'Speak Now': Taylor Swift doesn't hold her peace on Kanye West, John Mayer

Taylor Swift discusses her adoring fans and music with The Washington Post following a concert at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Va., in 2009. The Catholic school's 804 students won a nationwide Verizon Wireless contest by sending the company more than 19,000 text messages to earn the concert.
By Allison Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010

Taylor Swift's ridiculously entertaining new album, "Speak Now," is a lengthy, captivating exercise in woo pitching, flame tending and score settling -- with a heavy emphasis on the latter.

The song "Innocent," written in response to last year's Kanye West contretemps on the MTV Video Music Awards, may be the most telling. It is a small masterpiece of passive-aggressiveness, a vivisection dressed up as a peace offering: "It's okay, life is a tough crowd," Swift faux-consoles West, who is, apparently, "32 and still growing up now."

A teenager when she released her first album and now the world's most famous 20-year-old, Swift, on her third album, neatly skirts the impending adulthood observers feared might become her Waterloo, mostly by avoiding mention of it entirely. It helps that she sounds like planet Earth's youngest, most earnest 20-year-old, and that she wisely avoids relatability-killing songs about paparazzi or life on the road and makes only fleeting references to her apartment.

Lucky for Swift, regular girls and superstars apparently face the same troubles: alienation, constant romantic earthquakes, a distrust of people who are fake.

Swift is the fleshly embodiment of a Disney princess (and not the Miley Cyrus kind, either), but songs like "Innocent" suggest a tiny fist emerging from the velvet glove. It's an encouraging development, one that brings texture and depth to a disc of otherwise unearthly sweetness. The already-much-dissected bluesy guitar ballad "Dear John" deftly skewers rumored ex-paramour John Mayer ("All the girls that you've run dry/Have tired, lifeless eyes/Cause you burned them out"), whose already battered reputation may never recover.

"Better Than Revenge" was likely written about actress and alleged Joe Jonas-poacher Camilla Belle. Think such speculation is unseemly? Swift no longer seems like the kind of girl who would care if you Went There, providing so many telling details about her songs' real-life heroes and villains that "Speak Now" might as well come with a decoder ring.

About Belle (allegedly): "She's an actress/But she's better known for the things that she does on the mattress," Swift meows. She sounds unsure what those things are, exactly, but that just makes it worse.

Swift is otherwise a champion empathizer, with a great gift for describing the lost innocence of childhood and the clumsy miscommunications of adults. She brings to mind, of all things, a girly Dashboard Confessional, another artist enamored of ardent, beefed-up acoustic romans à clef. She wears well, but "Speak Now" is long: 14 wordy, stretched-thin, occasionally repetitive songs, all written entirely by her and broken up by nary a guest star and only an occasional backing vocalist.

This full-frontal Taylor assault is doubtlessly meant to silence those who doubted her writing and singing abilities, but it makes for arid patches. "Dear John" drags at almost seven minutes; it would have soared at four.

The disc's songs tend to fall into three categories: poppy and generic new wave tracks ("The Story of Us") that suggest a nicer Avril Lavigne; catchy country-pop songs ("Mine," an unofficial sequel to "Fearless" hit "Love Story"), of which there are not enough; and muscular acoustic ballads, often with strings or an orchestra (the great "Back to December"), of which there are sometimes too many. Except for the swingy bluegrass track "Mean," this is the least country album in the history of country albums.

"Speak Now" is peppered with giggles, spoken-word bits, sighs and one too many pouring-rain metaphors, all meant to underscore Swift's adorableness, which has long been an indisputable matter of record. The only real misfire is the title track, in which Swift interrupts a wedding with a protestation of love for the groom ("I am not the kind of girl who should be rudely barging in on a white-veil occasion," she informs the gathering, somewhat awkwardly).

In this razor-edged update of "Fearless" hit "You Belong With Me," Swift stacks the deck by depicting her rival as a bridezilla with a "gown shaped like a pastry," a great image but a bad idea: It's one of the few times she seems petty and juvenile (and not just young).

It goes without saying that the groom strips off his tux and ducks out the back door with Swift, but you can't help but feel sorry for his would-be bride. With America's Sweetheart as an unexpectedly merciless rival, it hardly seems like a fair fight.

Stewart is a freelance writer.

Recommended tracks:

"Mine," "Last Kiss," "Mean," "Back to December"

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