Whatever the reactions to Taylor Swift's third full-length album, Speak Now, might be, there are two critics whose responses we can easily pin down in advance.
Taylor Lautner is going to love it.
John Mayer? Not so much.
The hotly anticipated album, which comes out Oct. 25, has been held tightly under wraps until now, with only a handful of songs made available for advance listening even to journalists who have been doing interviews with Swift. Now that her label is finally starting to play the album for select critics, it's easy to fathom why its contents have been closely guarded, all fears of leakage aside. Some of the lyrics are startlingly candid, even by the standards of Taylor "Naming Names, Taking No Prisoners" Swift.
And listening to "Dear John," the scorching song that is-from all appearances-aimed at Mayer, all we can say is: Joe Jonas, you got off easy.
When I talked with Swift last month after hearing a few of the new songs, she didn't hesitate to frame Speak Now as her diary of the last two tumultuous years. The general public might have to guess which relationships or incidents most of the songs are about, but the subjects of the lyrics will quickly recognize themselves, she feels confident.
"They're all made very clear," Swift told me. "Every single song is like a roadmap to what that relationship stood for, with little markers that maybe everyone won't know, but there are things that were little nuances of the relationship, little hints. And every single song is like that. Everyone will know, so I don't really have to send out emails on this one."
But, I said, by necessity of her fame and that of her recent boyfriends, she is past the point of using proper names in the lyrics now.
Video Rewind: John Mayer gushes about Taylor Swift
"Um," she responded, "there's still names that I used. Wait till you hear those."
Actually, there's only one actual name called out anywhere in the 14 songs. So if you were thinking that "Dear John" takes its title strictly from the old expression "a dear John letter," you might want to think again. Swift is nothing if not extremely literal.
With most serious singer-songwriters, it might seem voyeuristic to speculate on the personal situations being reflected upon in song. But Swift has lived her life as a fairly open book, all but inviting her fans to relate her well-known relationships to their own as she evidences a gift for writing in both autobiographical and universal terms.
And it might seem sensationalistic to focus on "Dear John" at the expense of the rest of the album if it didn't feel like it might be her masterpiece to date, or at least the most bracingly, joltingly honest song you've heard any major performer have the nerve to put on record in years. Maybe not since John Lennon took on estranged partner Paul McCartney in "How Do You Sleep" has a major pop singer-songwriter so publicly and unguardedly taken on another in song. But while Lennon's song came off as mean-spirited, Swift was motivated by vulnerability and woundedness, which makes her song far braver... and more cutting.
The first chorus begins: "Dear John/I see it all now that you're gone/Don't you think I was too young/To be messed with/The girl in the dress/Cried the whole way home/I should've known." A second version of the chorus includes the lines: "It was wrong/Don't you think nineteen's too young/To be played/By your dark, twisted games/When I loved you so."
When rumors of a Mayer/Swift romance broke, some of us had a hard time imagining it, because of his rather famously ruinous reputation in matters of love and her ever-present, protective mom. "Dear John" addresses that: "My mother accused me of losing my mind/But I swore I was fine..." And: "You'll add my name to your long list of traitors who don't understand/And I'll look back in regret I ignored what they said/'Run as fast as you can'."
Swift, who turns 21 in December, won't outrightly acknowledge the subjects of these songs-except for "Innocent," the one written to Kanye West-so we have to allow that maybe "Dear John" is about some other much older man her mother warned her about who is known for "all the girls that you run dry," and not the 32-year-old Mayer... Like, the late John Forsythe, maybe? Hmm. Gonna have to stick with our original educated guess on this one.
There may be those who'll accuse Swift of exploiting her own romantic travails in this and other songs. But the extended bridge section of "Dear John" (and, at six and a half minutes, the entire song is fairly extended) packs such a cathartic punch, it really does transcend any tabloid associations. When Swift sings "I'm shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town," anyone who ever felt manipulated or used and found the strength to move on may be cheering like it's the 4th of July.
