Speak Now

[Big Machine]

“There is nothing I do better than revenge,” warns Taylor Swift on Speak Now, in one of many observations that demonstrate she’s still fond of wielding her smartly crafted pop-country songs as weapons against those who have wronged her. But her third and darkest album yet scales up the drama, her oversize emotions matched by full-bodied arrangements. During her teen years Swift took aim at classmates who teased or cheated on her, but the 20-year-old now invokes the pain of public criticism (“Innocent”) and conducting romantic relationships in the limelight (“The Story of Us,” “Enchanted”).

The specific situations may be more difficult for Swift’s fan base to identify with, but the gentle big-sister guidance that made the Pennsylvania native a role model remains. Speak Now carries a potent overall message: Your voice gives you power, no matter how helpless you feel. Her tendency to name her songs’ subjects can threaten their universality, but the deliberate details in “Dear John” (a quick dip into any gossip blog will clue you in about John’s alleged last name) transform a weeping country waltz into a searing, satisfying character assassination.

Elsewhere, Swift strikes back at dismissive critics (“Mean”), though her markedly improved vocal performances make for a better rebuttal. But it’s really the remarkable self-assurance of her songwriting voice that makes Speak Now so compelling. The stakes are high for a young musician maturing in full view, but that makes watching Swift’s graceful ascendance all the more a pleasure. –Katie Dodd

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