In a lot of ways, the incident at the VMAs last year was the best thing to happen to Taylor Swift. She went from a country pop singer with a few hits to a hot press item with nothing to gain but good PR as being the sweet girl next door. And after the prerequisite rounds of talk shows following the incident (plus a smaller victory lap after winning the Grammy for Album of the Year), Swift stayed fairly lowkey.
But she’s ready to jump back into public consciousness with Speak Now. Calling Swift a country pop artist is a dead-accurate statement; “country” is an adjective, and “pop” is the focus. She might sing with an affected accent, and the backing band might have every Nashville element, but Speak Now has the cleanest production money can buy and an aim set for the pop charts.
Things begin just like every cynic expected them to. Lead single “Mine” and potential single “Sparks Fly” sound exactly like Fearless songs with the lyrics bumped up a year or two. Neither one is a great standout track, but they work as a point of entry.
As with Taylor’s career thus far, the lyrics are a point of discussion. As with Fearless, a lot of these songs could start with “Dear diary,”, but a number of them read like “I hope that one person reads these” Facebook statuses. “Dear John” might as well be called “@John_Mayer”, while “Back to December” would fit perfectly on Taylor Lautner’s Facebook wall, and “The Story of Us” could be an email to Joe Jonas. Swift is writes her lyrics like stories, only leaving out the proper nouns so anyone can relate. At the same time, 14 stories that are all about boys in some capacity gets damn tiring.
But at least they’re well-crafted stories lyrically and musically. The lush “Back to December” utilizes Swift’s country tones in just the right places, while the sprawling “Dear John” is in full-on country mode (and it works, hinthint). Even duller moments like “Mean” show everyone having fun. Orchestrated “Haunted” is the album’s cell-phones-in-the-air favorite to be butchered on American Idol someday; the strings add deft touches to the already dramatic ballad, turning a decent song into a show-stopper. In fact, ballads are Taylor’s M.O. on Speak Now with six of fourteen songs falling into the category. Only twice does the album’s energy kick-it into high gear while the rest of these tunes go by peacefully.
However, Speak Now does have its stumbles. The title song is an obnoxious rewrite of “You Belong With Me” down to melodic similarities, while “Mean” sounds like a bunch of playground comebacks (the chorus boils down to “Screw you, I’m rich”). “You’re 32 and still growing” sounds nurturing enough in “Innocent” until you remember that 1. Taylor says this from the wise, lucid age of 20, and 2. She’s referring to Kanye “They don’t want me chilling on the couch with my phoenix!” West as innocent. Then there’s the “Taylor Swift meets Paramore” embarrassing misfire that is “Better Than Revenge” (and not as good as “Misery Business”). Other noteworthy dud is “Never Grow Up”: a dreadfully repetitive acoustic guitar jam with painfully diary-ripped lyrics that makes a nearly five minute song feel nearly twice as long.
Speaking of length, that’s the biggest downside to Speak Now. The median song length is around 4 and a half minutes while the average is to be closer to five. This hurts on a song-by-song level (“Dear John” and “Enchanted”), but it also makes listening to the whole album a taxing process. Another kicker is that Taylor’s “Little ole me” persona and voice get outstripped by her ambition on a few cuts, although she keeps things mostly under control. Still, though, better than expected. Three and a half out of five.
tl;dr Speak Now is a hard one to call. While it had the potential to be great, the album trips over itself too many times to be anything other than surprisingly good.