"Dear John" is the most powerful song on the album, but hardly the only vivid or emotional one. It's not all vituperation, though. The apologetic "Back to December" can't be about anyone but Lautner, and to our ears, so are several of the other new tracks-none of them about revenge, all of them about fondness for the admittedly brief time spent together. While Swift was writing these songs, Lautner's pointy werewolf ears must have been burning nonstop, to the point of spontaneous combustion. He has to be as flattered as Mayer should be flabbergasted.
While you wait for Speak Now's release on Monday, here's a bible on what to expect from the hour-plus album, from first track to last.
The opening track and first single is already practically a standard, having been rush-released way back on August 4, in response to a leak. Who's it about? Definitely not one of Swift's longer-term steadies, but a shorter-lived crush. (If you had to attach a name to it, it could be Glee actor Cory Monteith, whose are-they-or-aren't-they-dating friendship early in 2010 never seemed to amount to much. Or, it could be about an infatuation so short-lived we never got to hear about it.)
I asked Swift how "Mine" fit with the true confessions theme of the album, since the bits about marriage clearly go beyond the sphere of sheer autobiography.
"It actually is a confession of some sort," she responded, "because this is a situation where a guy that I just barely knew put his arm around me by the water, and I saw the entire relationship flash before my eyes, almost like some weird science-fiction movie. After I wrote the song, things sort of fell apart, as things so often do. And I hadn't talked to him in a couple months. And the song came out, and that day I got an email from him. And I was like"-she claps her hands-" 'Yes!' Because that one was sort of half-confession, and half-prediction or projection of what I saw. And the fact that it came across so clearly to that guy that he would email me meant that I had been direct enough."
How did the fellow in question take to realizing that their brief flirtation had resulted in an entire fantasy of togetherness, arguing, falling apart, and married reconciliation-ever-after? Swift suddenly became coy. "Um... I don't know. I didn't really respond. But he was sort of like, 'I had no idea... I realize I've been naïve.'"
"Sparks Fly" is apparently the oldest song on the album, having been performed live-and leaked to the web via a crude concert recording-back in 2008. So hardcore Swift fans are familiar with the bones of this song, if not yet the revised lyrics and arrangement. The chorus is still the same as in the live bootleg that's circulated among fans for a couple of years, but some of the verses have been changed. Among the new lyrics: "My mind forgot to remind me you're a bad idea." Some of the changes make the protagonist of this upbeat song a bit cockier than before. A line that once went "Something that'll haunt me when you're not around" has had a role-reversal switch, so that she now promises to give her b.f. "something that'll haunt you when I'm not around." Apparently she's a little more confident of her charms than she was two years ago.
BACK TO DECEMBER
This song, which was already released on iTunes, doesn't leave many doubts about who it's addressed to, since Swift broke up in Lautner last December. It's been widely noted that it's her first "apology" song. She is, after all, known more as the singer of "Picture to Burn" than for writing songs acknowledging that maybe it's her picture that should've been burned. But she emphasizes that, for her, repentance was no mere lyrical exercise.
"I've always sort of felt like I try to write songs that the people that they're about deserve," she told me. "And up until now I haven't really felt like I really, really needed to apologize to someone and someone deserved that from me. It's just necessary. From knowing the situation and writing honestly, I can't leave that part out, and I don't think I should. And I think that you should be able to say that you're sorry to someone, and sometimes the best way I know how to say anything is in a song... I think that for me, especially playing that song for the first time for people around me, like my family and my friends, they made that point right away-like, 'You realize you've never done this before. You've never really apologized to someone in a song.' I guess I wasn't conscious of that when I was writing it, because it just was exactly what I needed to say. It wasn't like 'Oh, I haven't covered this emotion yet.' It was just a new emotion for me to feel."
Also already released on iTunes, the title track is the frothiest song on the album, at least sonically, with Swift trying out an uncharacteristic vocal style that's closer to Feist than her usual, more conversational approach toward singing.
