Taylor Swift Grows Up on "Speak Now"

Taylor Swift

Speak Now (Big Machine)

How do you follow up the best pop-rock record of the last five years? How about with the best pop-rock record of the next five years? Granted, there are several years left to go in that span, including maybe another Taylor Swift album or two. But it's hard to imagine that Speak Now won't stand up well to the competition.

On her third album, the now-20-year-old Swift builds on the strengths that she flaunted on 2008's Fearless, piling on the hooks and the potential hits—almost any track could be a single—while broadening and deepening her reach as a writer. (And writer is how she obviously wants us to think of her; for the first time, she dispenses with collaborators and takes sole authorship of all 14 tracks.) Some of her moves are obvious, updating her teen-romance motifs to early adulthood, so that the couple at the center of "Mine" are co-habiting and struggling with bills. Others are tabloid bait, like the unsubtle songs to John Mayer (message: He's a dick) and Kanye West (whom Swift ostentatiously forgives for his trespasses).

But as usual with Swift, what makes the record work is a sort of guileless craftiness, a seemingly artless presentation of her everygirl self that is assembled with an immense amount of skill and care. Although Speak Now was written and recorded in the midst of the Taylor-mania that followed the mega-selling Fearless, nothing about the album feels rushed or sloppy.

Listen to a lyric like "a careless man's careful daughter" on "Mine"—which gives you a whole character in five words—or the snarky description of a bride in a "gown shaped like a pastry" on the title track, or any of the many details that give specificity to the people and situations in these songs. Listen also to how she's moved from the Pop 101 trick bag of Fearless (e.g., the shameless key change at the end of "Love Story") to the more complex melodic moves of "Back to December," with its mounting rush of a chorus that pays off in a stately eighth-note triplet as she sings the title words. She's always seemed like a natural when it came to absorbing and reformulating pop conventions, but she is also paying a lot of attention and learning as she goes.

The complaints about her singing will continue—her voice is more exposed and vulnerable on this album, which means its brittleness is more obvious. But there's nothing wrong with her phrasing, and she is good at working within her limitations. Her habit of breaking words in half rather than singing them through seems less affected now, as much a way of expressing or repressing emotion as of avoiding an awkward note. For the most part, she sounds fine here. (Certainly as fine as any number of indie-rock singers who don't get nearly as much grief, because their flats and sharps are signs of some kind of authenticity. Well, so are hers.)

The most telling song comes halfway through, in the gentle "Never Grow Up." What starts as a lullaby to a child turns out to be a song to her younger self, a warning of what lies ahead: heartbreak, loneliness, and loss. The shadow of mortality looms up out of the song's bridge, as Swift sings, "I just realized everything I have is someday gonna be gone." The final verse ends with her alone and cold in the dark, whispering "I don't want to grow up."

Sorta heavy stuff for an album offered on her website in deluxe "Glitter," "Sparkle," and "Diamond" packages. But Swift has always been more than "the girl in the dress," as she calls herself at one point. She's a complicated kid on her way to complicated adulthood, keeping notes as she goes. And Speak Now is a heck of a journal. (Jesse Fox Mayshark)