I used to hate country music, hate it with a fiery passion. In fact I remember driving though Tamworth ‘Australia’s country music capital’ a few times on return trips between my current and former homes. Each time I would close my eyes the entire time and focus on the commentary of Peter Roebuck as he would make his sage comments during the Boxing Day Test, until I passed the town right though. Country music was putrid, I correctly surmised. This was until Taylor Swift.
This leads me to another story. I was watching the Grammys in February this year in the vague attempt to understand what the Recording Industry Association of America think is ‘outstanding’. Of course, none of it was. Anonymous rappers posed like idiots, Chris Martin alternated facial expressions between earnest and constipated (sometimes both), and then of course there was Radiohead, who as expected were just fucking weird. Then the announcer said ‘Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift’ ‘Oh no not fucking Miley Cyrus!’ I thought. I hovered my finger over the fast forward button of the DVR remote just bracing for the inevitable pain. I heard the name Taylor Swift before, knew she was a ‘country star’ but not much more. Then she started to sing a song called Fifteen about her first day at High School.
You take a deep breath and walk through the doors. It's the morning of your very first day. You say hi to your friends you ain't seen in a while. Try and stay out of everybody's way.
It's your freshmen year and you're gonna be here for the next four years in this town. Hoping one of those senior boys will wink at you and say you know I haven't seen you around, before
Just those first few lines hit me with a loud bang. It evoked so many memories of myself starting out at a new high school at the same age (substituting the gender pronouns). The lyrics were so simple, yet so descriptive. It was like I was back in the Student Centre listening to Mr Peach greeting all the students via a megaphone on that hot January morning in 1999. It was enough for me to forget that Miley was there, let alone accompanying a songstress who spoke directly to my inner dork.
Thus I quickly raced over to the computer, forgetting about the rest of the Grammys to download Taylor’s latest album Fearless to try and assess whether Fifteen was a one off or merely an indicator of greater things. Fortunately it was the latter. I have been hooked ever since.
Taylor is apparently 19, born two weeks before the advent of the 1990s. In some ways the content of the album seems to suggest that, concentrating on romantic wish fulfillment, as well as love lost and found, but in others much of the material seems to belie her age. It’s almost as if she is two or three decades older, writing on these events with a sense of perspective that only comes with maturity. The best thing about that is it suggests that Taylor uses the strengths of country music: namely the innate details of storytelling song writing, and forgoes the obvious weaknesses of the genres tawdry musicianship.
This is particularly the case with songs such as Love Story and You Belong With Me which both handle the above balance perfectly. As the respected All Music Guide points out the whole album is full of such songs.
Fearless never feels garish, a crass attempt at a crossover success. It's small-scale and sweetly tuneful, always seeming humble even when the power ballads build to a big close. Swift's gentle touch is as enduring as her songcraft, and this musical maturity may not quite jibe with her age but it does help make Fearless one of the best mainstream pop albums of 2008.
My only regret is that I didn’t discover this album last year when it was released. Not only would it have been at the top my list, but it is surely one of the albums of the decade.