Single Review: Taylor Swift, “Back to December”

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November 11, 2010

“It turns out freedom ain’t nothing but missing you.”  So sings Taylor Swift on her new release, “Back to December.” It’s always a good sign when there’s a line as memorable as that one, the kind that lingers around in your head more than the song itself.

There isn’t another turn of phrase in the same league, but the rest of the song is pleasing enough. As usual, Swift is singing to a guy, but unlike most of her musical conversations with old flames, she lays the blame squarely on herself.  I appreciate the restrained vocal, though a more varied melody would’ve made the chorus quite a bit more distinctive.

The production is pretty generic, in an Adult Top 40 circa 2005 kind of way, which keeps it from hitting either my country or pop sweet spots.  But it will be among the less grating background music that I hear in the mall this holiday season.

Written by Taylor Swift

Grade: B

Listen: Back to December


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  1. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    I like this song. I would consider it one of Taylor’s stronger releases. I noticed a few lines that stood out to me as being especially good ones, but the “freedom” line wasn’t really one of them. I liked the lines “You gave me roses and I left them there to die” and “If the chain is on your door, I understand.” The production isn’t super-outstanding, but I do like the mandolin line.

  2. DanniNo Gravatar says:

    I think this is one of my favorite tracks on the album. It’s well written and it fits her vocal range quite well.

  3. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with the review. I’d say this is the best choice for a single among the album’s ballads, but I do find it lacking in distinction. Her best moments are always her big hooks (“Sparks Fly,” “The Story of Us,” “Haunted”).

  4. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    This may or may not be the “best” song from Speak Now, but it’s definitely my favorite song on the album and the one that has stuck with me the most.

    The point about the varied melody is spot-on: Is that a matter of Swift’s writing something simple just for the sake of doing so, or a matter of knowing her own limitations? That’s impossible to say for certain. Either way, I do think the melody actually works on a bigger structural level: it’s minor key and melancholy, and it keeps revisiting the same figures in the way that the narrator revisits the same feelings and memories. Deliberate or not, that works.

    The line about “freedom” isn’t my favorite part– its form and meter strike me as a bit too on-the-nose of a lift from “Me and Bobby McGee”– but this is one of the few songs on which Swift seems to push beyond her limited repertoire of go-to tropes and images, and I think she hits her marks when she does so.

    “These days, I haven’t been sleeping/Staying up, playing back myself leaving” works well enough as a standalone couplet, but the way she turns to *why* in the following line is just exceptional: “When your birthday passed, and I didn’t call.” There’s real, palpable *guilt* in that turnaround, and it honestly stopped me cold the first time I played the album, and for all that’s already been said elsewhere about being a “careless man’s careful daughter” or whatever else she’s written, I think that’s easily the most substantive, mature moment in Swift’s entire catalogue.

    The vocal is also probably her least grating to date, even though that means she’s still intermittently off-pitch. But I actually love how her phrasing in the chorus emphasizes that she got the natural meter of the language right, John Rich. And the production could definitely do more to lift the song’s just-okay bridge. But, in as much as I’ve gone on record for having problems with Swift, those issues feel more like nit-picks for this particular single, considering the things about it that really do work well.

    I’m still not 100% a believer, but she got to me on this one. And, at least for this single, I’ll cop to its not being just the rebound effect from the Sugarland album.

  5. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    “Back to December” is among my favorite songs on Taylor’s new album. It shows her growth as a songwriter and a maturity that only comes with age.

    Like “White Horse” this is one of those songs that works on all levels. I appreciate the production on this song. It doesn’t fight Taylor’s vocals and leaves her with room to breathe and actually shine for once. Plus, “Back To December” is a very welcomed addition to her catalog and a step in the right direction.

    Is it country? Well, in a strict pop/country sense than maybe, but that doesn’t matter anymore. We don’t turn to Taylor for down home country music. We turn to her for insightful lyrics that mirror the lives of her fans. I’m sure a lot of people have been in a relationship where they didn’t act in the way they wanted and need to apologize to the other person.

    This song marks a shift in Taylor’s music away from the teenager dealing with teenage issues to a woman dealing with adult issues. She is growing up before our eyes and thankfully her music is growing along with her. I welcome any time an artist shows marked growth between albums the way Taylor has done here.

