Speak Now was a reaction. After two massive albums, as her star was ascending to new heights, Taylor Swift was tired of hearing that she didn’t write her own songs. So for her third studio album, which came out 10 years ago this weekend, she decided not to write with anyone else — let the credits show that she could make a sparkling country song catchy enough to cross over to pop radio all on her own. And so she did. It wouldn’t stop those doubts about her authenticity, but for anyone willing to take Swift at face value, Speak Now was proof that she is a formidable talent.
It’s especially interesting to revisit Speak Now after folklore has had some time to settle in. They feel like the most spiritually connected albums of all her discography. Though she worked with outside collaborators on her most recent album, both present Swift at her most writerly, favoring narrative over hooks while still providing plenty of hooks. On both of these albums, the message dictates the mood. They show Swift coming full circle, demonstrating how effectively she can work on her own, whether in forced isolation or through sheer determination.
They are also both preternaturally mature records that find her grappling with new changes in her life. On folklore, she is flourishing in a stable relationship but can’t help from picking at old scars. On Speak Now, she’s achieved fame and is on the precipice of adulthood but is still trying to hold on to a childhood that seemed easier. And even though a decade separates them, both albums are tied together by a sense of not knowing where to go once she’s gotten everything she wanted.
Speak Now was written just as Swift turned 20, and by that age, she had already done exceedingly well for herself. She was heralded as a promising young musician from the start with her 2006 self-titled debut, a fact that was seemingly corroborated by her blockbuster 2008 album Fearless, which won her her first Grammy for Album Of The Year. Speak Now was a smashing commercial success upon its arrival, to the tune of just over a million copies sold in the first week.
The run-up to Speak Now was, of course, marred by the infamous Kanye West VMAs incident, which had taken place a year previously. Swift would spend much of the next decade, in one way or another, reacting to or running away from that situation, but for the most part Speak Now doesn’t concern itself with all that. It’s promptly dealt with in one song, “Innocent,” which despite its languishing moodiness still ends up giving West the benefit of the doubt: “Who you are is not what you did/ You’re still an innocent.”
That empathetic streak is somewhat surprising listening to the album now, as that story has taken so many twists and turns over the years, but it’s par for the course on Speak Now, which even at its most cutting usually finds Swift channeling much of that vitriol inward. (The exception to this rule is the regrettable “Better Than Revenge,” which fails in the same way that its clear antecedent in Paramore’s “Misery Business” does.) It’s even there on “Mean,” a plucky and petty callout of her critics that, in true writerly fashion, ends up admitting that all the criticism directed at her is only confirming what, deep down, Swift feels about herself. “You have pointed out my flaws again, as if I don’t already see them,” she sings. “I walk around with my head down/ Try to block you out ‘cus I’ll never impress you/ I just want to feel OK again.”
It’s not surprising that Swift was still concerning herself with what the critics had to say. Speak Now is a transitory album, on which she’s caught between two worlds. It’s the last time that Swift was foremost regarded as a country musician, but her impressive chart dominance placed her in pop’s highest echelons. With Red, she’d tip further into the pop side of the equation, but here she’s still striking a balance. The songs on it mostly fall into two categories: those that are swept up in a rush of romance and soaring choruses and fresh possibility, and those that are downtrodden and world-weary and lovesick. The former, to no surprise, ended up accounting for the most popular singles from the album, and they are also the songs that have the most in common with Swift’s work prior to this. They’re gleaming and twangy and always cascading. Most of them hinge on hindsight, moments when Swift could have said or done something to change her current trajectory but didn’t.
At her best as a storyteller, Swift pinpoints these junctures when everything could have changed and spins them into a glossy web. The album’s title track and “Sparks Fly” are both narratives about a rush to relief. “Speak Now” is ’90s rom-com meets “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” taking place at a wedding where Swift’s character is eyeing the groom from across the chapel. “Don’t say yes, run away now/ I’ll meet you when you’re out of the church at the backdoor,” she sings in a tumble of words in the chorus. On “Sparks Fly,” she again hopes for another escapist moment: “Drop everything now/ Meet me in the pouring rain/ Kiss me on the sidewalk/ Take away the pain.”
