In the stunning portrait on the cover of her new record, Speak Now, country music darling Taylor Swift looks out at you, bold and fearless, twirling her voluminous purple dress as her bouncy curls gently caress her slender shoulders. Evidently, the girl in that gorgeous photo is not the same one we fell for upon hearing the adorable “Teardrops on my Guitar” some four years ago; this is a flower in full bloom, a lass on the cusp of womanhood.
At 20, with successive platinum releases and an Album of the Year Grammy to her name, Taylor Swift is leading an undeniably charmed life in a youth-obsessed music industry, and that ascendancy – and nascent maturity – is fully reflected on Speak Now (Big Machine Records), Swift’s third studio album, a refreshing and appealing collection, completely imbued with lyrical grace, transparency and the anticipated confessional songwriting. Even so, Swift’s music remains youthful and vividly expressive and retains the appeal that consistently enraptures her broad, loyal audience.
Hit-laden and chock-full of Swift’s usual themes of regret, romance and heartbreak, Speak Now is more delightful country than contemporary pop, while delivering traces of soft rock, bluegrass and acoustic elements. These are creamy, effervescent songs that charm the listener into a state of entertainment. More commonly, though, we are reminded of Swift’s capacity for lush and sensitive lyrics steeped in matters of the heart.
On “Mine,” the singer shares a tendency to run from love; then on “Back To December,” we get a moving apology to a former lover, folks already speculate to be some hunky werewolf named Taylor Lautner (the other Taylor). Speaking of dedications, the lyrics to “Innocent” scream Kanye West, who infamously hijacked Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) in September 2009.
In the meantime, Swift shakes up the tempo and mood with the heavy, rock-powered “Better Than Revenge,” a biting missive aimed at the trampy other woman. “Mean,” meanwhile, is sharply aimed at detractors who criticize her voice and achievements. A list of the real highlights on Speak Now, however, must include the tender, stripped-down coming of age story “Never Grow Up” and the repeat-worthy, heartwarming gem “Enchanted,” on which Swift re-energizes her inner fairytale princess, with delicious results. She is at her most sparkling on these latter cuts.
Written entirely by Swift, with production from Nathan Chapman, Speak Now is a beautifully wrought country album that displays the emotional agility and vocal subtlety of its leading lady. In the wake of that Album of the Year win for Fearless, Swift knew she had to return with a record that would, in the least, prove that the triumph was no fluke. She has succeeded admirably. Speak Now is right up there with Fearless and her remarkable 2006 self-titled debut.
As for Swift’s evolution, even as she shifts nicely into adulthood, she remains a boy-crazy country starlet armed with a melodious guitar, still possessed of a penchant for crafting stirring ballads about relationships, the human experience and love in its millions of forms.
DOWNLOAD: The heartwarming “Enchanted,” the tender “Last Kiss” and the hopeful “Long Live”