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Review: Taylor Swift resumes her heart smashing on 'Speak Now'

Doe eyes and diary entries notwithstanding, Taylor Swift eats boys for breakfast. And I mean that as a compliment. As the guy-devouring Goldilocks releases her new album Speak Now — and slays a bevy of bold-faced dudes in the process — the 20-year-old has become not just a pop powerhouse but a blond beacon of newfangled feminism, too. Swift justice, you have to love it.

Her vengeful schtick may eventually grow into self-parody, but for now we can't get enough of her moxie. Swift is the bestselling artist of 2008 and 2009. She'll be tough to beat in 2010, too. Speak Now, Swift's third and arguably best album, could sell 2 million copies in its first week, a music-biz anomaly. When's the last time students called for a school holiday to celebrate a record's drop day?

Check out a newsstand, and Swift's beaming face glows on every other magazine cover, smirking next to an exclamatory headline about the annoyances in her life: Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, Kanye West, John Mayer. Naming names is a great sales tool, but if the vaguely country pop songs themselves aren't any good, what's the point?

But therein lies Swift's ultimate weapon. Yes, she's pretty, savvy, smart — but she's also an incredibly crafty songwriter, balancing gravitas with relentless radio hooks. Her showmanship always wins out over her broken heart. Her voice isn't a dazzler, but it has a solemn middle range and a sweetly passionate high plead. She can deliver at will.

The 14-track Speak Now hits way more than it misses. There are fast, feisty cuts to offset the inevitable slow stuff. Better Than Revenge, rumored to be about Camilla Belle (who supposedly stole Jonas away), borders on the downright metallic, a hair-flying beat-down. Swift delivers the song with a wink and a cackle, issuing the chorus with the kick of a high heel: "There is nothing I do better than revenge." The Story of Us, maybe about Lautner (there's only so much US Weekly I can take), is darkly upbeat, a breakup song that chugs aplenty. Also chummy is the country kissoff Mean, a chin-up ditty for those getting bullied, berated.

For all Swift's humor and fire, though, the album's two strongest songs are absolute heart smashers. They're the most complex, mature ballads she's written; at more than six minutes each, they're also the most epic. Last Kiss has a spare piano line and reverbing guitars, a moody foggy landscape perfect for a tragic love story: "And I hope the sun shines / And it's a beautiful day / And something reminds you / You wish you had stayed."

Even better is Dear John, which is not unlike a sprawling, crescendoing powder keg from the likes of the Black Crowes or Counting Crows. As guitars crunch, Swift takes her time eviscerating a much older lover who took her heart — and perhaps something else. "Well maybe it's me and my blind optimism to blame / Maybe it's you and your sick need to give love then take it away." Dear John — which, if the gossip is true, is about sensitive guitar man Mayer — is nothing less than You're So Vain for the 21st century.

Swift's curls go a little flat here and there. Innocent, about Kanye West's infamous buttinski routine at the MTV VMAs, is a self-indulgent drone. And the album's singles — Mine and Back to December — are blah, been-there also-rans compared to the rest of the album. But that's no crime: When you're the biggest pop star on the planet, you don't want to change things too much. As Swift grows up, so will her music. And I get the feeling she'll tire of dartboard songwriting long before we do. In the meantime, we can all enjoy her fine new record — well, except for Mayer, who should probably stay indoors for a few weeks.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.

Taylor Swift, Speak Now (Big Machine) GRADE: B+

Review: Taylor Swift resumes her heart smashing on 'Speak Now' 10/25/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 8:24am]
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