“Mine,” the album’s highest-charting single at #3, hews closest to her Fearless-era country fireworks. It’s wordy and wry and follows the same sonic blueprint of “Love Story” and “You Belong To Me,” and it’s also one of her best in this vein. The way she doles out words on it is so masterful — “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter” — that it’s no wonder she would soon link up with Max Martin to push her already existent melodic math to the next level.
Some of the more awkward moments on Speak Now can be attributed to Swift pushing against the boundaries of her country roots. On “The Story Of Us,” you can hear the song bristling to go full-blown pop. As it exists, it just can’t take all that weight, its persistent drumbeat is just begging to be turned into something more synthetic. Likewise, when she tries to veer into pop-punk territory on the aforementioned “Better Than Revenge” and the operatic “Haunted,” it’s fun to imagine how much better they’d sound if she allowed herself at that point to ditch the guitars and try those songs out in a different framework.
But her country background is what makes for the most enduring material on Speak Now, the songs that are more often than not just Swift and her guitar and a clarifying narrative sweep. Though inspired by the stories from Swift’s personal life, removed from all that tabloid context they stand as universal paeans to lost love and youthful regret and growing up and never knowing when you might find your voice. She’s at her best on songs like “Back To December,” which uses a single month as the pivot point for a failed relationship, and the withering “Dear John,” a trial run for Red‘s perfect “All Too Well,” which lays out a story in each verse and crescendos around a massive payoff that’s all words:
You are an expert at sorry,
And keeping the lines blurry
Never impressed by me acing your tests
All the girls that you’ve run dry
Have tired, lifeless eyes
‘Cause you burned them out
But I took your matches before fire could catch me,
So don’t look now, I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town
The album’s penultimate track, “Last Kiss” is one of Swift’s finest accomplishments, luxuriantly sad and also triumphant, like maybe each lost love is just another opportunity to get it right. The song’s lyrical specificity has a tragically comic edge. She remembers the look on your face “at 1:58,” how she ran off the plane and into her lover’s arm “that July 9th.” She loves “your handshake meeting my father” and “how you walk with your hands in your pockets.” But all those are just memories. Now she’s sitting on the floor wearing your old clothes and twisting herself in knots over what might have been. She’ll “watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep.” It’s absolutely gutting stuff, diaristic and poetic, and yet she is still looking for a silver lining: “I hope it’s nice where you are,” she sings. “I hope the sun shines and it’s a beautiful day/ And something reminds you you wish you had stayed.”
Those kinds of songs are what make Speak Now my favorite Taylor Swift album, at least most days. It finds Swift between two worlds and it sees her using this in-between period to seek perspective and empathy. So much of Speak Now is Swift acting wise beyond her years, all while fixated on a time when those years were just beginning. She returns to the idea of childhood a lot, a simpler time that she recognizes was never all that simple, really. The album’s original working title, Enchanted, was deemed too childish, evocative of sleeping beauties waiting for princes and princesses trapped at the top of a tower. Swift had moved past the need for all that. There are still songs on Speak Now that practice in that fantasy, but the reality hits so much harder. Speak Now perfectly captures the imperfect moment when you’re letting go of your old self to become someone new. It’s sad having to grow up so fast, but it’s inevitable.
On “Never Grow Up,” one of Swift’s most heart-wrenching songs, she switches perspective between her mother and herself. One second Swift is tiny and looking up from her crib with sleepy eyes, the next she’s asking her mom to drop her off around the block so she’s not embarrassed in front of her friends. The timeline folds in on itself; she’s growing up and getting old all at once. Swift begs for simplicity but it never works out that way. She warns herself to remember it all: “Take pictures in your mind of your childhood room,” “remember the footsteps, remember the words said,” but it’s already fading away: “I just realized everything I have is someday gonna be gone.” She’s figuring all of this out in real time, as her pen hits the page. Fairy tales can’t last forever.