    Think about it, the singer of this song is not the same person who sang “Picture To Burn” and “I’m Only Me When I’m With You.” Her music isn’t all about fairy tales and princesses. I can only imagine how visually stunning the video for this song is going to be.

    And as an aside, what’s with all the talk of people just now learning Taylor can play the piano? I seem to remember her performing “You’re Not Sorry” at an award show (maybe even the CMAs) where she played the piano. I could be wrong on that, but I seem to remember it.

  6. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    @ Jonathan #1,

    Sugarland’s doing a good job with the singles so far though, I have to say. “Little Miss” is quite good, and like “Stuck Like Glue”, bears little resemblance to the rest of the album.

  7. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    Sugarland’s doing a good job with the singles so far though, I have to say. “Little Miss” is quite good, and like “Stuck Like Glue”, bears little resemblance to the rest of the album.

    No argument here, though I didn’t realize “Little Miss” had already been tagged as the second single.

    Of course, that and “Stuck Like Glue” are the only two songs on the album that I found even halfway listenable, so I don’t think they have anywhere else to go with their singles picks from here on in…

  8. First off, this song is probably my favorite release from her so far, though if “Never Grow Up” is released that’ll take the top. I’m hoping this one does good cause it’s not as radio friendly as her other songs.

    As for Sugarland “Stuck Like Glue” was a very smart choice to lead with, “Little Miss” should do good but like Jonathan I don’t see where they can go afterwards…”Tonight” or “Every Girl Like Me” would be the only one’s I can see doing anything on country…They should just move on to a new album as soon as “Little Miss” peaks.

  9. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    I’d say that this song is really a step in the right direction if Taylor is really honest with herself about wanting not only to be a better singer but also to mature as a person. She still has a long way to go before I’m personally convinced, but “Back To December” may very well be a sign of things to come.

    As an aside–not that it matters any, but the picture of Taylor at the top of the page, with the long straight hair, makes it look like she went back in time to 1967.

  10. TomNo Gravatar says:

    …some artists have signature songs – she’s got signature music in all its imperfect glory. this one fits well withing her catalog of ear worms. it’s got no. 1 written all over it.

  11. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar says:

    I’ll echo Erik North’s comment for the most part, especially on the retro hairstyle.

    I like that you pointed out the shift in Swift’s breakup songs to the narrator shouldering the blame showing a definite sign of maturity to her songwriting. There’s room for more improvement – and for more interesting plots and hooks than ‘December’ offers – but I think she’s going in the right direction, and I quite like this track the more I listen.

  12. KNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve admited in the past I’m not a Taylor fan, but I do appreciate the few brillant moments she has produced as a writer and artist.

    I decided to listen to “Speak Now” simply because I wanted to see what critics and fans were so excited about.

    I expected to hear a record with a great pop sound with earworm hooks that Taylor mastered on her first few albums, but I was weary about the songs themselves, especially with the lead-off single “Mine” sounding a poor man’s version of her previous hits like “Our Song and Love Story.”

    That said, “Back To December” is the Taylor song that convinced me she is more than capable of making the difficult and calculated leap from a teenage artist to an adult entertainer.

    The song manages to relate to audience, but still stikes a beautiful balace of making the song personal enough for listners to know Taylor is speaking her own words.

    The combonation of lyrics coupled with the painstricken soft vocal allows Taylor to command the story and hook in the listener, and the production ties it all together nicely.

    All of these elements creates one of Taylor’s best moments in the past few years- it’s right up there with “White Horse” in my opinion.

    This song captures everything Taylor should do if she wants to transform into a serious entertainer. She’s not the strongest vocalist, but the way she conveys and writes meaningful lyrics when given the right song is an area that I hope she continues to expand on for the next few albums.

    I will add I was dissapointed to see most of these elements glaringly absent of her recent performance on the CMA Awards.

    Thankfully the recording makes up for that, and I hope she can get the point where her vocals at least become distinctive enough in a live setting as they appear to be on record.

