Tuesday, July 12th, 2011
Compared to the cultural juggernaut that was Fearless, Taylor Swift’s Speak Now has underperformed at both retail and radio. The set’s fifth single, “Sparks Fly,” could turn things around for Swift, as it’s perhaps the most perfectly constructed single in a career built on tracks that are marvels of pop production and songwriting.
What makes “Sparks Fly” a standout is that it is, in a lot of ways, the purest iteration of Swift’s template and repertoire. Producer Nathan Chapman grounds the single in a punchy, not-at-all-country pop-rock sheen and ensures that all of its key lines and phrases are pitched for maximum impact.
It’s that attention to the details of production that make Chapman and Swift such a strong team: Most singles don’t highlight a line in the middle of their second verse, but here, Chapman dials back the volume on the electric guitars just as Swift sings, “You find I’m even better/Than you imagined I would be.” There isn’t a line in the song that captures the tone of first-love wonder more perfectly, and Swift’s breathless delivery suggests that she might be even more surprised by that revelation than anyone.
The song’s proper hook is even better constructed. The a capella “Drop everything now” exclamation simply commands attention, with the desperation in Swift’s call-to-action answering the common criticisms that her work is sexless and chaste. For all of the well-documented technical limitations of her voice—and yes, she wanders off pitch more than once on “Sparks Fly,” and yes, it would likely be even better a single if she didn’t— Swift is learning how to perform her songs with real depth and conviction.
As for the song itself, the narrative of “Sparks Fly” doesn’t necessarily scan as “country” in any archetypal way, but its simplicity and plain-spokenness parallel some of the genre’s conventions. If Swift writes what she knows, what she knows better than anything else is the head rush of infatuation. Of the many songs she’s written on that subject, “Sparks Fly” is both the purest in tone and the most familiar. With references to meeting someone in the rain and being guarded and fireworks and a touch that’s “really somethin’,” the song makes use of nearly all of Swift’s go-to phrases and images.
But, rather than scanning as redundant when considered alongside “Fearless” or “Back to December,” “Sparks Fly” proves how evocative those turns-of-phrase can be in the right context. To that end, “Sparks Fly” plays as a template as much as it does as a standalone single, and it’s a testament to everything Taylor Swift gets right.
Written by Taylor Swift
Listen: Sparks Fly