Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Album Review: Taylor Swift, Fearless

Country star Taylor Swift's follow-up to her 2006 eponymous debut begins, tellingly, with the title track, a subtle, yet solid number that serves as a thesis statement for the album, as a title track should. In this case, the song uses love to implicitly urge the willful abandonment of inhibitions in order to embrace the pleasures of life.

and I don't know how it gets better than this
you take my hand and drag me headfirst
and I don't know why but with youI'd dance
in a storm in my best dress

On "Fifteen," the album standout, Swift poignantly takes the listener through the milestones of early life (the first day of high school, the first kiss, a devastating break up), while singing from the point of view of an older woman speaking to a girl of the titular age.

when all you wanted
was to be wanted
wish you could go back
and tell yourself
what you know now

Making the song more powerful is the use of personal lyrics to transcend trappings of a pop artist.

back then I swore I was gonna
marry him someday
but I realized some bigger dreams of mine
and Abigail gave everything she had to a boy
who changed his mind
and we both cried

In the liner notes, in the center of the lyrics for "Fifteen," is a picture of the singer with the Abigail she sings of.

The next track, "Love Story," (the first single) uses a toe-tapping tempo and Swift's soaring voice to bolster its trite Romeo and Juliet references. It is at these moments that, despite the pop sheen put on the material, Swift shows herself to be the star of her album. It's a testament to both her personality and her vocals (which alternate from a girl's tantrum to a woman's yearning)) that she is able to bring distinction to the rather routine girl-wants-boy/girl-is-disappointed-by-boy/girl wish-fulfillment scenarios in many of the songs found here.

What is also noteworthy is how well the collection functions as a transitional album. Some songs address teenage angst (the person you like likes someone else, people in school are mean, etc.), while others depict love in a much more general way, all the better to prepare Swift's audience for the grown up songs Swift, who receives either full, or partial, songwriting credit for every song on the disc, will soon be singing.

Making Swift's evolution less risky is the CD's sonic packaging. Fearless has the same mixture of poignancy, spunk, and sweetness that was found on her last album, but all parties involved have upped the ante. This music is being engineered to sell to as many people as possible, and no part of the formula (the violin flourishes, the guitar riffs that build during the verses to overpower the listener on the choruses) is overlooked. Every sonic touch is introduced exactly when you expect it to be. (Even the sequencing of the songs, which, at times, reflects the ups and downs of a relationship, is done for maximum effect.) Oddly enough, this aspect is most noticeable when the album threatens to go off the beaten path. The intro to "Tell Me Why" sounds like bluegrass hip-hop, but then it deftly segues into the song proper. It's a remarkably smooth shift that could only be executed by people who know what they're doing. (It should also be said that it's not just the production that is slick. The CD jacket has a colorful, meticulously-designed format that incorporates a lyric sheet and photos that look like theme shoots from America's Next Top Model--if you're into that sort of thing. It's a sight to see and almost worth the price of the disc, in and of itself.)

The album hits its home stretch with "The Way I Loved You" (an emphatic number co-written by John Rich) and never lets up. "The Best Day" nearly matches "Fifteen" with Swift recalling how important her family has been to her during her young life. In talking about a car trip with her mother, after a day of being bullied, she sings

I don't know who I'm gonna talk to now at school
but I know I'm laughing on the car ride home with you
don't know how long it's gonna take to feel ok
but I know I had the best day with you today

She also vividly depicts her childhood connection with her father, when singing

there is a video I found from back when I was three
you set up a paint set in the kitchen and you're talking to me
it's the age of princesses and pirate ships and the seven dwarfs
daddy's smart and you're the prettiest lady in the whole wide world

It's a vivid and heartfelt song that will make people think of the moments when they felt the most affection for loved ones. The album concludes with the Olympics-commissioned, yet suddenly timely, "Change," an obligatory, hope-for-a-better-day song that, true to form, is delivered with enough authority to overcome its familiarity.

Bottom Line: Pop country isn't for everyone, but, if you give it a chance, Fearless will most likely win you over with its charismatic star, powerful lyrics, and glossy production. It left me excited to hear what Taylor Swift will offer next.

Rating: 8.5/10

Track Listing:
1. "Fearless"
2. "Fifteen"
3. "Love Story"
4. "Hey Stephen"
5. "White Horse"
6. "You Belong With Me"
7. "Breathe"
8. "Tell Me Why"
9. "You're Not Sorry"
10. "The Way I Loved You"
11. "Forever & Always"
12. "The Best Day"
13. "Change"

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