Country's Swift breaks into pop

by Amy Davis | 11/20/08 3:18am

Taylor Swift's 2006 self-titled debut album, a smash hit in the country world, earned her multiple wins at both the Country Music Television Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards, but merely flirted with the mainstream pop audience.

Two years later, Swift now finds herself firmly entrenched in the crossover from country to pop.

Her sophomore effort, "Fearless"(2008), is as cute as she is.

Though she nods to her country compatriots with occasional banjo and violin and her ever present twang, this album sonically strikes the listener as more like Carrie or Kelly than like Dolly, Reba or Lee Ann.

Yet Swift's charm as singer-songwriter country darling is more than reminiscent of old-time Nashville chanteuses who also wrote their own material. Swift might sound like Sara Bareilles, but she has the heart of Loretta Lynn.

Despite her talent, Swift also has no pretensions, and young fans like her just as she is: Her lyrics imagine a world filled with ball gowns, princes and white horses where girls rock.

With her high school level grasp of literature, the singer equates "Romeo and Juliet" with "The Scarlet Letter," and she conjures both as metaphors for her life in "Love Story."

She's the perfect American underdog -- spouting lyrics like "She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts. She's cheer captain, I'm on the bleachers," on "You Belong With Me" -- but still manages to stay unfalteringly beautiful and adorable at the same time.

While it sometimes sounds like Swift took her lyrics directly off of her MySpace page, they lack the angst and self pity of most high school blog entries.

Swift is least successful when she tries to break out of teen territory. "Change," the final track on the album, might be her take on a protest song, but, like John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change," it's hard to determine what she is protesting.

The refrain's "Hallelujahs" are momentarily convincing, but as the verses unfold, the meaning, unfortunately does not: "You can walk away, say we don't need this, but there's something in your eyes says we can beat this," Swift sings. Pete Seeger she is not.

Clinging to more familiar turf, the remaining 14 tracks on "Fearless" mostly deal with young love, dichotomized into the functional or the failing variety, at turns perky or pissy.

"Love Story," Swift's third No.1 single on the country charts, is possibly the most successful upbeat love song on the album, not because it offers any depth of emotion and pathos, but because it perfectly encapsulates teenage romantic hopes in four minutes of catchy melody and silly slant rhymes involving the name "Juliet." You can't help but like it.

Though "Love Story" may be the most memorable track on the album, it's the disappointed love songs that seem to win out in the aural tug of war.

"Forever and Always" begins with the fairy tale trope of "Once upon a time," but quickly morphs into an angry-chick pop confection. "Did I say something way too honest? Did you run and hide like a scared little boy?" Swift asks.

Though Swift's subject matter is far from original, there's something fresh about her frank honesty that resonates even with listeners who have survived their teenage years.

"You're Not Sorry," another pissed-off love song, is not nearly as successful as "Should Have Said No," the vengeful powerhouse that balanced out her first album. Still, it is solid, melodious and belt-able. Indeed, this is the album's strongest quality -- each song is crafted as a sing-along, the perfect addition to your next road trip mix.

Although it doesn't provide the album experience of Joni Mitchell's "Blue" (1971) or even Death Cab for Cutie's best work, each track lives on its own and has a way of creeping into the back of your brain -- a pleasant surprise coming from a blonde pop tart who wears her hair in perfect ringlets and her heart on her sleeve.

Taylor Swift's "Fearless" was released on Nov.11 and is now available in stores and on iTunes.