Thursday, October 28, 2010

'Speak Now' Impressively Taylored to Swift's Target Audience While Bespeaking Broader Possibilities -- Album Review

Album Review

Taylor Swift
Speak Now

OK, go ahead and snicker. A portly, middle-aged curmudgeon in a Ramones shirt without much previous passion for modern country or pure pop is reviewing--and awarding @@@@ (out of 5) to--Taylor Swift's new album.

Well, first of all, as reviews here--within just the past fortnight--ranging from Alejandro Escovedo, Jason & The Scorchers, Bob Mould and LCD Soundsystem to an opera version of Macbeth, a stage version of The Wedding Singer and Leonard Bernstein's Candide should indicate, I try to be diverse in the musical realms I know, like, explore and share.

Also, while in many ways I appreciate the individuality and intimacy of artistic expression and reception in the internet age--as illustrated by the fact that I'm writing a review you're reading, without my being a critic for the Chicago Tribune or Rolling Stone--I sometimes miss the unifying elements of mass cultural touchstones. The days of U2 and the Rolling Stones are pretty much gone except for them specifically (and a few other aging megastars). As the biggest musical artist in the world right now, at least in terms of moving product, and one fairly well acclaimed, Taylor Swift seems like someone with whom I should be familiar.

Plus, in listening to Swift's latest album, Speak Now--whose first week sales numbers are expected to be the biggest in years--and even her last one, Fearless, I don't really hear a lot of drawling country as much as power pop with big crashing choruses, not so unlike the kind Mutt Lange produced for Def Leppard before going on to do the same for Shania Twain. (The CMT Crossroads Swift did with Def Leppard a couple years ago reveals not only was she a big fan of theirs, but that she can sing Photograph better than Joe Elliott these days.)

I have genuinely been enjoying listening to Speak Now the last few days, and it clearly demonstrates the maturation in songcraft and vocal phrasing from a prodigiously talented 20-year-old woman. There are very few artists in any musical genre doing what they do better than Swift is doing what she does, which still seems to be writing personal and extremely melodic pop songs primarily aimed at (and enjoyed by) females aged 8-22, although her audience has assuredly stretched abundantly beyond.

That said, while I would heartily recommend it to my 10-year-old niece and stand by my @@@@ rating, I don't think that as weeks pass Speak Now will continue to be in my regular rotation. But then, neither have the past two albums by U2, Coldplay, Radiohead or much anyone else.

Swift's previous album, Fearless, which I'd heard before but really got to also know for this review, is chock full of teenage pop songs brimming with airy exuberance, and just seems more enjoyable overall than Speak Now. Though also a pleasurable listen--likely to become even more so after many of the tracks undoubtedly become ubiquitous--and a more accomplished album from a maturing artist, the new song cycle is a bit too weighted down by clear intent.

Except for rare moments of can't-help-myself curiosity, I don't read Us magazine or Perez Hilton, so I didn't know all of Swift's ex-paramours who she pointedly, if artfully anonymously, rebukes in many of the album's songs. In his review, albeit one of the few relatively lukewarm ones I've seen, Thomas Conner of the Sun-Times gives a good rundown the romantic wrongdoers, including John Mayer, that incur Taylor's rapier wrath, along with Kanye West, who famously stole her spotlight.

While I agree with how Conner chides Swift's overwrought handling of the Kanye incident in the song "Innocent," for the most part I have no problem with the autobiographical nature of her songs. Bitter breakups, hurtful rejections and even direct diatribes have been the subject of innumerable great songs and I respect Swift writing about her heartaches rather than, as she herself stated would be a less appealing temptation, the travails of fame, life on the road, etc.

In interviews, the precocious but sensitive Swift comes across as classy and I respect her for keeping her clothes on, unlike many other young female pop stars. Given the rare talent that has led to and sustained her popularity beyond mere celebrity or sluttiness, it seems somewhat beneath her to keep dissing on famous boyfriends who did her wrong, especially when she comes off as petulant and petty through lyrics like those bashing the "snotty little family" at an ex-love's wedding (in the title song).

And I don't know what John Mayer supposedly did to her, and don't absolve anyone being an asshole, but when Swift repeatedly asks "Don't you think I was too young to be messed with?" in Dear John, it feels like blaming the fire for your playing with it.

This is the album Taylor Swift needed to make now, and all things considered especially among what passes for mainstream entertainment these days, it's an excellent one. Her target audience--and I got the special Target exclusive version with extra tracks--should love it. So I in no way hold it against her that she didn't make an album with more societal commentary; she's not ready to tackle Wall Street malfeasance, counterproductive foreign policy or environmental destruction and to do so would be a dumb career move. Getting political certainly hasn't been great for the album sales tallies of the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam or Bruce Springsteen.

So with due admiration, I'll hold my peace about Speak Now and how it might have been better. But once it sells over 10 million copies worldwide and she's even more set for life, maybe next time out Swift can comment about something beyond being jilted.

For she seems like one of the few popular songwriters today capable of artfully and intelligently tackling any subject, even difficult ones, and for me to become more of a fan, I hope she does.

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