Album review: Taylor Swift's 'Speak Now'

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NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 13:  Singer/Songwriter Taylor Swift autographs for 13 hours on the 13th. of June and plays with her band several for her fans during The CMA Music Festival on June 13, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Country music's young upstart is growing up... and that's a good thing! 

Taylor Swift's highly anticipated third album is both bitter and sweet.

Taylor Swift | Speak Now (Big Machine)

If any album has a shot at selling a million copies in its first week (and it’s been two and a half years since any album did), it’s Taylor Swift’s Speak Now, which comes out Oct. 25. If nothing else, the follow-up to 2008’s Grammy Award-winning, six times-platinum Fearless will launch a million speculative blog posts, since much of her third album is said to be about “Taylor Swift and that Twilight kid,” as Katherine Heigl put it in a Life as We Know It punchline. Then there’s the song that’s definitely about Kanye West, the single that might be about Glee star Cory Monteith, and the six-and-a-half minute utter excoriation of John Mayer, whose already tough year is about to get a little rougher.

Confronted with subject matter that was gossip mag material before it became lyrical fodder, country fans might quote the famous chorus of Waylon Jennings: “Are you sure Hank done it this way?” Fans of the confessional singer-songwriter tradition in popular music, meanwhile, could similarly ask: Are you sure Joni done it this way?

Indeed, when Joni Mitchell released Blue in 1971, most of her fans weren’t devouring every line to try to figure out whether it was about Crosby, Stills, or Nash. But that was then, and this is Speak Now, very much a product of its transparent times. If Swift’s approach to songwriting is far more diaristic than some of her predecessors, oldsters may see that as exhibitionistic, but her twenty-something contemporaries will recognize it as perfectly in keeping with the candor of the Facebook generation. Why settle for a roman a clef when you can be real?

Speak Now does keep one foot, or at least a couple toes, in teen-pop. The bouncy title track, in which the singer breaks up an ex-beau’s wedding sounding like Feist on happy pills, is arguably the bubblegummiest thing she’s ever done. And “Never Grow Up,” an acoustic lullaby, is so patently anti-adult that Swift advises the baby she’s tucking in for the night to stunt its own growth before the kid has to experience future rejections or desertions. But for the most part, Swift seems comfortable with the whole growing-up thing—which she accomplishes not by tarting herself up, as disastrously attempted by Miley Cyrus, but by fully embracing the singer-songwriter genre and the deeper, more complicated emotions that fuel it.

The best and most shocking song here, “Dear John,” is the one that parents may be reluctant to let their tweens hear—not because there’s any sexual explicitness to it, but because its ravaged emotions in the wake of an ill-advised fling feels like a cold slap in the face to kids who’ve barely exited the Disney princess years. It’s a brilliant song, and not necessarily an easy one to listen to… at least until the chills-inducing climax, when Swift gets past the nastiness and sings: “All the girls that you run dry/Have tired, lifeless eyes/’Cause you burned them out/But I took your matches/Before fire could catch me/So don’t look now/I’m shining like fireworks/Over your sad, empty town.”

It would be a pretty devastating track with or without the knowledge that it is allegedly about John Mayer, with whom Swift was rumored to have a brief tryst. Consider this the unofficial confirmation. The details of Swift’s ballad about a guy with a “sick need to give love and take it away” all square up with what’s known, or suspected, from tabloid reports earlier this year: The disapproving mom (“My mother accused me of losing my mind/But I swore I was fine”), the disapproving public (“I ignored what they said: Run as fast as you can”), 12-year age difference (“Don’t you think 19’s too young/To be played/By your dark, twisted games”), and… the name. Surely Mayer must’ve realized, if he did romance Swift, that she’s not big on pseudonyms.

You expect comeuppance in a Taylor Swift album, if not necessarily the stark kind doled out in “Dear John.” There’s more of the playful sort heard on the previous two albums in “Better Than Revenge,” the most breathlessly paced rocker on the album, which begins with the singer whispering “Now go stand in the corner and think about what you did,” then chiding a rival with the line, “I’m just another thing to roll your eyes at, honey… She should keep in mind that there is nothing I do better than revenge.”

It’s a fun number, but if there were many more along those lines, you might worry that Swift could be falling into a vengeance-is-mine-sayeth-the-lioness schtick. Actually, what’s most surprising about Speak Now—once you get past the bitterness of “Dear John”—is how unexpectedly sweet it is. Swift’s had her moments before, but she’s never treated a boy quite as affectionately as she treated her mom in the previous record’s “Best Day.” This time around, she doesn’t try just a little tenderness, but a lot—and most of it seems to be reserved for a Taylor Lautner-like figure who was loved and, purposely or inadvertently, left behind.

“I feel you forget me like I used to feel your breath,” she sings softly in “Last Kiss.” In “Long Live,” she stands proudly, even as “the cynics were outraged, screaming ‘This is absurd.’” It may sound self-congratulatory, or it may just be someone at the top of her game, briefly paired with someone at the top of his game, latching on for all it’s worth to something that’s destined to fade, as the lyric acknowledges it will.

Will the cynics still be outraged when Speak Now becomes the biggest-selling album of the next year? (“Mean,” the only other song on the album to allude to some defensiveness on Swift’s part, is an utterly upbeat country song that even has a funny and extremely self-aware nod to those who say she “can’t sing.”) They may be out in greater force than ever before, but the stone-hearted among them who listen to Speak Now will find it hard to complain that Swift somehow stole that Best Album Grammy for Fearless. Entirely self-penned, sans the collaborations of the previous albums, it’s an enormous breakthrough in songwriting maturity, while hardly forsaking the childlike lack of pretense that made earlier efforts such guilt-free ear candy. Deal with it, haters: It’ll be decades before she’s holding her peace.