Why _______ Is the Best Taylor Swift Album: Fearless (2008) | Speak Now (2010) Red (2012) | 1989 (2014) | Reputation (2017)
“I don’t know what I want, so don’t ask me,” is how she begins “A Place in This World,” a light-footed and mid-tempo ballad that flutters with picked banjo and adolescent uncertainty. It is one of a number of songs that evince, even within the album’s Nashville professionalism, an unhewn quality that collapses the distinction between the kind of song an authentic teen would try to write and the teenage voice an expert author would attempt to replicate. It has that same searching naivety, expressed with unexpected proficiency, that made Swift’s friend (and arguable successor) Lorde so striking on first listen -- though where Lorde shrugged with outsider indifference (“Don’t you think it’s boring how people talk?”), Swift had dreamy ambition. “I’m still trying to figure it out,” she sings.
The songs on Taylor Swift are the enactment of that figuring-out process. This is an interior album; its small town setting extends only from high school halls to front porches and rural back roads, but it takes place within the even smaller confines of Swift’s mind. One of her favored narrative techniques is to bind her tales in memory or dialogue or -- in an even more deliberate nod to the inherent artificiality of storytelling -- within the explicit language of film. In wielding authorship, Swift claims the power to grasp the excesses of feeling and emotion surging through day-to-day life and settle them within the coherent space of her own thoughts, so as to be re-examined and reinterpreted at quieter, contemplative remove.
The first single and album opener “Tim McGraw” exemplifies this diaristic distancing: the hints of summer romance are filtered through memory (“Looking back on all of that, it’s nice to believe...”), epistolary recursion (the final chorus is “a letter left on your doorstep”) and the emotionally freighted sound of the titular performer’s songs on the radio, Tim McGraw’s tunes tying the couple together through time and tumult. For a song of Georgia stars and Chevy trucks, it takes place on an intensely personal scale; the dramatic arc crests and resolves not with anything so momentous as a reunion but when Swift manages to make peace with her past.
She would maintain this interiority as she grew into an older and more savvy writer, the settings of her songs expanding to encompass Greenwich Village in New York and the Hollywood intersection at Sunset and Vine. But Taylor Swift is affecting for how its details remain so sharp at so small a scale.
At this point in her career, her outlook was explicitly country-oriented, and she embraced the bounds of her genre as she reinterpreted them. Her knack for expanding prosaic detail into resonant universality is a country trick -- “Our Song” is a romance told in screen doors and phone calls after curfew. She also puts her stamp on country’s interest in how generational continuity fosters community; “Mary’s Song (Oh My My)” is a familiar tale of a couple that meets, courts, marries, and grows old, but for Swift, the story’s crux is in the present day. After taking her characters on a close study over multiple verses from grade school to adolescence, she allows the rest of their lives (until ages 87 and 89) to pass in a few lines: adulthood was an ellipsis she would not imagine and was yet to experience.
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