Among other admittedly derivative adjectives, I'd use gusty, youthful, and honest to describe Taylor Swift's 2006 eponymous debut. If nothing else, it distinguished Swift as an anomaly in the pop world: almost all of the album's songs were penned alone, with the only aid coming from the guitar she actually plays, and--to top it off--she did it all before obtaining a driver's license. Justifiably, she was honored with the 2007 Country Music Association's Horizon Award (previous winners include the Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, and Garth Brooks), yet didn't seem to garner much attention in the mainstream pop world.
Two years later, Swift has returned at the still-shocking age of eighteen with Fearless, an album that has quickly earned her a spot on the cover of Rolling Stone, somewhat ironically sandwiched between The Boss and Bono.
The verdict? Fearless is precisely the album Taylor Swift needed to make: it's far more "pop" than "country," it's every bit as genuine and youthful as her self-titled, and it's her ticket to becoming America's next big star. In short, like the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Faith Hill before her, Swift has made her move to crossover into mainstream stardom.
Swift's greatest asset is her uncanny ability to relate to her audience via a bevy of--what skeptics will inevitably call "immature" or "childish"--teenage experiences she unabashedly crafts her songs around. The tremendously catchy opener "Fearless" tells of a "flawless" first kiss with a new beau who is "just so cool." Sound stupid? Ask the millions of young girls who remember a night of driving just like Swift's what they think. Similarly, "Fifteen" is the most unambiguous description of a high school experience you'll likely find outside of High School Musical. She effortlessly describes her freshman year, the first boy who ever told her, "I love you," and the ultimate realization that, "In your life you'll do things greater than/ Dating the boy on the football team." Again, Swift's story may initially seem juvenile, but imagine her primary listenership and the moral that's shared and your perspective may change; it's awfully encouraging to know that there are still musicians who have something to teach their audience.
I'll take a cue from Swift and acknowledge that my audience does not, to my knowledge, consist of any fifteen-year-old girls. So while newcomers may similarly find Swift's lyrics sweet and endearing, it is admittedly unlikely that her typical subject matter will do much to entice them to give Fearless a try. On that note, Swift's melodies are enough to make her worth your time. In a day and age when a surprisingly small sample of middle aged men in studios write a giant percentage of our biggest pop hits (see: this guy or that guy), it's borderline inspiring to think a teenager from Pennsylvania could come up with hooks this goddamn good. Pick a song, any song, and it could be a chart-topping single.
If you're the standard "everything but rap and country" music fan, Fearless' production will do little to convert you. Unfortunately, most of the songs are smothered in radio friendly, bright-as-all-hell Nashville drums and the Kenny G equivalent of a bass tone. Yes, Swift is a "country" star, but most of the genre's traditional instrumentation (e.g. the fiddle and pedal steel) are almost entirely excluded. This can be frustrating, especially on the album's ballads, such as the lovely duet with Colbie Caillat, "Breathe," in which a graceful mandolin might initially remind listeners of Nickel Creek--that is, until the drums kick in.
Look: for better or worse, this sound is marketable, and it's hard to fault Swift for sticking with what works. After all, she's a pop star of the Faith Hill strand, not a Kathleen Edwards or a Neko Case. It should also be mentioned that despite the bright production and her less than booming voice, Swift always manages to stay front and center in the mix, an impressive testament to her maturity and vitality.
Besides the mix, the only other weakness of Fearless is its length. It has become an all together confounding tradition in the mainstream pop world to cram as many recordings as possible onto albums, with seemingly no regard for the art of record-making. Practically, it makes sense: very few mainstream pop fans listen to CDs in full anyway, so why leave off another potential hit single? Swift's self-titled avoided this pattern; clocking in at just 40 minutes over 11 tracks, it was a delightfully listenable album. But Fearless is a bit more beefed up: 53 minutes and 13 tracks. A bit of restraint--leaving off the out of place and oddly militaristic "Change" as well as the Joe Jonas breakup inspired "Forever & Always"--would have been nice. "Change," however, hit #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, so again, it's hard to call its inclusion outright wrong.
As for its strengths, Fearless has a number of high points. On the playful "Hey Stephen," the rhythm section takes a back seat, while a Hammond B accompanies Swift's adorable mmm mmms. There are very few moments of subtle production, but this is certainly one where the guy behind the glass deserves some credit. Same goes for "The Best Day," a song written by Swift for her father that should do for daddy-daughter dances what Green Day's "Good Riddance" did for high school graduation ceremonies. A lightly strummed acoustic guitar allows Swift to do exactly what she does best: sing a simple, pretty song about something she genuinely cares about. Needless to say, it works as well as anything on the album.
All of the pieces fall into place--the youthful songwriting, the tremendous knack for melody, and a less formulaic production style--on what might be the album's best track, "You Belong With Me." A song sure to resonate with tomboys everywhere, Swift sings about "dreaming 'bout the day" when her friend, a guy dating a high-heel clad cheerleader, will "wake up" to realize he's meant to be with Taylor. "You Belong With Me" is a monster single (it hit #12 on the Billboard Hot 100), led by a confident and feisty Swift and assisted by a banjo, fiddle, and (yes!) a pedal steel that give the track a Dixie Chicks feel. Yet there's a moment in the last verse of the second stanza when Swift treads new ground, singing "Hey what you doin' with a girl like that?" in a lovely falsetto that sounds more akin to Joni Mitchell than Shania Twain. And just then, in the subsequent pre-chorus, she adds a touch more emphasis to, "She's cheer captain/ and I'm on the bleachers," that is so magnificently cute, it's difficult not react with a smile.
And that's the crux of it: I love Taylor Swift because she makes me happy. I could launch into a rather boring discussion about how the ability to download mp3s has turned music into an industry of consumption, but suffice it to say that she manages to invoke within me the rare and primitive emotion of joy. That alone should provide enough impetus to give Fearless the chance it deserves.
Listen to "You Belong With Me":
More Taylor Swift here.