Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Album review: Taylor Swift - Speak Now (4/5)

Tomorrow, Taylor Swift's Speak Now will top the Billboard 200 with sales of over 1,000,000 in 1 week, in fact, the most weekly sales since 50 Cent's The Massacre in 2005. It's a remarkable achievement, and another feather in the cap for the young pop/country singer, who's enjoyed a meteoric rise since her 2006 debut.

From the beginning it was apparent that crossover success has been her goal, ever since "Teardrops on My Guitar" became a minor pop hit. Speak Now drives the point even harder, sending up 14 tracks of rock-leaning pop that has far more in common with Kelly Clarkson than it does Miranda Lambert. Every once in awhile there is a banjo or fiddle to remind you of Swift's country roots, particularly on "Mean," but otherwise it's guitar-driven pop arrangements that rule the day, alternating between upbeat, energetic songs and emotional big ballads.

Musically, Speak Now is very similar to its immediate predecessor, Fearless. That album, which won the Grammy Award earlier this year for Album of the Year, was as honest assessment as a female pop star has ever given of her teenage years. And it felt genuine too, with Swift writing or co-writing every song on the album. But she was reaching back a bit for that inspiration, since was almost 19 when it came out, whereas on Speak Now, the stories and emotions are those of the older almost 21-year old she is now.

The title track for example, is the older Speak Now cousin of Fearless's best track "You Belong with Me." Then she pined for the guy she doesn't have who was off with a homecoming queen; now she's going after the guy she doesn't have as he's walking down the aisle with a bride-to-be wearing a wedding dress "shaped like a pastry." It's like revisiting the ending of The Graduate. On fiery "Sparks Fly," Swift talks about running her fingers through some guy's hair. A teenage girl crush it is not.

Other clever lyrical phrases abound, such as "Mine's" memorable line, "you made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter." She mines her rich autobiography too, having dated a slew of famous men in recent years. Although I'm not sure which songs are about Joe Jonas or Taylor Lautner, it's pretty clear that "Dear John" is about John Mayer, who was way too old for her (he's my age) and treated her badly.

The first six tracks are uniformly good with "Back to December" being the standout ballad. It's a lovely song and a touching sentiment--an apology actually, to a wonderful guy she treated badly. My only gripe here is the way she turns "while" into "whi-i-i-i-ile." As great a songwriter as she is, there's still room for growth, which is actually quite an exciting thing to ponder.

By the second half of the album, the songs start to kind of sound the same, and while there's no duds here, there are fewer highlights. It starts off with "Never Grow Up," a tenderly sweet ballad about not wanting to grow up where Swift looks back apparently at herself as a baby and a 14-year old before she lands in the present "in a new apartment in a big city." "Enchanted" is a heart-warming story song about the fluttery love-at-first-sight feeling of clicking with someone you've just met. I also like the more restrained and darker sound of "Innocent," which I've seen suggested is pointed at Kanye West, and, in contrast, "Haunted," which lets loose with a torrent of guitars, strings and drums.

With Shania Twain on indefinite hiatus, Taylor Swift has clearly stolen the crown of reigning pop/country crossover star, in the process achieving a few things Twain never did, like #1 pop hits and an Album of the Year Grammy. I wouldn't be surprised to see this album up for that award next year.

Best: Back to December, Sparks Fly, Speak Now, Mine, Dear John, Enchanted, Innocent, Haunted, Mean

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have nothing against Taylor Swift, but she still has a long away to go. Shania Twain has nothing to prove in her career. Shania is the best selling female country artist of all time, the best selling country album, and best selling female album ever. Shania also has three diamond albums. Yes, Shania never hit number one on the Hot 100, but neither has Taylor. Shania is going to return in 2011 with her tv show, an autobiography, and new music. As far as the Album of the Year Grammy, to me doesn't prove anything, its just another award to put on the fireplace. If it meant so much, then why Garth Brooks or Mariah Carey never won that award.