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Taylor Swift CD review: She's stuck in the ex box

Taylor Swift

Speak Now

Posted 11:38am on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010

Three albums into her wildly popular, multiplatinum and globally successful career, Taylor Swift is still settling scores.

Either the 20-year-old singer-songwriter is terrifically thin-skinned, or she simply can't bring herself to write about anything aside from her romantic travails. Either way, the whole "woman scorned" shtick is becoming quite tired.

With every new Swift song, a breathless round of speculation -- Who incurred her wrath? Will she name names? How many fellas have really wronged her? -- obscures the truth about Taylor.

While she has an admitted knack for melody and, very infrequently, a finely wrought turn of phrase suggesting depth beyond boy-hating, Swift keeps turning out variations on the same theme (teenage love soured by melodrama) that first catapulted her to fame. Speak Now, her latest studio effort, is no different; there's even a track titled Better Than Revenge, for crying out loud, with the telling line "She should keep in mind/There is nothing I do better than revenge."

The latest single, Dear John, has already set tabloid tongues wagging. Supposedly it's about her brief dalliance with Mr. Sexual Napalm himself, John Mayer. At nearly seven minutes, it's a spectacularly self-indulgent piece of pop catharsis (an interesting side note: Swift has all but abandoned the country touches that marked her work as nominally Nashville in character). The song's most clever flourish -- vaguely bluesy guitar licks, aping Mayer's penchant for the same -- isn't even lyrical. Although the song provides a slight voyeuristic thrill, as though eavesdropping on a particularly fraught exchange between two high-profile people, it's short-lived. Dear John is just the latest in a long string of thinly veiled airings of grudges.

So it goes throughout Speak Now, a bloated, nearly 70-minute affair: stylish, irresistibly melodic songs that say nothing of any importance to anyone other than Swift. These tunes, all penned by Swift with no additional co-writers, are built to be sung en masse in arenas and appeal directly to her fan base. But the rush to anoint her as a songwriter of substance remains baffling.

Take the bluegrassy Mean, where Swift lays into an unnamed detractor with a litany of nyah-nyah invective: "All you are is mean/And a liar/And pathetic/And alone in life/And mean." It induces giggles, not chills, and speaks to the core problem with Swift's catalog to date. Swift simply hasn't lived enough to move beyond herself and her own life as source material. Unloading on record probably helps clear her head, but it does nothing to advance her career as an artist.

Selling millions of copies and packing arenas full of worshipful fans is rarely sustained over the long term; people grow up and move on, becoming acquainted with musicians who have something genuinely insightful to say. If Taylor Swift continues along her present path, she's going to find that out the hard way.

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