The release of a new recording as a cultural event is pretty much a thing of the past. A new Eagles album used to be that type of thing; so was a long-awaited and hyped album from U2 in their prime. But it rarely happens these days, and certainly hasn’t happened for any Nashville acts lately. Except for one: Taylor Swift.
Unless you’ve been roughing it with Osama bin Laden, you know that Ms. Swift’s new album, Speak Now, is a sales sensation. Heck, bin Laden probably even knows. Taylor Swift is far more than just a singer-songwriter. In our digital world, she’s the iconic face of young female America, someone who parents love for her wholesomeness, and the reason so many young girls are taking guitar lessons. And, to the chagrin of those who say she really isn’t “country,” she’s selling millions of records and downloads and bringing more money into Nashville than any artist since Shania.
Because of the buzz behind it, Speak Now was destined to be a commercial success no matter what. Thankfully, the album succeeds on an artistic level as well. Swift has created an album of 14 completely self-penned tunes that work well on the level of her young female fans whose lives revolve primarily around romantic relationships. And while countless media outlets have speculated about the male subjects of those songs, let’s assume Ms. Swift is more concerned with her art than she is with making sure everyone examines her private life, which hopefully is the case.
The album’s first single, “Mine,” opens the album with the words “Uh ah oh / uh ah oh,” not exactly the strongest way to start an album. But when she sings the line “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter / You are the best thing that’s ever been mine,” one hopes that there will be more such interesting wordplay to come. There is.
The song that is probably the most “country” on the record, “Mean,” starts off with outstanding producer Nathan Chapman’s pseudo-clawhammer banjo, mandolin and handclaps setting the stage for a presumed rebuttal against the critics who have been less than kind to Swift over the years. With lines like “Someday I’ll be living in a big ole city / And all you’re ever gonna be is mean / Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me / And all you’re ever gonna be is mean,” it’s an enjoyable tune no matter what age you are.
The one song on Speak Now that shows Swift isn’t the naïve young role model that so many parents perceive her to be is “Better Than Revenge,” where the G rating leaves the building and the claws come out. “She’s not a saint, and she’s not what you think / She’s an actress, whoa / But she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress,” Swift sings, exacting payback on a rival by prompting her millions of fans to dislike whomever messes with Taylor’s man.
“Never Grow Up” is one of the few songs on Speak Now that doesn’t focus on relationships. This song about childhood innocence opens with the vivid “Your little hand’s wrapped around my finger / And it’s so quiet in the world tonight / Your little eyelids flutter cause you’re dreaming / So I tuck you in, turn on your favorite night light.” Such great opening lines and use of imagery give one hope that Swift could someday be a truly accomplished writer, and might begin to spend more time writing about something that doesn’t involve romance.
The musicians here include some of Nashville’s finest session players, but the members of Swift’s touring band, the Agency, play a key role, a bit of an anomaly on Nashville recordings. This not only shows the power Swift has in terms of how her records are made, but a wisdom in making sure that her live show sounds like the album, since her band helped create the finished product.
Speak Now is Taylor Swift’s best record yet, all in her voice with no co-writers. It’s a powerful statement from someone who has proven that she knows who she is, and, whether Nashville likes it or not, is here to stay.