  13. joeNo Gravatar says:

    Good choice for a single. There are better ones on the album in my opinion, but they are not radio friendly. I have always liked her way of storytelling through lyrics. It is simplistic at times, but very heartfelt.

  14. GalPalNo Gravatar says:

    Regardless of the comments of the reviewer and those responding to this article-Taylor still can’t sing. She has no range, no emotion-she looks the same each time she sing speaks-and no vibrato. However, the girl can write-I will give her that much.

  15. joeNo Gravatar says:

    Not being perfect just adds to her girl-next-door charm. Because who really is perfect? It gives people hope that they can follow their dreams, even if they have their little imperfections.

  16. TomNo Gravatar says:

    …for a person that can’t sing, she seems to be doing just fine in her job as a singer, galpal. perhaps, avoiding being boring and repetitiv ain’t such a bad formula for success.

  17. I don’t know why some people said she can’t sing. She’s a good singer so far and Back to December is another step for her as a mature singer.

  18. [...] Country Universe gives it a B | NY Daily news thinks the song is newsworthy [...]

  19. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    Quote by Health Essentials:

    I don’t know why some people said she can’t sing. She’s a good singer so far and Back to December is another step for her as a mature singer.

    Well, like I said in my take on “Back To December”, this is a step in the right direction. However, up to this point, I have found her singing to be largely rather robotic and monotonic, full of irritating mannerisms. She really needs to keep on improving on the vocal aspect, because she is now approaching that magical age of 21 where she will be compared with other singers of the past at that same age, and the comparisons may well be even more merciless than what she has seen before.

  20. klarkNo Gravatar says:

    I believe that this song will be a lot better should it be pitched up :)

  21. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    I seem to be in the minority here, but I enjoyed Taylor’s CMA performance. I thought it was one of her stronger live moments.

  22. KatieRNo Gravatar says:

    First, Jonathan, lets not mention that awful Sugarland cd ever again, lol. I only hope their next album is good enough to wipe away the bad memories of this latest one.

    Back to Taylor, “The Story of Us” is probably my favorite song on the new album. “Better than Revenge” is also an awesome song. I get a kick out of the line, “And she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress”. TS is my guilty pleasure. I do love this album. I still think she needs some vocal lessons, but as a song writer, I believe 100% in her.

  23. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    Well, the songwriting aspect is a big piece of the puzzle, especially seeing as how she will turn 21 in twelve days; she cannot go on forever talking about teenage or even young adult themes, so she’ll likely find her way forward. But again, the voice aspect is the most important.

  24. KatieRNo Gravatar says:

    I forgot, “Haunted” is also a great song.

    Erik, I think on cd, she’s okay. I don’t imagine I’d ever spend money to see her live, unless my 11 yr old little sis wanted to go. We’ll certainly see, but I think she’ll find her way into the adult world. At 24 myself, I’d say don’t expect that though until she’s either (1) close to 25, or (2) married with kids. Whichever comes first for her (which I imagine 25 will).

  25. KatieRNo Gravatar says:

    Erik, my mother would agree with you on the vocal part (which was why she wasn’t a DCX fan until their live album came out; Natalie is easily 100X better live than their overly produced 1st two albums). But I don’t agree, at least as far as I’m concerned. I listen to lyrics that move me. And she’s a decent enough album singer that the lyrics well cover her shortcomings.

    How did I forget this song! “Never Grow Up”. That’s the best song on the album. Although it really hits home with me right now since I just went through this about a year and a half ago. Your first night in a new apartment really is a lot colder than you expect it to be.

  26. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    I just look back to a lot of female singers of the past who were at the same point in life that Taylor is at now–women like Brenda Lee and Linda Ronstadt, who came to prominence at young ages (Brenda in her teens back in 1958; Linda at the age of 21 back in 1967) with big, clarion voices that got people’s attention–and neither of them were known as songwriters (though Linda has penned three songs of her own). They still knew how to move people and do so in their own individualistic, honest, from-the-heart ways.

    I’m not downplaying songwriting, by the way, nor even Taylor’s own approach to that aspect. In the end, however, she is going to be judged most especially by her voice, and the bar has been raised extremely high. I really hope she is thinking very long and hard about it.

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