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Album review: Taylor Swift, "Speak Now"

taylor swiftTaylor Swift settles many scores on her excellent new album. (Toni L. Sandys/TWP)

By Allison Stewart

Taylor Swift's ridiculously entertaining new album, "Speak Now," is a lengthy, captivating exercise in woo-pitching, flame tending and score-settling -- with a heavy emphasis on the latter.

The song "Innocent," written in response to last year's Kanye West contretemps on the MTV Video Music Awards, may be the most telling. It is a small masterpiece of passive aggressiveness, a vivisection dressed up as a peace offering: "It's okay, life is a tough crowd," Swift faux-consoles West, who is, apparently, "32 and still growing up now."

A teenager when she released her first album and now the world's most famous 20-year-old, Swift, on her third album, neatly skirts the impending adulthood observers feared might become her Waterloo, mostly by avoiding mention of it entirely. It helps that she sounds like planet earth's youngest, most earnest 20-year-old, and that she wisely avoids relatability-killing songs about paparazzi or life on the road and makes only fleeting references to her apartment.

Lucky for Swift, regular girls and superstars apparently face the same troubles: alienation, constant romantic earthquakes, a distrust of people who are fake.
Swift is the fleshly embodiment of a Disney princess (and not the Miley Cyrus kind, either), but songs like "Innocent" suggest a tiny fist emerging from the velvet glove. It's an encouraging development, one that brings texture and depth to a disc of otherwise unearthly sweetness. The already-much-dissected bluesy guitar ballad "Dear John" deftly skewers rumored ex-paramour John Mayer ("All the girls that you've run dry/Have tired, lifeless eyes/Cause you burned them out"), whose already battered reputation may never recover.

"Better Than Revenge" was likely written about actress and alleged Joe Jonas-poacher Camilla Belle. Think such speculation is unseemly? Swift no longer seems like the kind of girl who would care if you Went There, providing so many telling details about her songs' real life heroes and villains that "Speak Now" might as well come with a decoder ring.

About Belle (allegedly): "She's an actress/But she's better known for the things that she does on the mattress," Swift meows. She sounds unsure what those things are, exactly, but that just makes it worse.

Swift is otherwise a champion empathizer, with a great gift for describing the lost innocence of childhood and the clumsy miscommunications of adults. She brings to mind, of all things, a girly Dashboard Confessional, another artist enamored of ardent, beefed-up acoustic roman à clefs. She wears well, but "Speak Now" is long: 14 wordy, stretched-thin, occasionally repetitive songs, all written entirely by her, and broken up by nary a guest star and only an occasional backing vocalist.

This full-frontal Taylor assault is doubtlessly meant to silence those who doubted her writing and singing abilities, but it makes for arid patches. "Dear John" drags at almost seven minutes; it would have soared at four.

The disc's songs tend to fall into three categories: poppy and generic new wave tracks ("The Story of Us") that suggest a nicer Avril Lavigne; catchy country-pop songs ("Mine," an unofficial sequel to "Fearless" hit "Love Story"), of which there are not enough; and muscular acoustic ballads, often with strings or an orchestra (the great "Back to December"), of which there are sometimes too many. Except for the swingy bluegrass track "Mean," this is the least country album in the history of country albums.
"Speak Now" is peppered with giggles, spoken word bits, sighs and one too many pouring rain metaphors, all meant to underscore Swift's adorableness, which has long been an indisputable matter of record. The only real misfire is the title track, in which Swift interrupts a wedding with a protestation of love for the groom ("I am not the kind of girl who should be rudely barging in on a white veil occasion," she informs the gathering, somewhat awkwardly).

In this razor-edged update of "Fearless" hit "You Belong With Me," Swift stacks the deck by depicting her rival as a bridezilla with a "gown shaped like a pastry," a great image but a bad idea: it's one of the few times she seems petty and juvenile, and not just young.

It goes without saying that the groom strips off his tux and ducks out the back door with Swift, but you can't help but feel sorry for his would-be bride . With America's Sweetheart as an unexpectedly merciless rival, it hardly seems like a fair fight.

