November 21, 2011 / 8:46 PM / 7 years ago

Review: Taylor Swift Goes From Country Girl to Broadway Baby in 'Speak Now'

Taylor Swift has such an exceptional flair for capturing intimate moments and little emotional quirks on her records that it was bracing to realize, a tour or two back, that the sensitive girl with the teardrops on her guitar is really, at heart, a Broadway baby.

Emotionally aware songwriters aren’t supposed to be spectacular show women, too. Would we have thought less of Carole King, Laura Nyro or Joni Mitchell if they suddenly declared that what they really want to do is direct “Les Miserables”? (Answer: Probably.)

Swift is baiting Black Friday shoppers with a combo CD/DVD package, “Speak Now World Tour — Live,” commemorating her not-even-yet-completed 2011 arena/stadium trek (which wraps up this week at Madison Square Garden).

Its success comes in capturing how Swift’s touring show scales Lloyd Webber-ian levels of pomp and pageantry while still staying true to the barely post-adolescent poetry that made her country-pop’s greatest populist practitioner.

As with a Madonna tour, nearly every number gets its own production design and costuming.

The song “Speak Now,” her bouncy musical-comedy remake of the last reel of “The Graduate,” has Swift and some colorfully skirted backup singers doing vintage girl-group-style choreography as they bust in on a former beau’s wedding.

“Mean,” her hilariously jolly kiss-off to her critics, is a relaxed bluegrass hootenanny set on the kind of big, wooden porches that still exist in America, even outside the sphere of Cracker Barrels.

“Haunted” (the studio version of which was recently featured on "True Blood") trades those friendly banjos for a brooding mini-orchestra and the rural duds for flowing gowns and elaborate crimson goth, making a lost first love sound just as apocalyptic and look just as Victorian as it should.

And then there’s the show’s silly, giddy climax, “Love Story,” where Swift fashions herself into a Juliet who steps onto the Capulet family balcony, lifts off, and floats over the entire arena, a rigging effect that makes Garth Brooks’ old soaring stunts look like something out of the Carter Family era.

Apparently, Swift is the kind of girl who hears a term like “flying buttress” and thinks literally.

As part of anyone else’s set (as if anyone else would have the budget to pull this sort of stuff off), these set pieces would read as over-the-top shtick.

To non-converts, they still will. But Swift’s aim is at least to offer some multi-sensory enhancement for her tunes’ emotionally detailed narratives, as opposed to making her production numbers into completely unrelated sexual-surrealist fever dreams, a la Gaga and Ciccione. 

You can get a kick out of the big-budget tableaus and Trevor Nunn-meets-“Glee” choreography, though, and still feel that the tour’s best moments are its simplest ones, which are built into the show just as craftily as any of its engineering feats.

Savant that she is, Swift knew even a show as elaborately staged and timed to the second as this one — or especially a show as carefully produced as this one — benefits from having the audience coming in still hoping for some one-night-only spontaneity.

On this tour, that came in the form of the solo acoustic mini-set Swift did from the far end of the arena each night, where, in addition to her ukelele version of “Fearless,” she’d do a couple of unexpected cover tunes of artists who originally heralded from the city being visited.

On both the CD and DVD, that part of her show is represented by Train’s “Drops of Jupiter”... still a great song, even if Pat Monahan is the bogeyman to hipsters.

The audio version has her additionally tackling Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” (which, brace yourself, came out eight years before T-Swift did) and a too-short snippet of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

The Target-exclusive version of the DVD offers, as bonuses, additional solo videos of Gwen Stefani’s “Sweet Escape” — a sweet choice indeed — and David Mead’s rather more obscure “Going Back to Nashville.”

With Swift devoting all this stage time to covers and 2010’s “Speak Now” album, what goes neglected are songs from her first two studio albums.

The audio disc contains nary a pre-2010 selection. The considerably longer DVD, which includes her full two-hour-plus set, includes just one song from her 2006 debut and four from her sophomore album, to enhance the dozen tracks from “Speak Now.”

That’s no complaint, since “Speak Now” really is one of the best and most fully realized pop albums of the last decade.

Swift might be one of the few stars alive who could get away with completely jettisoning most of the song that originally made her a star just five years into her recording and touring career because the audience really cares more about the brand new stuff.

For proof that she’s getting better at her advanced age of 21, or that she can command a stage sans bells and whistles, you only have to look to her reading of “Dear John,” the epic ballad that is (presumably) her bitter send-off note following a brief and apparently scarring relationship she had with John Mayer.

She pulls out all the acting stops, which is not to say that it’s any less searing as a musical thespian's showcase than it was on record as a spookier, disembodied audio confession.

Yes, maybe there’s something more than a little show-bizzy about the fact that, when Swift finally gets to the critical line, “I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town,” actual fireworks go off behind her.

But if you’re the type of person who’s into the Carter Family and Cameron Mackintosh, you’ll just go along for the doubly cathartic ride.

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