This was the first Taylor Swift album that could be called a masterpiece: while her first album had some fine material on it, she hadn’t yet reached a sufficient degree of emotional maturity to achieve the level of depth and insight she achieves here. By this point, while Taylor Swift the person was still clearly in many ways an adolescent, Taylor Swift the songwriter was pretty close to being in her full flower.
Granted, on this album any attempt to make her sound ‘Country’ was essentially abandoned, but the truth is that Swift was always more of an Adult Alternative Pop-Folk singer in the vein of acts like John Mayer, and only got pigeonholed as Country because she got her start through the Nashville machine. On her first album, the production tried to make her seem like a Country artist with a very self-consciously Country sound, but the single version of “Teardrops On My Guitar” makes it clear that the songs themselves don’t sound particularly Country when heard with different production. And by the time her second album came out, her producers had essentially given up trying to pretend she was something she wasn’t, which I see as a net positive.
This album, like all of Swift’s output, specializes heavily in her primary trademark: angry breakup songs. She has a particular gift for these because her usual persona is so sweet that it seems almost shocking when she projects real anger, giving these songs an impact they don’t have when delivered by, say, Beyonce. Items like “Forever and Always” and “You’re Not Sorry” are far subtler and less adolescent than “Picture To Burn” or “Should’ve Said No” from her first album. They serve as powerful expressions of quiet, dignified anger, and are the direct predecessors of items like “Dear John” on her later albums.
“White Horse” was Swift’s first single to make use of her recurring fairy tale motif, and it makes much sharper use of it than such later attempts as “Today Was A Fairytale”. The appealing teenage love song “You Belong With Me” and the honest autobiographical narrative “Fifteen” still stand as some of Swift’s most beautifully written songs, with the former showing an impressive economy of expression by summing up the difference between Swift and her glamorous rival with a simple piece of verbal shorthand: “She wears short skirts/I wear T-shirts”.
The album’s biggest hit, “Love Story”, has a somewhat divisive reputation due to playing fast and loose with classic literary references, her use of which some people considered to be inappropriate. But while the out-of-nowhere and somewhat confusing reference to The Scarlet Letter is questionable at best (she would make a much more adept reference to the same book in “New Romantics” several years later), the primary invocation of Romeo and Juliet is actually quite appropriate. And the truth is that invoking that famous tragedy, combined with the song’s wonderful emotional rush of a melody, makes the unexpected happy ending at the song’s climax all the more moving. I can actually see why this was the biggest hit of her early career, not to mention the best-selling Country single of all time for several years to come.
The title track is a suitably intense, even thrilling ballad, with a rousing, sweeping chorus and very nice use of guitars, and “The Way I Love You” is one of the most intense songs Swift has ever recorded, a ballad so anguished and desperate it almost comes off as a Rock song. Granted, the song’s message…that a healthy, non-turbulent relationship is ‘boring’…is not the most mature that Swift would express in her career, but most people have felt like that at one point or another in their lives, and you couldn’t ask her to capture that feeling any better in song. “Hey Stephen”, on the other hand, is an unpretentious, fresh-faced teenage love song that even features Swift laughing on a studio track and sounding completely genuine and spontaneous, a feat that surprisingly few Pop artists can pull off.
On “Breathe”, Swift collaborates with another impressive young musical talent, Colbie Caillat, in both writing and singing, and the two are a perfect match as collaborators, both tender, innocent romantic balladeers with an emphasis on acoustic guitar. “The Best Day” is an exquisitely written expression of love and gratitude toward Swift’s own mother, and still probably ranks as her most beautiful vocal performance to date. The climactic album closer “Change”, an inspirational anthem complete with a chorus refrain of ‘hallelujah’, is a bit of an unusual choice from Swift, but she pulls it off with real conviction.
What’s especially interesting is that the bonus tracks on the Platinum edition are actually more mature and complex than the material on the album proper—they sound far more like the songs on her next album, Speak Now, than they do like anything on the main disc. That’s the thing about Taylor Swift…like such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Eminem, she’s so gifted that even her leftovers are wonderful. (It’s worth remembering that Taylor’s lyrically simplistic but musically exquisite theme for the movie Valentine’s Day, “Today Was a Fairytale”, was also an outtake from this album).
The most notable of these tracks, “Untouchable”, was Taylor Swift’s first attempt to co-opt an Alt-Rock song, which proved to be one of the greatest artistic triumphs of her early career. This is presumably why she kept attempting the style with songs like “State of Grace” and that Better Than Ezra cover from Hope For Haiti Now, even though she would never achieve the same level of success with it again. “Superstar” is a surprisingly mature ballad, this time an exploration of the inherent bittersweetness of a celebrity crush. It sounds much more like a complex study in hindsight than the thoughts of an actual starstruck teenager, and is another sign that by the time these bonus tracks were being written, Taylor was gradually outgrowing the girliness of her early period. But it was the simplest and least complex of the Platinum Edition tracks, “Jump Then Fall”, that was the most successful: featuring a more pronounced country sound than anything else Swift has written since her debut album, it’s a breathless ballad that does a very convincing job of capturing the jittery feeling of first love.
Granted, Swift would surpass this album with her next one, the glorious Speak Now, and then surpass that album (and nearly every other Pop album of the decade) with the immortal 1989. Still, this is the point where Swift really proved to the music establishment that she was something truly special, and the material still holds up over a decade after its initial release. If you’re one of the many new fans that her recent work’s popularity has undoubtedly made, you owe it to yourself to go back and investigate this early breakthrough masterpiece…and be sure not to skip the bonus tracks, either.