Taylor Swift's new album "Speak Now" debuted Monday.
Heck hath no fury like a songwriter scorned, and Taylor Swift has the deadliest of combinations at her disposal: a poison pen and a massive audience.
There are 14 songs on Speak Now (Big Machine ***), Swift's highly enjoyable, a-tad-too-long new album, and, as she writes in the CD booklet's "Prologue," all are "open letters. Each is written with a specific person in mind, telling them what I meant to tell them in person."
In the most entertaining episodes on Speak Now, the third full-length effort by the Wyomissing-raised, golden-tressed 20-year-old singer who sold more albums in 2008 and 2009 than any other artist, what Swift meant to say was something like "you did me wrong, buddy. And now it's payback time."
Or as she puts it herself in the Prologue's P.S.: "To all the boys who inspired this album, you should've known. ;)"
And, indeed, they would have, if they'd been paying attention to the body of work of the leggy singer-songwriter, who wrote the words and music to all of the songs on Speak Now, rather than her other attributes. Going back to her 2006 country-pop debut Taylor Swift, the guitarist and songwriter has been settling scores with wayward beaus on tunes like "Picture to Burn," in which she warned: "Go and tell your friends that I'm obsessive and crazy / That's fine, I'll tell mine you're gay."
The difference is that now that Swift is a global pop Grammy-winning superstar, the foolhardy fellows in line for comeuppance -- or, in some cases, forgiveness -- are famous folk who, like her, populate the Web pages of celebrity gossip sheets.Case in Point No. 1 would be John Mayer, the 33-year-old guitarist and heartbreak specialist who was linked with Swift last year and who would surely seem to be the subject of "Dear John."(Swift has not officially ID'd which song goes with which household name, though in many instances her subjects are obvious, such as rapper Kanye West, the subject of the patronizing and rather tepid "Innocent," who spoiled Swift's MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech in 2009 and who "I forgive for what he said in front of the whole world.")Forgiveness is not in the cards for the soulless perpetrator in "Dear John," an almost seven-minute, never-boring power ballad that shouts J'accuse! to a scalawag with a "sick need to give love and then take it away," letting him know that "all the girls that you've run dry / Have tired, lifeless eyes / Cause you've burned them out."Bad guys aren't the only ones who find themselves stung in Swift's songs. There are bad girls, too, like the subject of "Better Than Revenge," in which she makes a voodoo doll of a boyfriend stealer who is "not a saint, and she's not what you think, she's an actress / But she's better known for the things that she does on the mattress." Web watchers speculate it's about Camilla Belle, Joe Jonas' romantic interest after he and Swift broke up in 2008.
There are others who come under fire in Speak Now, too, like an unnamed critic in the catchy, country-flavored "Mean," who called her vocal skills into question and who "pointed out my flaws again, as if I don't already see them." With the Swift marketing machine behind it, that song is poised to become an anti-bullying anthem:"Someday I'll be big enough so you can't hit me / And all you're ever gonna be is mean," Swift sings.The vulnerability that Swift shows in "Mean," even while lashing out, carries over to other songs.Putting liars and cheaters in their place makes for lively listening, up to a point. But along with the growing confidence as a writer that is apparent on tunes like "Dear John," the most heartening songs on Speak Now are the ones in which she proves big enough to acknowledge her own shortcomings.Swift has always been precocious, but she seems more mature than ever on songs like "Back to December," which is allegedly about yet another romance, with muscled-up werewolf boy actor Taylor Lautner. That one ends in heartbreak, too, but this time there's no guilty party for Swift to point the finger at, except the one staring back at her in the mirror.