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Critic's Notebook

Swift's ascent continues with arrival of new album

Taylor Swift wrote each of the 14 songs on 'Speak Now' about someone in her life who has done her wrong. Taylor Swift wrote each of the 14 songs on "Speak Now" about someone in her life who has done her wrong. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / October 24, 2010

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Fame has not been lost on Taylor Swift. When the superstar singer-songwriter headlined a sold-out Gillette Stadium in June — a first for a female artist (and the youngest ever, at that) — she stopped the show several times, with mouth agape, to take it all in. The sea of glowing cellphones snapping pictures. The wild teen screams straight out of Beatlemania. And the echo of nearly 57,000 people singing a song Swift probably wrote in her bedroom about a boy who didn’t like her in high school.

If a thought bubble had magically floated above Swift’s head, it surely would have read: “How did I get here?’’

The short answer is: FAST. At 20, Swift has won every major award available to an emerging musician, from Grammys to CMAs to VMAs. “Fearless,’’ her sophomore release from 2008, was last year’s top-selling album. And in June, Swift received a special award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame, on the same night it finally inducted Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley.

When “Speak Now,’’ her new album on Big Machine Records, is released tomorrow, you can bet it’ll polish Swift’s luster and likely make her the highest-selling artist of 2010. You want to root for her, but anyone who has followed Swift’s rise has inevitably asked the same question: Does she deserve all this acclaim so soon? No one does, really, but it’s easy to see how she’s become the record industry’s most bankable star.

Girl-next-door looks aside, Swift has just enough talent to pull ahead of her peers. She’s been guilty of singing terribly off key live, but who hasn’t? (And at least she doesn’t correct her pitch with Auto-Tune.) As a bonus, she plays guitar and writes her own songs, a fact her devotees routinely trumpet — while her detractors insist that’s to be expected if you’re going to call yourself a singer-songwriter.

She’s safe, too. You won’t see Swift wearing raw meat to an awards show or stepping out of a limo sans underwear. Photos of her being dragged out of a Hollywood club completely smashed at 2 a.m.? They probably don’t exist; paparazzi shots are more likely to capture Swift strolling around London in a buttoned-up trench coat, perma-smile and wavy blond tresses in place.

None of that can be discounted, either. Taylor Swift isn’t just a musician — she’s a benchmark, a seemingly wholesome young artist whose music reflects her values, the kind parents don’t have to worry she’ll outgrow like Miley Cyrus did. Swift embodies her songs, and vice versa. And it’s not a stretch to say that, as we confront the severity of adolescent bullying, Swift’s songs — about surviving high school, getting over a first love, chasing youthful dreams — are practically a balm for what ails our youth.

Swift has always had a knack for writing about where she is right in the moment, with lyrics gleaned from diaries and Twitter and Facebook updates. The songs on “Speak Now’’ mostly stick to the script that made her a star, as if someone had whispered into Swift’s ear: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sometimes she’s a little edgier than expected (“Better Than Revenge’’ tries on some Shania Twain sass), and there are occasional glimmers of hope that Swift has matured as a songwriter.

Swift wrote all of these songs alone and has suggested they comprise a conceptual album; each tune is a confession about someone in her life. Or, more specifically, someone who has done Swift wrong. That’s her hallmark, which was turned into a punch line on her Fearless tour with a video that showed various men fearing for their safety (and dignity) after they crossed Swift.

On “Speak Now,’’ Swift has the last word, as usual, but she wields a sharper pen this time around. Where hits such as “Fifteen’’ and “You Belong With Me’’ brimmed with teenage innocence, Swift explores the psychological consequences of a broken heart on a few new songs.

She’s not naming names, but it’s been widely suggested that “Innocent’’ addresses the fallout from Kanye West’s impolitic decision to interrupt her acceptance speech at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards. “Who you are is not what you did,’’ she sings sweetly, cleverly extending an olive branch and taking the high road at the same time.

“Dear John’’ is supposedly about fellow pop musician John Mayer, a rumor that gives the song extra resonance. Swift doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings, least of all his. “Dear John/ I see it all/ Now that you’re gone/ Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with,’’ she sings on the chorus, which swells beyond the song’s acoustic beginnings. “The girl in the dress cried the whole way home.’’

Lest you get the wrong idea, Swift makes it clear she’s not throwing herself a pity party. She turns the tables, insisting she’s not the victim and certainly not the one to blame. “But I took your matches/ Before fire could catch me/ So don’t look now,’’ she warns.

“Dear John’’ stands out on an otherwise standard Nashville country juggernaut produced by Nathan Chapman, who also helmed her previous two albums. Through 14 songs, Swift walks a straight line here, erasing the distinction between commercial country and Top 40 pop and ensuring the hit singles will arrive accordingly.

The title track is as blatantly pop-oriented as Swift has ever been. Inspired by a friend’s experience, it’s “You Belong With Me’’ gone to college, the inevitable next chapter where Swift’s character winds up at the wedding of an ex. Except she’s not the one walking down the aisle, and Swift is convinced the groom knows he’s making a mistake. “I know you wish it was me/ Don’t you?’’ she asks, not realizing it’s yet another example of Swift’s oddly endearing narcissism.

Meanwhile, she’s plucky and pert on “Mean,’’ a country barnburner whose banjo and mandolin lead Swift through a kiss-off worthy of the Dixie Chicks: “Someday I’ll be living in a big ole city/ And all you’re ever going to be is mean.’’

On an album with little use for peace and quiet, it’s telling that the most memorable song is the one that’s most elusive. By Swift’s standards at least, “Last Kiss’’ is an ethereal ballad that showcases her ability to interpret and not just spout. The album’s best couplet comes out of nowhere: “I don’t know how to be something you miss/ I never thought we’d have a last kiss.’’

Like everything else she’s ever written, the song is rooted in recent past, but it points to a bright future for Swift — both the songwriter and the young woman coming into her own.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

Taylor Swift and John Mayer
Photos

People behind the songs

Taylor Swift gets song inspiration from real-life relationships. She's not alone.