People like to fixate on Taylor Swift’s youth, as if to say, yeah, she’s pretty good for her age. But that just begs a question: Where are all the older people who are supposedly making better pop records than Taylor Swift? There aren’t any. In a mere four years, the 20-year-old Nashville firecracker has put her name on three dozen or so of the smartest songs released by anyone in pop, rock or country.
Swift’s third album, Speak Now, is roughly twice as good as 2008’s Fearless, which was roughly twice as good as her 2006 debut. These 14 tunes chronicle the hopes and dreams of boy-crazy small-town Everygirls, and Swift wrote them all by herself. (She also co-produced Speak Now with Nathan Chapman, who oversaw Swift’s first two albums.) Swift might be a clever Nashville pro who knows all the hitmaking tricks, but she’s also a high-strung, hyper-romantic gal with a melodramatic streak the size of the Atchafalaya Swamp. So she’s in a class by herself when it comes to turning all that romantic turmoil into great songs. At this point, she’s like the new Morrissey, except with even more eyeliner.
Swift takes a step into adulthood with Speak Now — she clearly aspires to the divorced-mom market where country stars do most of their business, slipping more grown-up details into her love stories. It’s tame by country-radio standards, but it’s still weird to hear T-Sweezy sing lines like “There’s a drawer of my things at your place.” Sometimes you can even tell what chick flicks Swift has been watching from the song titles: “Dear John,” “The Story of Us,” “Enchanted.”
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In uptempo tunes like “Mine” and “Sparks Fly,” or ballads like “Back to December” and “Enchanted,” Swift’s voice is unaffected enough to mask how masterful she has become as a singer; she lowers her voice for the payoff lines in the classic mode of a shy girl trying to talk tough. Check the way she tosses off the “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter” part in “Mine.” Anyone else would have built the whole song around that, yet for Swift it’s just another brilliant throwaway detail. There’s a minimum of country schmaltz on Speak Now — Swift likes her tempos fast and her choruses rock-size. In “Enchanted,” she even cops the Prince trick of duetting with her own filtered voice.
As for the boys she tangles with on Speak Now, they’re her usual type. “You’re an expert at sorry/And keeping lines blurry/And never impressed/By me acing your tests” — get used to that guy, Taylor, you’ll be meeting a lot of him. Her advice to these dudes for holding on to her? “Just keep on keeping your eyes on me,” she sings in “Sparks Fly.” And yet we can already tell this guy’s going to be long forgotten by the next song.
Speak Now peaks with “Long Live,” a ridiculously over-the-top prom anthem with all the epic girl-group swoon of the Ronettes or the Shirelles, plus a guitar hook from Def Leppard‘s “Hysteria.” Swift belts about how getting crowned king and queen is the most excellent event that could ever happen. It’s the sort of prom song that could only come from an artist who chose to spend her high school years on a tour bus. Yet when Swift sings it, damn if you don’t believe every word.
This story is from the November 11th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.