mattress,” Swift sings in the only reference to actual sex on the whole album. “She should keep in mind there’s nothing I do better than revenge.” There’s blood in that vein Swift has opened, but there’s ice water too.
Most of the romances, “Mine” is a notable exception, are either outright disasters or, at the very least, have dark edges, such as on the mid-tempo, layered “Sparks Fly.” â€¨She wants her boy to “meet me in the rain/kiss me on the sidewalk/take away the pain,” but she knows he’s a “bad idea.” On the shimmery “Back to December,” about Taylor Lautner, she’s the one asking for forgiveness.
At an age where most girls are blissfully unaware of the pains to come, Swift seems to have suffered the slings and arrows of every possible love, but in the past, it was combined with a naivete and wrapped in a certain “I still believe in unicorns” sweetness. (The exception being the excellent, sadly resigned “White Horse,” from “Fearless”) Here, she’s not quite 20-going-on-45, but a little weariness--and wariness-- is sinking in. That’s what makes these songs work no matter what age you are if you’re still dealing with romance and all its seemingly endless heartaches.
Not everything succeeds. Many of the songs could use a good editing, with Swift going on a minute or two too long, as if repeating her point will make it more poignant (Yes, we mean the nearly 7-minute “Dear John.” ) Two songs, “Enchanted” and “Long Live,” are throwaways compared to the rest. “Innocent,” written about the Kanye West kerfuffle, doesn’t really hold up on its own other than as a very direct response to West.
Swift wrote all the words and music alone on “Speak Now,” a first for her, and that may explain a certain sameness to many of the melodies. She needs no help as a lyricist--that’s very clear--but it might be nice to see her work with a more experienced composer to expand her melodic sense. Country radio still claims her as its own and she courts them with the solid smarts of someone who knows that format will still embrace her should the more fickle pop world turn its back. However, this is a pop record. There’s enough here for country to gravitate toward because the genre leans so pop now. Surprisingly, “Dear John” is one of the most country-sounding songs on the record, along with the banjo-laced “Mean” and the spare, lovely “Never Grow Up.”
Genres, however, don’t necessarily matter any more in Swift’s world as she’s become a true multi-format star...so much so that the interwebs are clogged with speculation as to whether “Speak Now” will have the biggest opening week of the year, and, even, could it top 1 million its first week? Sadly, those days are gone, but if any album has a shot, it’s this one.
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