Thursday, October 28, 2010

Album Review: Taylor Swift - Speak Now

The latest taboid rumor to surface about the current country radio darling is that she is in a relationship with movie star Jake Gyllenhaal.  Jake, you'd better be nice to Taylor - she's writing lyrics in her head during every moment she's with you!  But joking aside, Taylor's new album Speak Now is an intriguing effort.  Yes, most of the songs are about boys, but there are several areas where Taylor shows a measure of growth as a songwriter. 

Taylor often excels most when venting anger and hurt feelings, which often produces some of her most hard-hitting verses.  Perhaps the strongest track on the album is "Dear John," in which she walks us through the life cycle of a failed relationship, and tries to make sense of things after the difficult breakup.  The verses portray a wide spectrum of emotions that include hurt, anger, and regret.  Another standout track is "Back to December" (her confession to former lover and Twilight hunk Taylor Lautner), in which she expresses remorse instead of anger, having broken the heart of the one who loved her.  The album's weaker moments (such as "Enchanted" and the leadoff single "Mine") often come when Taylor returns to fairytale-like lyrical territory that was thoroughly tread in her first two albums.

One admirable strength that Taylor has displayed on previous efforts, and continues to display here, is a knack for causing the simplest phrases to make a powerful point, though often using hardly any fancy poetic language (No, I'm not talking about the "careless man's careful daughter" line).  It's as if you can hear a pin drop after she sings "When you're fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you're gonna believe it."  It's the same when she sings "The last time you saw me is still burned in the back of your mind/ You gave me roses and I left them there to die."

Though Taylor's sound has often been a far cry from traditional country, Speak Now is perhaps her most pop-flavored effort to date.  It's not bad pop music, but Taylor often falters when paired against loud and overwrought pop production, as such tends to highlight her vocal imperfections.  When the drum beats and guitar riffs are cranked up too loud, they seem to compete with Taylor's vocals for the listener's attention.  Her voice, while pleasant-sounding in its lower register, lacks the power necessary to bear such competition.  "Better Than Revenge" is a prime example of this characteristic.  While it is an interesting song on the lyric sheet, the driving punk-influenced arrangement is near headache-inducing.

There is one track that is untouched by the general poppiness of the album as a whole.  The song "Mean" is backed by a simple arrangement that is heavy on fiddle, banjo, and mandolin.  We haven't heard Taylor get that country in a long time.  In the lyrics of "Mean," Taylor minces no words as she gives an answer to all who have attacked her over her vocal weaknesses.  The distinctly country arrangement makes it sonically interesting, though not necessarily an album highlight.

Indeed, Taylor has lately taken some sharp criticism for being a subpar vocalist, especially after an embarrassingly off-key Grammy performance with rock legend Stevie Nicks.  It is clear that Taylor is no vocal acrobat, as evidenced by a few rough vocal spots on this album (like "Mine" and the title track).  But Speak Now does find Taylor developing an ability to convey emotion through her vocals - emotions ranging from nostalgia ("Never Grow Up"), desperation ("Haunted"), and triumph ("Long Live").

Though not perfect, Speak Now is likely to satisfy Taylor's current fans.  She may even win some new fans if she continues expanding her songwriting perspective and vocal abilities, while still retaining the same authenticity that has always been evident in her work.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)