"The song was inspired by the idea of bursting into your ex-boyfriend's wedding and saying 'Don't do it'-which was originally inspired by one of my friends and the fact that the guy she had been in love with since childhood was marrying this other girl," she explained to me. "And my first inclination was to say, 'Well, are you gonna speak now?' And then I started thinking about what I would do if I was still in love with someone who was marrying someone who they shouldn't be marrying. And so I wrote this song about exactly what my game plan would be...
"When titling an album," she explained last month, "for me the first step is I go down the titles of the songs I have so far, and see any of those titles could be the recurring theme throughout the entire record. At this point I had probably 70% of the songs that ended up being on the album. And I just kept going back to 'Speak Now,' because I think it's such a metaphor, that moment where it's almost too late, and you've got to either say what it is you are feeling or deal with the consequences forever. And I feel like that's such a metaphor for so many things that we go through in life, where you can either say what you mean or you can be quiet about it forever. And this album seemed like the opportunity for me to speak now or forever hold my peace."
"The girl in the dress wrote you a song..." Yes, she did. (See introduction.)
By far the country-est song on the album, not to mention by far the country-est tune she's ever done, with an abundance of mandolin and banjo. It's easy to imagine this becoming a theme song or rallying cry for the growing anti-bullying movement. Verses like "Calling me out when I'm wounded/You, picking on the weaker man" and "You have pointed out my flaws again, as if I don't already see them/I walk with my head down, trying to block you out" leading to a triumphant we-shall-overcome-the-mean-girls-(and-boys) chorus.
Said chorus could count as a case of backwards projection, flashing back to Swift's pre-fame life: "Someday I'll be living in a big old city/And all you're ever gonna be is mean." But there is a definite allusion to recent controversies when, toward the end of the song, she adds: "And I can see you year from now in a bar talking over a football game/With that same big loud opinion, but no one's listening/Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things/Drunk and talking all about how I... can't... sing." Snap!
THE STORY OF US
Early fan speculation, based in preliminary teases about the content of the tune, was that this one was about Joe Jonas. But she wrote about Joe on her last album, in "Forever and Always." Do we think she's going to devote a song to him at this late date any more than the New York Times is going to feature on-the-scene reporting from the Spanish Civil War?
"That was the last song that I wrote on the record," she told me, "because it happened most recently. It was at an awards show, and there had been a falling out between me and this guy, and I think both of us had so much that we wanted to say, but we're sitting six seats away from each other and just fighting this silent war of 'I don't care that you're here.' I don't care that you're here.' It's so terribly, heartbreakingly awkward."
Obviously, the wound was fresh, so even though Swift did run into Jonas at a couple of awards shows this year, it seems much more likely to place its setting as the People's Choice Awards in January, where Swift and Lautner were reported to have successfully avoided each other, just three weeks after breaking up. Key lyrics: "I'd tell you I miss you but I don't know how/I've never heard silence quite this loud." Also: "I would lay my armor down, if you would say you'd rather love than fight."
NEVER GROW UP
No, this isn't another song about Kanye West. (Good guess, though.) Though this one could also be called "Innocent," it's sung to an actual baby. "Never Grow Up" is a sweet lullabye with an undercurrent of sadness or even wary adult bitterness, as Auntie Taylor advises the infant whose nightlight she's turning on: "To you everything's funny/You've got nothing to regret/I'd give all I could, honey/If you could stay like that."
The most unabashedly romantic song on the album, and also one of the best, "Enchanted" describes the aftermath of meeting a special someone without knowing whether the instant infatuation is at all reciprocated.
"That song is about pining away for if you're ever going to see someone again-walking away too early," she explained. "It was about this guy that I met in New York City, and I had talked to him on email or something before, but I had never met him. And meeting him, it was this overwhelming feeling of: I really hope that you're not in love with somebody. And the whole entire way home, I remember the glittery New York City buildings passing by, and then just sitting there thinking, am I ever going to talk to this person again? And that pining away for a romance that may never even happen, but all you have is this hope that it could, and the fear that it never will.
