On country superstar Taylor Swift’s new album, the question that so many critics have been asking since last year’s MTV Video Music Awards is finally answered. Yes, she did write a song about Kanye West, but it’s not the oh-so-biting, I’ve-been-wronged-but-now-I’m-stronger Swift that audiences have grown to embrace. As a matter of fact, Speak Now is a wonderful step forward, particularly lyrically, for the international superstar. Of course, she includes the requisite songs about her exes, her family, and her rapid rise to superstardom. With each song, Swift digs emotionally deeper than she ever has before, resolutely exploring unfamiliar territory with bountiful and successful new results.
Some of the most widely speculated rumors swirling around Speak Now deal with the subjects of Swift’s jilted-lover songs. Ever since lead single “Mine” leaked in August, bloggers have been furiously dissecting the lyrics to figure out which of Swift’s quickly growing number of former boyfriends it could be about. The singer playfully winks at her audience, capitalizing key letters in the CD booklet’s lyrics as a way of hinting at their respective subjects. Take, for instance, “Back to December,” a mea culpa of sorts in which a regretful Swift laments, “This is me swallowing my pride / Standing in front of you saying I’m sorry for that night.” The CD liner’s message reads TAY, a pointed reference to Taylor Lautner. The track sorrowfully and chronologically traces what went wrong in their relationship.
On “Innocent,” which favors darker chords and wordplay over her usual poppy, perky style, Swift’s voice sounds more developed and lovelier than ever. It is a cinematic and cathartic song, purportedly about West, which takes a brighter turn on its hummable chorus, as she reminisces, “Who you are is not what you did / You’re still an innocent.” It’s a wise move on the part of Swift who, at only 20, has done a remarkable job navigating her way through the backlash of the past year.
Swift goes on the offensive on “Mean,” a song that if recorded by another artist, might have seemed like a whiny, petit-four of a song. In Swift’s more than capable hands as a songwriter, the single is rich, meaningful, and biting. As she addresses the critical backlash that followed her Grammy performance, Swift acknowledges journalists’ grievances with her, playfully puttering, “You pointed out my flaws again / As if I don’t already see them,” as gleeful banjo strings find themselves plucked and twanged exultantly in the background. Judged solely on its musical merits, the song sounds like something Dolly Parton would have released way back when, which makes the teasingly bitter lyrics that much more impish.
We find the singer that America knows and truly adores on “Better Than Revenge,” a scorching number that begins with a stern command: “Now go stand in the corner and think about what you did.” What could have easily veered into hokey territory instead premieres as the revenge song ‘Table of Honor,’ a song right alongside Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know.” It’s probably a safe guess to say one of the country star’s best friends, Hayley Williams of pop-punk group Paramore, lent the fired-up Swift some rock inspiration. The uncharacteristically sassy and brash Swift bashes an unnamed actress, snarling, “She’s not a saint and she’s not what you think / She’s an actress / But she’s better known for the things she does on a mattress.”
It would be easy to speculate the target of “Revenge” (some say it’s about the “ever-present frown” of starlet Camilla Belle), but half the fun of listening to Speak Now is guessing for oneself, like on one of the album’s best (and longest) songs, “Dear John.” The song, with a droll sense of humor, borrows some bluesy guitar trills sounding suspiciously like those of the rumored subject, John Mayer. As a matter of fact, Swift sounds her most vulnerable (and even a tad vocally shaky) on the track, as she laments, “Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with? / The girl in the dress cried the whole way home / I should’ve known.”
“The Story of Us” may also be about John Mayer, as Swift’s secret code in the lyrics is “CMT AWARDS” at which both singers were present. It’s all useless speculation, because Swift is notoriously good at evading questions concerning subject matter, deflecting it with some sort of variation of “I tell the story in my song!” Whether about the “Your Body is a Wonderland” singer or not, “The Story of Us” is still a boisterous number in which Swift describes the feeling of being alone in a crowded room when she first spots “him,” whoever he may be. The song has the most poppy sound on the album and feels almost tailor-made to be a single. Though not the best on the album by any means, it has the potential to be as big as “You Belong With Me.”
The most commendable aspect of Swift’s third album, however, is how simultaneously accessible and blissfully mature it is. Over the course of 22 songs, Swift stops treading water in teen-pop and emerges a confident adult songstress whose future looks brighter than ever.