Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Music: Speak Now review

To a country traditionalist raised on Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard, Taylor Swift is a dilemma. In a lot of ways, she represents the worst in today's country-pop - middling vocals married to slick, glitzy "good girl" self-promotion. On the other hand, Swift is a credible guitar player, writes her own songs (a rarity in the post-"Idol" pop music world), and has paid her dues to the Nashville establishment by opening for some of the biggest names in the business, including Tim McGraw, Brooks & Dunn, and George Strait.

Despite that accumulated goodwill, Swift's new album, "Speak Now," won't win back any country stalwarts who disliked 2009's bestselling "Fearless" for its pop trappings. In fact, "Speak Now" goes in the opposite direction; the album contains only one straight country track, "Mean" (and even there the bouncy bluegrass accompaniment exists mostly as a self-aware stab at Swift's critics). Don't be fooled by the iTunes tag - this is one of the least country albums you'll ever hear.

In place of banjos and fiddles, Swift throws in feelers to other musical genres. "Better Than Revenge" is a pop-punk number that sounds a lot like Paramore's "Misery Business" (understandable, as Hayley Williams is a good friend of Swift). "Haunted" is an arena-rock song that readily draws comparisons to Evanescence. Even the album's title track, "Speak Now," is more Feist than LeAnn Rimes.

Of course, there's a healthy smattering of Swift's trademark power-pop ballads ("Mine," "Sparks Fly," "Enchanted," "Long Live"), and, when viewed as a pop album, "Speak Now" compares favorably to what's out there. Swift makes up for her limited singing voice by writing catchy hooks and some of the best singsong lyrics in the business. No matter what your opinion of her music, it's impressive that she can write original material that's more popular than the likes of Dr. Luke and Kara DioGuardi .

Many of the songs in "Speak Now" have famous subjects. "Dear John" is a nearly seven minute evisceration of John Mayer, who had a brief but infamous relationship with Swift (you can almost hear the shattering of John Mayer CDs in the bedrooms of teenage girls across the nation). "Better Than Revenge" is a diss aimed at Camilla Belle, who "stole" Joe Jonas away from Swift. I suppose it's a tribute to Swift's songwriting skill that these songs are catchy despite the Disney Channel tween-tabloid subtext, but she still comes across as vindicative and petty on these tracks.

The intensely personal subject matter works a lot better when Swift strikes a softer tone. The lush chorus of "Innocent," a forgiveness song directed at Kanye West, would likely be a top 40 hit in anyone's hands, but it comes off as genuine and heartfelt if you're familiar with Kanye's VMA outburst (and who isn't?). The best track of the album, "Back to December," references Swift's failed romance with Taylor Lautner. It's vintage Swift, evoking universal sentiment out of autobiographical material:


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