"I started writing that in the hotel room when I got back. Because it just was this positive, wistful feeling of: I hope you understand just how much I loved meeting you. I hope that you know that meeting you was not something that I took lightly, or just in passing. And I think my favorite part of that song is the part where, in the bridge, it goes to sort of a stream of consciousness of 'Please don't be in love with someone else/Please don't have somebody waiting on you.' Because at that moment, that's exactly what my thoughts were. And it feels good to write exactly what your thoughts were in a certain moment."
Apparently, nothing came of this enchantment, except for the song. At least that's the impression given by how Swift acknowledges the guy in question hasn't heard it yet, though she expects him to recognize that it's about their brief encounter when he does hear it. "I think so," she said with a slight laugh. "Using the word 'wonderstruck' was done on purpose," she added (referring to the line "I'm wonderstruck, blushing all the way home"). Because that's a word which that person used one time in an email. And I don't think I've ever heard anybody use that term before, so I purposely wrote it in the song, so he would know."
(And now every guy who ever ran into Taylor Swift at a social event in New York is thinking: "I did say 'wonderstruck,' right?")
BETTER THAN REVENGE
A fast-paced rocker in the tradition of vengeance songs like "Picture to Burn," but aimed at a Mean Girl. "She underestimated just who she was stealing from..." Indeed. "I think her ever-present frown is a little troubling/She thinks I'm psycho because I like to rhyme her name with things." Speaking of rhymes, the chorus rhymes "she's an actress" with "better known for the things she does on the mattress." Parting thought: "You might have him, but haven't you heard?/You might have him, but I always get the last word." Oh, we imagine "she" heard, whoever she might be.
Swift premiered this song about Kanye West at the scene of the crime-the MTV Music Video Awards. "I think a lot of people expected me to write a song about him. But for me it was important to write a song to him."
Judging from how flawlessly Swift pulled off her subway performance of "You Belong With Me" shortly after the Kanye incident, it was easy to surmise that she just brushed it off like the preternatural pro she is. But that's hardly the case. "The fans in the subway know exactly what happened that night. It's something I'm never gonna forget. And I'm always going to look back and smile on how they really, really helped me through that.... I'm so emotional and human.
"You have to try really hard to regulate what you feel, what you let in, and what you don't. Because things like criticism, you are told to be very thick-skinned about things like that. But then when it comes to making an album, if you make everything general and kind of gloss over your actual raw feelings, that doesn't benefit anyone... As far as what to feel and what level to feel it, I can't really control any of that. It's just how things hit you, and what you let in is definitely something you've got to find a balance for."
The most musically dramatic song on the album has effervescent-oops, make that Evanescence-qualities, with strings bumping up against squalling guitars, to underscore the romantic obsession being described. "Something's gone terribly wrong/You're all I wanted," she sings, demanding at one point late in the song: "Finish what you started!"
A much more tender post-breakup song than the desperate one that precedes it in the lineup. Best lines: "All I know is, I don't how to be something you miss." And: "So I'll watch your life in pictures/Like I used to watch you sleep..." Now, that's haunted.
Hard to imagine there's any way the closing number isn't about Lautner, if the ongoing affection she's publicly expressed for him is true (not to mention the remorse heard earlier in the album in "Back to December"). She describes herself and her paramour in heroic terms: "The crowds in the stands went wild/We were the kings and the queens/And they read off our names..." That may strike some listeners as self-important for a celebrity to have written, but later in the song, Swift describes things more in the terms of a homecoming king and queen than Hollywood royalty, saying: "You traded your baseball cap for a crown/And they gave us our trophies/And we held them up for our towns."
Taken at its word, the song would seem to have been written during this moment of mutual triumph, but the conquistador attitude occasionally gives way to bittersweet prophecy, as Swift sings, "If you have children someday, when they point to the pictures, please tell them my name..."
Somehow, we have a feeling the guy's kids aren't going to have a hard time deducing on their own who the blonde girl is. If there was any doubt, Speak Now helps ensure she'll have a spot in the history books and not just a faded teen-pop photo album.
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