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Album review: Taylor Swift's 'Speak Now'

October 25, 2010 |  2:31 pm

Taylor Taylor Swift sleeps with a night light on. She makes this confession -- hardly the flashiest on her new album, “Speak Now,” but possibly the most revealing -- in “Never Grow Up,” a kind of answer song to Brad Paisley’s 2007 country chart-topper “Letter to Me.” Both songs are gentle tearjerkers related by a narrator digging up undervalued memories. Paisley moves forward by offering reassurance to the gawky adolescent he once was. Swift, nearly 21, longingly looks back: “I could still be little,” she sings, teeth clenched.

Swift knows that she’s lying to herself. She is one of the world’s biggest pop stars, one of the few probably still able to sell a million albums in a week. Many say the fate of the conventional music industry rests on her often artfully displayed white shoulders. Yet her impossible commitment to staying little is the key to Swift’s success.

Her third album, “Speak Now,” is meant to be a masterpiece of major declarations -- two-thirds of it recounts broken love affairs with fairly identifiable fellow celebrities, and she offers glimpses that finally confirm she’s not a princess, but a modern young woman who stashes clothes for the morning at her boyfriend’s place and isn’t above calling a rival a mattress gymnast. Swift is naming names during the media cycle accompanying this release -– the guitarist John “The Player” Mayer is the cradle-robber in “Dear John,” Taylor Lautner the lost prince of “Back to December” -- but the gossip surrounding the music is much less interesting than the maturation of her sound.

The musical range of "Speak Now" expands beyond country-pop to border both alternative rock and the dirty bubblegum pop promulgated by such producers as Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. Little spoken asides pepper some songs, signifying hipness; on others, Swift lays claim to several genres’ worth of signatures, from the lush strings of Céline-style kitsch-pop to Americana banjo to countrypolitan electric guitar. She surveys this wide ground without bluster; she never poses. Conquering new territory, she acts like it’s simply what’s expected of her.

Swift, who wrote all the songs herself, does push one thing: her voice. She belts out the climaxes of songs like the romantic nightmare “Haunted” and the snot-punk catfight “Better Than Revenge”; on “Dear John,” her hate letter to Mayer, she opens up her throat so wide that she almost yells. If her voice has been manipulated by in-studio producer Nathan Chapman, he’s done a good job masking it. At any rate, Swift always returns to her defining vocal gesture -- the line that slides down like a contented sigh or up like a raised eyebrow, giving her beloved girl-time hits their air of easy intimacy.

This companionable attention to detail is Swift’s strongest point. Like Paisley, she makes memorable music by homing in on the tiny stuff: the half-notes in a hummed phrase, the lyrical images that communicate precisely what it’s like to feel uncomfortable, or disappointed, or happy. Her fans are 100% there with her, as she’s fidgeting with her clothes while an ex holds forth across the room at a party; or relishing the first time a new beau shakes her dad’s hand; or switching on that night light and tucking herself in. Focusing on these moments, Swift manages to be there with her fans too -– so often does she hit on common experiences that feel unique.

Much of mainstream pop music now sounds like advertising jingles and football chants, with melodic earworms the size of tapeworms and itchily irresistible beats. Outrageous personalities complement these pushy sounds. Swift reminds us that there’s another way to hook in listeners. Not surprisingly coming from someone so focused on childhood imagery, it’s a trick parents often use with their kids: Use a soft tone. Focus everything inward. Make the one you’re addressing feel like you and she are the only ones in the world.

The limits of this approach have more to do with what pop can mean in the world than what it accomplishes artistically. Swift’s relentless return to the personal, and especially to that seemingly simple moral framework grounded in her faith in childlike innocence, confines her. Swift’s ability to articulate her vision is growing beautifully. Next, one hopes, she’ll turn off that night light and confront the realities that remain, for her, in the dark.

-- Ann Powers

Taylor Swift
“Speak Now”
Big Machine
Three stars

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