November 11, 2008
Teenage juggernaut Taylor Swift has excelled by confessing the passionate, often-painful contents of her adolescent life. As a result, she’s redefining Nashville’s standard of procedures in terms of her musical direction and her unparalleled connection with country music’s growing diversity of demographics. Her single-minded mission continues with the release of her sophomore set, Fearless, an album that lands well beyond the bounds of country music, but succeeds any unleashing a slew of catchy tunes that will latch onto radio playlists for the foreseeable future.
The groundwork was laid by a self-titled first album that attracted a devoted following through its honest stories of young love and heartache, but Swift’s music was merely part of the package, with plenty of supplemental tools launching her into national awareness. Clever marketing (such as MySpace) and creative media opportunities (like MTV’s Total Request Live) concocted by the Swift camp provided a platform for her to sing her heart out about life from a pubescent perspective.
Their campaign, to establish a distinct image to fit with the Taylor-made melodies saturating the airwaves, catapulted her to the sales stratosphere. In these drab economic times, Swift’s been pulling away from the field, with her debut disc becoming the highest-selling country album of 2008. It was a notable achievement, given that Taylor Swift was released in October 2006. Swift’s commercial stats have been peerless, and though she’s capable of the honesty and heart that marks great country music, Fearless shows that her (sometimes raw) creative skills lie closer to pop music on the genre spectrum.
The can’t-miss formula of beauty, brains and beguiling songs she’s corralled is sure to succeed commercially despite criticisms of her craft. Still, as with Swift’s first album, Fearless is likely to elicit very mixed reactions. Her limitations as a singer will be widely acknowledged, and her music will be questioned for rarely advancing beyond typical teenage love tragedies. But signs of improvement are subtle, yet encouraging on a sophomore set that serves catchy pop with a dash of bouncing banjo for good measure.
On Fearless, Swift proposes that romantic ventures often reap little reward. Lead single, the Romeo and Juliet-inspired tune, “Love Story,” suggests simple romantic relationships are indeed fairy tales.”White Horse,” the spare, brooding number that premiered on Grey’s Anatomy, gives a glimpse into a world where the story takes a few dark twists and turns. In a similar vein, “You’re Not Sorry” is a string-laden assault on an unworthy suitor. The simple, direct language Swift (who wrote or co-wrote all thirteen tracks) favors is a real representation of her human faults and flaws, creating empathy for an imperfect protagonist.
A trio of moments here are statements of self-belief born out of her burgeoning wisdom, and they’re conveniently highlighted by infectious, ready-for-radio choruses, in particular the percussion-fueled “You Belong to Me.” The interrogating “Tell Me Why” and the indignant “Forever & Always” follow suit with fierce messages, fetching melodies and a cascade of drums. In these tales, the beauty confronts the beast in a manner that would make any cheating young lad fearful of her firepower, and Swift flaunts her can’t-help-myself candor with pride. But brief respites from the drama show hints of hope that love will indeed conquer doubts and complete her dreams, with both “Hey, Stephen” (note the neat Hammond B-3 organ nestled in the background) and the title track embracing the rush of first love with no trace of trepidation.
A few missteps arise due to Swift’s unpolished talent. Her voice remains underdeveloped here, and the lyrical conceits here contain thematic cliches. Swift stumbles in the role of a sage veteran on “Fifteen,” where she dispenses advice to a floundering freshman girl navigating the halls of high school for the first time. And “The Best Day,” with its coffeehouse vibe and saccharine storyline is excessive even for the earnest Swift. The John Rich co-write “The Way I Loved You,” also falters badly due to Swift’s exaggerated warbling, and the theatrical production seems mismatched with the plotline of teenage relationship regret. But the basics of songwriting, especially a deluge of hooks, are proof of Swift’s talent despite her lack of vocal range and tendency towards banal lyrical schemes.
Swift, a musical, modern-day Holly Golightly, is superior at distilling her awkward teenage emotions into three-minute sing-alongs. But since her music rarely echoes their own experiences, country music’s adult population is (somewhat understandably) lukewarm towards her, and traditionalists in particular worry that newcomers to the genre are driving the final nail into traditional country’s coffin. Those fears likely won’t be allayed with this release, an album that sounds more like moody power pop than anything created on Music Row.
But to hold Swift’s decidedly contemporary take on country music against her because her most natural musical gifts are mainstream is unfair. And though not a necessity in a country fan’s catalog, Fearless is a tentative, but ultimately promising step into pop superstardom for a young woman boldly sharing her diary with an eagerly anticipating worldwide audience.