Review Summary: Taylor Swift doesn't hold back on Speak Now, but quietly plots her next move
On Speak Now, Taylor Swift stepped back from the pop conventions she courted on Fearless. Instead, she embraced her prolific songwriting style, either compressed or still nascent on Fearless. The relatively short-winded nature of most of Fearless' tracks¬*helped the album realize its pop ambitions. But Speak Now has much bigger ambitions.
Many artists who achieve mainstream country-pop success capitalize on that niche for the rest of their careers. However, these stars, while they may remain lucrative, eventually fade into the background of our culture. But Taylor Swift seems reluctant to let go of her hold on the cultural conversation. On Speak Now, Swift expands on the pop, country, and rock that she played with on Fearless, showcasing her strength as a songwriter. After a massive breakout success, she dialed back her commercial ambitions to explore her artistry, while still leaving room for radio and stadium ready songs. In fact, many of Speak Now's long-winded songs, initially doubted by producers and her record label, fit a stadium show perfectly. Her producer Nathan Chapman said, "Taylor was writing with a bigger scope in mind than just a studio album. She was crafting a whole thing."
Speak Now, prolific, scathing, and above all, wise, shows Swift adding depth and scope to Fearless' niche.¬* Whatever she does next will likely depart from this niche altogether, now that she has milked it for absolutely everything that it's worth. Not only that, but after three country pop albums, her muse has surely dried up. Artists with Swift's emotional depth never remain in one genre. Take Joni Mitchell, who ventured from folk, to acoustic pop, to jazz rock. Let's just hope Swift doesn't go down the jazz direction, which didn't work for Mitchell.
Speak Now's long-winded songwriting was teased on Fearless' "Fifteen" and "White Horse," each a five minute ballad about lost innocence. On Speak Now, four tracks pass the six minute mark, and the majority pass four. Unencumbered by co-writers (Swift wrote Speak Now completely solo), her true nature as a storyteller shines.
On the aptly-named "Dear John," Swift laments lost innocent again. ("Don't you think nineteen's too young to be messed with?") But this time, she "shines like fireworks" over the town that she left in her "rearview mirror" on "White Horse." The other six minute tracks vary in sentiment. "Last Kiss," the down-tempo mournful ballad, fails to reach the explosive climax or high note of "Dear John." But it doesn't need to. On "Last Kiss," the emotions are tied up in the details. "I love your handshake, meeting my father," Swift sings, downcast.
A third six-minute track, "Enchanted," details an instant connection. It's "love at first sight," minus the cliche. "I was enchanted to meet you," Swift sings in the chorus, making a cliched phrase uniquely hers. Therein lies the wholesome charm of Taylor Swift. Most songs about one-off encounters these days are about sex or making out in the club. But Swift penned a six-minute ballad about meeting Owl City's Adam Young backstage at a show. "Now I'm pacing back and forth/wishing you were at my door," Swift sings. See? He didn't stay the night.
The songs of the album's average track length, about four minutes, also have emotional depth.¬* On "Story Of Us," Swift changes the refrain three times to show the progression of the story. "So many things that I wish you knew/so many walls up I cant break through," by the end of the song, becomes "So many things that you wish I knew/but the story of us might be ending soon." Lyrical variation between choruses doesn't often happen on songs released as singles. But Taylor Swift can pull it off. Why? The same reason she was able to cram four six-minute ballads on a pop album. She just can.
No Swift album lacks celebrity drama. On Speak Now, Swift capitalizes on a profitable element of her songs: the inspirations behind them. The Speak Now lyric booklet has liner notes that fans can decode, which reveal clues about each song's inspiration. "Enchanted"'s liner note blatantly reads "ADAM." The liner note for "Last Kiss" reads "Forever and Always," the title of a song on Swift's previous album confirmed to be about Joe Jonas. And "Dear John" didn't need a liner note to be figured out. These clues are a genius marketing strategy that also promote genuine intimacy with fans.
Not many teenagers these days follow an artist who leaves them clues about his or her personal life. This tactic leaves fans feeling like friends, and inspires fierce loyalty to Swift. The clues about real-life celebrity drama serve another purpose: they proliferate a nearly infinite media feedback loop. Taylor Swift writes a song about her ex, and the media takes interest. When this interest increases, more people listen to her music. When more people listen to her music, they are referred back to the media to decipher the clues. And then back to the music. It's infinite.
Here's where Swift begins to court the commercial and media apparatus surrounding her, even on an album designed to step back from it. Singles "Mine" and "Back to December" feel like leftovers from her previous album, but that's the point. The commercially successful and Grammy-winning Fearless became a feat that Swift can accomplish in her sleep. Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield said it sounds like Swift wrote the opening "Ah-ah-ah-ah" riff of "Mine" effortlessly as she rolled out of bed. And maybe she did. The fact that "Mine" or "Back to December" could fit on Fearless is no coincidence.
Swift needed commercial anchors on an album with four six-minute ballads. She needed insurance policies to her Nashville record label that she could still dominate radio. And that she did. "Mine" debuted at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and single "Mean" won two Grammys. Although "Mean," genuine bluegrass, didn't appeal as much to pop, it's still one of her most recognizable songs.¬*"Someday, I'll be, living in a big ole city," she croons in the chorus. But Swift will only be an underdog for so much longer. Although she courts her tride and true country pop formula on Speak Now, where else could she be headed but that big city? For an album titled Speak Now, it seems all that Swift really has to say is forthcoming.