Saturday, November 27, 2010
Taylor speaks now, but we've heard it all before
Big Machine Records
Running Time: 67:29
Radiohead's seminal hit "Paranoid Android" has an iconic opening line:
"Please stop the noise I'm trying to get some rest/From all the unborn chicken voices in my head"
Lately I've felt like I can relate. Expect instead of chicken voices in my head, it's been Taylor Swift.
The melodies on her new album, Speak Now, have burrowed their way inside my head, and they've been stuck there for days. Expect this to be the case if you decide to take in her newest collection of sugary pop tunes.
Initially, I wasn't expecting to find much diversity in Swift's music. But she mixes it up with upbeat pop tunes, sentimental ballads, and even makes a few excursions into alternative rock (although with mixed success).
However, one thing that's missing is the presence of an honest country sound. These days it seems the Nashville labels are all about pop-crossover bands, and the "country" label is essentially just in the marketing. But there's only one song on the disc that could even be remotely considered country.
I'm also not particularly taken by Taylor's lyrical content and subject matter. Traditionally, country music has been everyman's music; the lyrical messages have been something that people from all walks of life can relate to. But unless you're a fourteen-year-old girl, don't expect to be able to relate to Swift.
She seems to only have two main lyrical themes - being heartbroken by douchey boys and poking fun at slutty/mean girls. It sounds like she's perpetually stuck in high school, which is great, I guess, if you're in the teeny bracket.
However, I can't knock the fact that Taylor has considerable songwriting chops, particularity in her ability to write a catchy hook.
She's been quite successful at injecting her personality into her writing, which gives her music a distinctive brand. Even though she doesn't have an overpowering voice, you can hear one of Taylor's songs and automatically know it's her.
When this formula works well, it produces tracks like "Picture to Burn" and "You Belong With Me." Speak Now features a few songs where you can tell she was going for a similar approach, but the results are much more mixed.
The title track tells a rather far-fetched tale of Taylor breaking up her sweetheart's wedding and winning his heart, while "Better Than Revenge" seems to borrow heavily from Paramore and modern day alternative rock. Her vocal inflections here make me think she's trying a little too hard to mimic Haley Williams.
Some experiments work better than others. "The Story of Us" shows off some sure-fire alternative influences but is cleverly divided into chapters. Taylor's alternative material tends to remind me of Avril Lavigne's Under My Skin era.
"Enchanted" shows off some of Taylor's best vocal work and memorable melodies, while "Dear John" is a tale of a serial heartbreaker that will tug at your heartstrings. "Never Grow Up" is a ballad that shows off Swift's tender side.
Then you get a song like "Mean." When Taylor actually attempts a country song - surprise! It actually works out nicely. The vocal harmonies work to perfection, and the banjo is a brilliant touch. Taylor is trying to channel her inner Natalie Maines here, and it's very convincing.
So I guess it's now the time for me to speak now-ow about the latest Swift record. In general, I find it's a very safe record. There are a few new musical influences spread here and there, but the formula remains the same.
If you enjoy her first two albums and want more of the same, then you should be delighted with Speak Now. But at it's core it's just a collection of catchy pop tunes with little substance or depth.
Given the fact that her album have all been major blockbusters, it's really tough to forecast that she will ever try to change things up in the immediate future.
So here's my modest proposal for Swift. Leave the high school lyrics behind, and quit force feeding us the same thing every album. You might sacrifice a little in terms of $$$, but it will work wonders for your artistic integrity and development.