TERRY GROSS, host:
Taylor Swift's new album called "Speak Now" is her first album since she was drawn into a controversy that brought her to the attention of many non-country music fans: the moment during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards when Kanye West seized her microphone during her acceptance speech to speak himself about why Swift didn't deserve the award. That mixture of pop star interaction combined with personal music has made Swift one of the most modern of country music stars, and, says rock critic Ken Tucker, one of the most pleasurable to listen to.
(Soundbite of song, "Mine")
Ms. TAYLOR SWIFT (Musician): (Singing) Oh-oh, oh. Oh-oh, oh. You were in college, working part-time, waiting tables. Left a small town and never looked back. I was a flight risk, with a fear falling, wondering why we bother with love, if it never lasts.
I say, can you believe it? As we're lying on the couch, the moment, I can see it. Yes, yes, I can see it now.
Do you remember...
KEN TUCKER: Taylor Swift will turn 21 in December, and she'll still be one of the youngest country singer-songwriters to have achieved such massive success. Her new third album "Speak Now," sold over a million copies in the first week of its release, at a time when number one albums are routinely measured in the tens of thousands. She's found a spot on the top of the heap where she can sit down with her spiral notebook and her acoustic guitar, and create songs that work as both faux-confessionals and universalist anthems.
(Soundbite of song, "Dear John")
Ms. SWIFT: (Singing) Long were the nights when my days once revolved around you. Counting my footsteps, praying the floor wont fall through, again. My mother accused me of losing my mind. But I swore I was fine.
You paint me a blue sky and go back...
TUCKER: Swift has come in for a lot of criticism of her vocals, which in live performance can flicker and fade like small-twig campfires. But she's no different from thousands of other stars of varying degrees of talent who have been creatures of the recording studio since the beginning of the pop-music era. If Swift veers off-key during a live country-music awards ceremony, does this make her a lesser artist? Certainly not. Swift isn't so much about hitting the notes as she is about hitting the right emotional chord. In her case, her thin croon is an ideal instrument to convey intimacy and a vulnerability wrapped around a core of surging confidence.
(Soundbite of song, "Sparks Fly")
Ms. SWIFT: (Singing) The way you move is like a full on rainstorm and I'm a house of cards. You're the kind of reckless that should send me running, but I kinda know that I won't get far. And you stood there in front of me just close enough to touch. Close enough to hope you couldn't see what I was thinking of
Drop everything now. Meet me in the...
TUCKER: For the younger segment of her fans, an important selling point for "Speak Now" is the way Swift uses her albums as musical diaries, writing songs that contain barely concealed allusions to the celebrities she's dated and been wounded by. And even if some of us aren't particularly invested in whether Taylor's heart was broken by Joe Jonas or a cast member of "Glee," well, we can still dig into the songs those former crushes have inspired, because it results in music as meticulously detailed as the title song, "Speak Now."
Listen to the quick, deftly-sketched way in which Swift's wise narrator addresses a guy on his wedding day who can't see the flaws in his bride that Swift can.
(Soundbite of song, "Speak Now")
Ms. SWIFT: (Singing) I am not the kind of girl who should be rudely barging in on a white veil occasion. But you are not the kind of boy who should be marrying the wrong girl. I sneak in and see your friends, and her snotty little family all dressed in pastel. And she is yelling at a bridesmaid, somewhere back inside a room wearing a gown shaped like a pastry.
This, this is surely not what you thought it would be. I lose myself in a daydream where I stand and say, dont say yes, run away now. Ill meet you when youre out of the church at the backdoor. Dont wait or say a single vow. You need to hear me out and they said speak now.
TUCKER: On the 14 songs Swift has written for "Speak Now," she occasionally falls victim to bombastic overstatement - her moodiness can by now give Lou Reed a run for his money. Yet morose is not Taylor Swift's primary operating mode: It's something more like joyous ambition, refined by an eye and ear for details that many of us forget by the time we're 21, let alone older than that.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Taylor Swift's new album "Speak Now."
(Soundbite of song, "Mean")
Ms. SWIFT: (Singing) You, with your words like knives and swords and weapons that you use against me. You, have knocked me off my feet again, got me feeling like I'm nothing. You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard, calling me out when I'm wounded. You, picking on the weaker man. Well, you can take me down, with just one single blow. But you don't know, what you don't know.
Someday, I'll be living in a big old city, and all you're ever going to be is mean. Someday, I'll be big enough so you can't hit me, and all you're ever going to be is mean. Why you got to be so mean?
GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.