CD Review of Fearless by Taylor Swift
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Label
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Taylor Swift: Fearless

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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W
e live in an age in which our public institutions, elected officials, and heroes from all walks of life have let us down time and again – an era in which cynicism is the default position for many, and trust is for fools. So when a blonde teenage starlet pops up on the country charts – one who sings like a bird, plays an instrument, and writes her own material with skill and confidence well beyond her years – it’s easy to dismiss the whole thing as a fluke, or the work of behind-the-scenes puppeteers. And anyway, we’ve seen this happen before, right? Teenage performers almost never go the distance, whether they write their own material or not, and for all the precocious talent she displayed on her self-titled 2006 debut, Taylor Swift seemed like she stood every chance of going down as Debbie Gibson with a drawl.

So cynicism is understandable, yes – but it’s all but powerless against Swift’s sophomore release, Fearless. It’s a hackneyed phrase, but this girl is the real deal.

Of course, it bears mentioning that Swift’s music has very little to do with "country" – she’s a genre carpetbagger, much like Rascal Flatts or any of the other pop acts that have dropped a little fiddle into their music and called it C&W. Because of Swift’s youth, though, this feels less calculated; she was born, after all, during Garth Brooks’ initial reign of maybe-it’s-country terror in the early ‘90s, and given that the genre has moved so sharply away from its roots for the last 20 years, her songs are perfectly valid reflections of the country music that’s been on the radio since she was born. What that means, though, is that country haters have nothing to fear from Swift: she’s a pop songwriter who takes the simple old building blocks of songcraft and spins them into sticky gold with an ease that would make Diane Warren jealous.

Swift wrote nine of the album’s 13 tracks on her own, and co-wrote the rest – and most of Fearless’s finest moments came from her pen and hers alone. Part of the joy of listening to a really well-written pop song is hearing how the writer takes all the ingredients you’ve heard before – the key change, the dropout, the rhyme within a rhyme – and packages them in ways that make them feel…well, if not exactly fresh, then at least still worthwhile. Swift does all that here, repeatedly; her arrangements are simultaneously basic and sophisticated in the classic sense, and if she hasn’t quite achieved Carole King levels of craft, Fearless shows her well on her way.

There aren’t any bad songs on the album, but if Fearless has a major problem, it’s one of sequencing and length. After starting things off with a slew of upbeat and/or up-tempo songs ("Love Story, "Hey Stephen," "You Belong with Me," the title track), Swift slides into a glut of darker numbers about heartbreak. It’s a subject she’s already well-known for addressing well – she clearly has terrible taste in men – but between "Breathe" and "Forever & Always," Fearless suffers a five-song skid into glum melodrama, and the album loses a lot of its energy. Swift is so charming on the up-tempo stuff, it’s hard not to wish she’d have pruned the album down to 10 tracks, or at least ordered the track listing so its mood wasn’t so sharply divided.

What’s arguably the most refreshing thing about these songs is how strongly they reflect the experiences of a teenage girl. Swift has never been shy about discussing the real-life heartbreaks that she says inspired her songs, and because she’s gone public with the stories behind hits like "Tim McGraw" and "Teardrops on My Guitar," it’s easy to take everything she sings literally – but even if the characters in Fearless tracks like "Fifteen" and "Hey Stephen" aren’t real, they still feel like they are, and that’s an accomplishment either way – as is the fact that Swift’s songs are so devoted to teen concerns (popularity, boys, loving Mom and Dad), but they don’t feel contrived or naïve; they hum with the energy of an artist creating…well, fearlessly.

Taylor Swift may yet turn out to be just another teen artist swallowed up by hype and boundless promise, but at the ripe old age of 17, she’s already turned out a pair of essentially flawless pop records – and triumphed over the sophomore jinx to deliver one of the best of 2008.

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