Review Summary: It's not about where you're going, it's about where you've been.
Over 13 million in album sales, multiple Grammy awards, media saturation unheard of since Britney Spears’ heyday, and Taylor Swift still wants us to see her as the proverbial girl up the block. “We got bills to pay / we got nothing figured out,” Ms. Swift laments on first single “Mine,” and if there’s a few of us in the audience rolling their eyes, who am I to blame them? That’s always been the first step in accepting Swift as a legitimate artist and not a prefabricated Top 40 icon, that realization that, for all this girl’s justified success and eye-popping numbers, it’s just this down-to-earth, eerily relatable quality that makes Taylor Swift, well, Taylor Swift. Lady Gaga may have stolen the pop crown by doing everything in her power to mask herself under a veneer of shock fashion and shock statements, but Speak Now
has Swift doing just what she does best: being herself, and Swift has come far enough as her own artist to make Speak Now
the best pop record of the year.
On its surface, not much about Speak Now
is that different from Fearless
. Swift still prefers to write about her own broken love stories, the production is still a glossy pop-rock with only the faintest of country tinge to harken back to her roots, and Swift herself is still as dead-to-rights honest as she’s always been. But this isn’t the Taylor Swift of Fearless
; millions of record sales and high-profile hook-ups have hardened Swift from the effervescent free spirit of “You Belong With Me” to the regret-filled apology that is “Back to December” and the raw heart and feeling behind “Last Kiss,” a song that would’ve been impossible on a record like Fearless
. It’s hard to imagine that this is a girl who has yet to even turn 21, but already has the experience and self-confidence to pen a firebreather like “Dear John” and not sound utterly contrived. These aren’t the musings of an invisible Swedish svengali looking to find some choice lyrics to match to his next chart-topping hit – Swift has seen the world that comes with superstardom, and for all those who complained that Fearless
was a one-dimensional teenage love affair, Speak Now
takes that experience and wallops the critics with it. Swift can write, and perhaps no song signifies that more than “Dear John,” evidently directed after that man-whore of the female singer/songwriter world, John Mayer. Swift beats the heartbreaker at his own game, throwing darts like “all the girls that you’ve run dry with tired, lifeless eyes ‘cuz you burned them out / but I took your matches before fire could catch me so don’t look now / I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town” while a bluesy electric guitar swells underneath in a ironic parody of Mayer’s own genre of choice.
No longer is Swift rushing blindly into love or advising other girls to look to their futures - hell, it’s hard to believe that Taylor Swift has become jaded enough to pen a song like “Never Grow Up.” It’s the antithesis to Fearless’
maturity anthem “Fifteen,” and it makes a line like “wish I’d never grown up” not the whining of a coddled pop star but the distress of any college-age kid whose realizing that yes, this is real life and they’d better find a plan for it quick before it comes to kick them in the ass. This is Swift’s truest accomplishment, finding that chord in a lyric or hook that strikes a universal note, and pairing it to some of the most gorgeous, effortless arrangements around. Arrangements that, let it be said, stretch Swift’s boundaries more than would seem to even be necessary, but nevertheless succeed in framing Swift’s voice with a punk rock vibe here (“Better Than Revenge”) or a dash of chamber pop there (“Haunted”). And that voice? It just might be the unsung hero behind everything here, showing a remarkably improved power and versatility that many thought lacking in her previous releases. I’m not sure the Taylor Swift of Fearless
could pull off a slow burning blues kiss off like “Dear John;” here, she does it like she belongs, standing up in a backwoods bar telling off a dirtbag lover to a sweaty crowd. That signature lilt of hers, meanwhile, that cutesy up-and-down accompanied no doubt by a flicker of the lashes, has never been better, and it takes only perfunctory listens to songs like the title track or “Mine” to verify that this is Swift at the peak of her abilities.
This so easily could have been just more of the same. Small-town pop star makes good, follows up with a safe album to satisfy her legion of fans and critics. Indeed, Speak Now
is not something out of the ordinary for Swift, not so out of her comfort zone as to applaud her as a visionary pop artist in the Gaga vein. But will I ever know what is going on behind an artist like Gaga’s façade, or what the hell she’s even thinking at any given moment? This is Swift’s trump card over any pop artist in the new decade, and it’s one that Speak Now
uses like a pro. No one has been able to replicate the personal experience so well and so universally as Swift, translating her celebrity loves and fears into the everyman’s experience with the ease of a songwriter with decades of experience on her belt. Swift isn’t able to even legally buy a drink in her home country yet, but I’ll be damned if she isn’t already shaping up as the voice of her generation.