August 19, Speak Now (Deluxe Edition) by Taylor Swift
Genre: Country, but also with a touch more rock instrumentation than a typical country record.
Total Number of Tracks: 20, including six bonus tracks not on the standard edition. Of those six, three are additional songs, the other three are additional versions of songs from the standard edition.
Songs you might know:
– “Back to December”
– “Story of Us”
– “Ours” (deluxe edition exclusive)
My prior relationship with the album: By the time Speak Now came out, Swift was a big enough name that it was virtually impossible to escape the major singles from her albums, so of course I had heard things like “Mine” and “Back to December” and “Mean” as she was out and about promoting the album. It wasn’t until maybe a year or two later than I was exposed to some of the other tracks, namely because my ex was fonder of Swift than I was and enjoyed putting her stuff on his playlists. This included some more country-ish tracks such as “Sparks Fly” as well as things like “Haunted” and “Better Than Revenge,” some of my first exposure to Swift songs that strayed from the country pop formula I knew, and also some of the first ones I remember liking.
I’m not entirely sure when, but eventually I did go ahead and listen to the whole album in order. I remember liking most of the songs, but also thinking a few too many of them sounded the same. I also remember thinking it was incredibly off-putting for Swift to include “Mean” on the same album as “Better Than Revenge,” a song in which she is incredibly.. well MEAN to a former romantic rival. It comes off as Taylor saying “when people are mean to me, they’re just haters who need to stop, but also I should be able to say whatever I want about whoever I want and have it considered legitimate artistic expression. Besides, they started it.” For this reason, Speak Now was never an album I revisited as often as some of Taylor’s poppier stuff that came in later years, even if “Haunted” and “Story of Us” are still among my favorite Swift songs.
My impression this time around: Speak Now is actually a lot better than I remember it. While some songs such as the title track and “Sparks Fly” still cling to the formula I lamented in my review of Fearless, there’s also far more than I don’t. “Never Grow Up” in particular stuck out as a song with heartfelt, well though out lyrics that I hadn’t given enough credit before. “Innocent,” i.e. the “I forgive you, Kanye West” song is another one that struck me as being better than I remember, and “Back to December” is another track that I know is good but is always even better as I’m listening to it. Even “Mean,” a song that’s always been among my least favorite of Swift’s career, gave me a feeling of ‘huh, not so bad.’ I’ve realized my hatred has less to do with what the song itself sounds like, and more to do with how it fits into the broader context of Swift’s career and how hypocritical it felt given how mean some of her other songs can get.
I also really appreciate how Taylor leans more into live-sounding rock instrumentation on this album in a way she didn’t with Fearless. It makes for the kind of contrast that lets me listen to the whole album without ever feeling bored. “Better Than Revenge” probably benefits the most from this, and with better lyrics I might have considered this song to be a highlight of Swift’s career. “Story of Us,” which is probably the strongest song on this whole album, also weaves heavy drums and electric guitars into the production, and I’m not sure any other Swift song does a better job of balancing country with pop. As the title suggests, the lyrics are quite story-like and demonstrate how strong Swift’s lyrical talent is when she bothers to use it.
The only song here that really struck me as WORSE than I remember was the title track, “Speak Now.” One of Taylor’s greatest strengths has always been how authentic her songs feel, so a fictional tale about her barging into a wedding comes off as overly trivial, especially since it’s sandwiched right between two incredibly personal, heartfelt tracks (“Back to December” and “Dear John.”) I also find “Long Live” to be a bit tacky as it’s essentially just Swift boasting about winning the Album of the Year Grammy for Fearless, but I can at least see how this song might hold a special place in the hearts of hardcore Swifties who have been rooting for her since the beginning. “Speak Now” on the other hand doesn’t seem to serve any purpose, and weakens the album more than it strengthens it.
Other than that, most other songs here are good enough to not piss me off, even if I have minor, nitpicky notes. “Dear John” is good, but I also wish it was shorter; “Sparks Fly” is decent but it sounds like SO MANY other Taylor Swift songs that I can’t really get excited about it; Even with one of my favorite Taylor Swift songs, “Haunted,” I can’t help but think that the song isn’t a great fit for Taylor’s voice, even if the songwriting is strong enough to make that a minor nuisance.
One thing I will say is that I don’t think the bonus track version of Speak Now is worth the extra time/money. I’m learning that Taylor is a BIG fan of making the deluxe “bonus tracks” new versions of standard edition songs. In this case, that treatment goes for “Haunted,” “Mine,” and “Back to December,” and none of these are the great improvements over their standard edition counterparts. The songs that actually are unique to the deluxe edition are okay, but nothing special. “If This Was a Movie” was probably my favorite of the three, and definitely one I don’t remember liking as much in the past, but it’s still nothing that special in the grand scheme of Swift’s career.
Who would enjoy it? This would be a great one for people who like country music that isn’t TOO country. Even people who perhaps shied away from Taylor’s first two albums could probably find some tracks on Speak Now to vibe with. (Start with “Story of Us”.)