The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. It was only a few days ago when I first discovered mine. I found myself bewildered, ashamed, and more than a bit unsettled. This kind of thing happens to regular people. Philistines, actually.I, however, am sophisticated, erudite, a Man of Good Taste. But, denial is futile. (As is resistance, it turns out.) So, in the spirit of the truth setting me free, I’ll say it: I love the new Taylor Swift album.
I’m being facetious, of course. Not about my high admiration for Speak Now – that’s very real – but about the implied notion that there should be at least a dash of shame added to the enjoyment of twangy pop songs about boys whose names end with the letter “Y.” If you need the modifier “indie” slathered over the word “pop” to make it palatable, stop reading now. If layers of irony, distortion, and/or electronic beats are required to swallow a catchy melody, this review, and this album, is not for you. The rest of us will be perfectly happy to feast on Speak Now’s bounty of pleasures without you.
In 2006, while her 16-year-old peers were spending their free time trying to get laid, high, or, at the very least, a perfect GPA, Taylor Swift was busy crafting a brilliant country-pop tune called “Tim McGraw.” Using the eponymous country star as a totem for nostalgia was a masterstoke, a winking, postmodern novelty that instantly distinguished Swift from the chaff regularly spat out by the mechanized Harvester of Pop also known as Nashville. The rest of Swift’s self-titled debut had a few songs that matched “Tim McGraw” – the banjo-driven, middle-finger flip of “Picture to Burn,” the searing “Should’ve Said No,” and the spirited hillbilly anthem “Our Song” – but as a whole, it was more endearing than it was accomplished. On her excellent 2008 follow-up, Fearless, Swift delivered a record-shattering pop behemoth, albeit one with a country accent.It redefined her as a precocious geek, an outsider hero looking in. “You Belong With Me” exemplified Swift’s new persona, and its accompanying video earned her the award that prompted Kanye West’s ridiculously ballyhooed VMA stunt. (Which is nonsensically “addressed” in the otherwise great Speak Now track “Innocent.”)
Too much has been written about Speak Now’s supposed tell-all confessions, particularly the details of Swift’s failed celebrity relationships. Though her record company, Big Machine, is mostly to blame, the music media haven't exactly turned away from such an obvious marketing ploy. Sensationalism will sell records, but it distracts from the fact that Speak Now is, song for song, Swift’s strongest album. What difference does it make if “Dear John” is about John Mayer or some fictional John Doe? Or that “Back to December” may or may not be about that Teen Wolf who shares a first name with Swift? I know, Speak Now is just a pop album, which means it will get more attention from US Weekly than it will from Pitchfork, but Swift deserves better.
Speak Now is a career-defining album. It not only lacks a dud, but it also reminds you that a radio hit can be held to a higher standard and still exceed expectations. The album’s first single and opening track, “Mine,” firmly plants Swift in the fertile ground between Shania Twain and Kelly Clarkson, though closer to the latter. Swift’s marriage of pop and rock, with just a bit of country, is effortless and thrilling. Lean verses lead to explosive and exuberant choruses, with one impeccably crafted melody following another. “Sparks Fly” may be your absolute favorite song right now, but “Mean” or “Better Than Revenge” will surely replace it in a couple of days.
The album suffers from a couple of flaws common to most pop albums. It’s exactly two tracks too long: “Enchanted” and “Last Kiss,” fine songs both, slow down the pace of the record. The far-superior acoustic versions of “Back to December” and “Haunted,” found on the deluxe edition of the album, underscore the fact that most of these songs are heavy with too many tracks of instrumentation. Still, griping about a pop album’s overproduction is like complaining that rap music is too misogynistic or that experimental music is too weird. Well, duh.
Speak Now was solely written by Taylor Swift, which seems completely insane. The impressive popcraft of these fourteen songs could have been created by a small army of career songwriters. Well done, Ms. Swift. SpeakNow is a well-earned tiara atop of Taylor Swift’s blonde tresses, an album that deserves to sell zillions of records. As it no doubt will. B+