Recommended Tracks: "Mine," "Last Kiss," "Mean," "Back to December"

By Allison Stewart  | October 24, 2010; 3:14 PM ET
Categories:  Album reviews  | Tags:  Taylor Swift  
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Next: Clicky shuffle: Random songs for Monday morning


What does this have for news? Is the WPO going the path of the supermarket tabloids, which are preoccupied with nubile young starlets? Shame.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | October 24, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

maybe because taylor swift has been awarded almost every major honor a musician can get before she turned 21? maybe because this is one of the few albums to potentially sell a million copies when it launches?

like her or not, which you clearly don't, it is news.

Posted by: joshd | October 24, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

I have to admit, the post by edwardallen54 reminds me of the ways I occasionally miss my physical copy of the Post. Had he been reading the paper version, he wouldn't have stumbled across "Click Track" without deliberately opening the Arts & Entertainment section of the paper.

Though I can click on the "News" topic on the Post's menu, it's not quite the same as opening the paper and letting the managing editors lead me through the daily news, one page at a time, based as much on article length as topic importance.

Posted by: iamweaver | October 24, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

I haven't listened to Taylor's music, so don't know about her 'girl empowerment' power. Just by reading this short story though, I do wonder what she'll have left to sing about if(when) young guys shun her to avoid having themselves ripped apart in her songs.

Posted by: momof20yo | October 24, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Culture War shouldn't take the World Serious.

Posted by: Uoughtano | October 24, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

kanye west..........what a joke!

Bush hates black people......duh!

Bush did more for the people of Africa than any President ever has.

Posted by: COOLCHILLY | October 24, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Taylor Swift is the most over-rated, over-promoted singer in the planet. She cannot sing on key to save her life, yet this review conveniently ignores the big fat elephant in the room: her pitchy, offkey live singing. Sure, she can use autotune and studio tricks to sound passable on the cd, but live, she is truly tonedeaf and almost as bad as Britney Spears is at singing live. The album is bubble gum pop drivel at its worst. It is not country and it is an insult to country music as a whole that her team keeps falsely promoting her as a country artist in the USA, but Pop overseas. She is a two faced chameleon, and FAR FAR from "America's sweetheart." If America's sweetheart has fangs and a nasty streak, then maybe Taylor will fit the role.

Posted by: alleycat334 | October 24, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

lol britney spears has never sung live. she puts her CD in and presses play.

no, she really can't sing live. but i'm guessing you're going to argue that lady gaga can't sing live either, so whats the point

Posted by: joshd | October 24, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

Lady Gaga sings very well live. She is very talented unlike Taylor Swift.

Posted by: alleycat334 | October 24, 2010 8:02 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: 1561705755 | October 24, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse

"Lady Gaga sings very well live"

My, how our standards have fallen. Not so long ago, this wouldn't pass for decent music at a corner bar.

Anyway, Taylor Swift's voice is thin and she is a study in energy and youth rather than pure singing talent.

A comparison to Gaga and Brittany is an exercise is really kind of missing the point here.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | October 24, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

Taylor can sing live. She has had some very good performances. I can't deny that she has had bad ones too, but thats part of the appeal to be honest. She's normal. Normal people will have bad performances, they'll get excited when they get awards, and sing about the relationships they regret. Thats what makes her appealing.

@ alleycat334 I don't see how you can judge the album as it just came out...2 minutes ago on my clock.

seriously though, she has had excellent performances. May I add, this is just my opinion, good and bad are opinions, so please don't try to argue with me. I'm tired of arguing with people over Taylor Swift and if she is good. In my opinion she is good, and it seems a lot of people agree with me.

Posted by: CaladorCP | October 25, 2010 12:05 AM | Report abuse

Oh my my, the media blitz. So if you're already sick of Taylor Swift,...prepare to be sicker now!

Posted by: Stethor2000 | October 25, 2010 12:33 AM | Report abuse

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