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Speak Now’: Taylor Swift gets personal

Sam Werner | Tuesday, November 2, 2010

3 and 1/2 shamrocks

Taylor Swift is back, and this time, it’s personal.

The 20-year-old country-turned-pop starlet released her third studio album “Speak Now” last week. Unlike her previous records “Taylor Swift” and “Fearless,” she wrote every song on the new album without co-writers.

Perhaps the most frequent criticism leveled at Swift has been the charge that most of her songs are virtually interchangeable, with similar sounds and lyrics. While “Speak Now” contains some undeniably Taylor songs, such as “Mine” and “Back to December,” Swift also mixes up her music stylistically.

“Mean” is almost retro-Swift, reaching back to her country roots with a plucky melody and southern twang. On the other end of the spectrum, “Better Than Revenge” is unlike any song Swift has released before. With its somewhat risqué lyrics and pop-punk sound, it sounds more like Avril Lavigne in her prime, in a completely fantastic way.

The album kicks off with “Mine,” the first single released and a song seemingly destined to follow in the footsteps of “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” as the go-to song to faux-ironically belt out at dorm parties.

The title track on “Speak Now” takes one step in a new direction, with light, pop verses that are almost spoken rather than sung, but reverts to a more recycled sound for the chorus. It’s a movement in the right direction, but the sappy cliché ending is still totally Taylor.

“Dear John,” maybe the most anticipated song on the album, is worth a listen for its lyrics, as Swift describes the breakdown of her relationship with 33-year-old John Mayer. The song is also, however, emblematic of one of the few problems with “Speak Now.” At 6 minutes, 44 seconds, it is, quite frankly, longer than any Taylor Swift song should ever be. “Speak Now” has two songs over six minutes — the sleep-inducing “Last Kiss” is the other, clocking in at 6:07 — and three more longer than five minutes. To contrast, the longest song on “Fearless” was “Fifteen” at 4:54.

It may be Swift trying to branch out as a songwriter, but she’s just not varied enough stylistically to make six-minute songs worth listening to. To be fair, though, not many musicians are.

“Dear John” and “Back to December,” the other breakup song on the album, both differ from Swift’s previous songs about heartache though. While Swift sounds bitter and angry in “Fearless” tracks “You’re Not Sorry” and “Forever and Always,” the two songs on “Speak Now” speak more to sadness and regret.

While many of the songs are directed at one particular person, “Mean,” the fourth single released from the album, is a harsh reply to Swift’s musical critics. The country tune is catchy and similar to tracks like “Our Song” from her first album, but the lyrics are almost comically childish. With a chorus of “Why you gotta be so mean?” Swift sounds like a grade-school student getting bullied on the playground. She’s proved, even on this album, that she’s capable of powerful defiant songs, so it’s curious that she’d choose to sound almost whiny when slamming the people who are “drunk and grumblin’ on about how [she] can’t sing.”

“Never Grow Up” seems to be the most personal song on the album. Swift doesn’t attack or call out anyone, but rather muses about how quickly she herself has grown into an adult. In a song easily relatable to college students ready to move into the real world, she sings about her first night in her new apartment, juxtaposed against memories from her childhood. “Never Grow Up” is not the most musically inventive song, but the lyrics are heartfelt enough to make it powerful.

Two tracks later, we reach the crown jewel of “Speak Now” — “Better Than Revenge.” From the spoken introduction, in which she says to “Go stand in the corner and think about what you did,” Swift does her best to shed her pristine pop idol reputation. The punk-pop track is devoid of all hints of country — or sappiness, for that matter— as Swift sings about a love not lost, but stolen, and boldly proclaims that her relationship’s saboteur is “better known for the things that she does on the mattress.” The song is so refreshing and new for Swift that it alone warrants an extra half-shamrock.

Lyrically, the album comes together in an interesting fashion, truly showing Swift at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood. She sounds like a four-year-old in “Mean,” deals with a teenage breakup in “Back to December,” breaks up a wedding in “Speak Now,” and moves in with a guy in “Mine.” While her songs are all over the board, they actually come together nicely.

It’s tough to improve on “Fearless,” which has sold over nine million copies worldwide, but “Speak Now” is different enough to show Swift’s maturation as an artist while still staying true to the sounds and themes that make her as popular as she is.