The music industry has no shortage of show ponies, but it doesn’t often find a unicorn like Taylor Swift. She is that rare commodity: a global superstar who somehow retains her naïf-next-door appeal; a one-girl empire of dear-diary reveries, dominating two genres with guileless (or so it seems) ease.
That mix of fame, youth, and earnest transparency can often make listening to Speak Now, Swift’s third album, an exercise in name-that-celebrity Whac-a-Mole. And its smattering of banjo pluck and dainty twang makes only the most nominal swipe at coming off ”country.” What Swift does extremely well, though, is tell a story: Speak‘s 14 tracks are perfectly contained snow globes of romance and catharsis, whole cinematic narratives rendered in four-to six-minute miniatures.
Her gift for mainlining sentiments straight from the twitterpated heart of teendom (Swift is now 20) may be lost on the more grizzled listener. Still, she does stretch here, as on the surprisingly sharp-toothed ”Better Than Revenge” and elegiac ”Innocent,” an olive branch extended to onetime maligner Kanye West. Elsewhere, Harry Chapin’s 1974 tearjerker ”Cat’s in the Cradle” finds its soft-focus flip side in fragile lullaby ”Never Grow Up,” ”Back to December” offers a plaintive mea culpa, and the alternately tart and yearning title track imagines a Graduate-style rescue at the altar. Beneath Swift’s not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman sweetness lurks a rigorous and very skillful technique; love may confound her, but the art of expert songcraft clearly doesn’t. B+