Howdy! I'm Sam Lansky, unlikely country music enthusiast, and this is "Pop Think," my weekly column where I talk about the music that makes me cry. (Other stuff, too, but mostly just that.) And the work of few artists make me as consistently misty as the flawless catalog of pop-country superstar Taylor Swift, who I've long considered the finest lyricist of her generation. And with more than a year separating us from Taylor's last release, 2010's bajillion-times-platinum-selling LP Speak Now, it's time to start thinking (i.e., speculating) seriously about what's up next for my girl T-Swizzle.
Here's the good news: We're not totally in the dark about what to expect from her next LP, given all that Taylor's revealed about her inspiration for the album and a few choice tracks that have emerged recently -- specifically, her two songs from the Hunger Games soundtrack, which are oh-so-brilliant. If they're any indication of where she's headed, this next album should be some of her most lyrically and sonically sophisticated work yet.
My eyes (and ears) are open -- now, let's take a look at the clues Taylor's dropped about her recent work in the studio. Why? Because it's probably the only reason I'll stay sane as I sit on my hands waiting for her next album to drop. Taylor, if you're reading this, seriously: If you have any time between playing 8,000-city tours and doing voice work in major motion pictures and contributing to soundtracks and being the top-earning artist in the music industry to drop a new album, I think we'd all be pretty stoked about it. And then I can keep crying teardrops onto my guitar! (Just kidding, y'all. I don't know how to play guitar.)
New Taylor Swift music, plz.
Time and time again, Taylor Swift has proven herself to be one of the most versatile artists in the game--which is probably a big part of why a country-wary pop enthusiast like me has become so enraptured with her music. On her last album, Speak Now, influences ranged from the bluegrass-folk crunch of "Mean" to the '80s arena rock of "Haunted" to the twangy pop-country of "Mine" to the expansive guitar rock of "Dear John" -- all serving to complement her lovely, emotive vocals and some of the sharpest, most compelling lyrics this critic has ever heard. Even when her style ranges, drawing in the sounds from a half-dozen different genres, her songcraft is invariably masterful, and the themes are consistent: disillusionment, a loss of innocence, the breathless exhilaration of romance and the ensuing heartache.
Read more about Taylor Swift's new music after the jump.
We've come to expect these ideas to be present in Taylor's work, which is part of what makes the two songs she has featured on the Hunger Games soundtrack so exciting. Even if the hooks are as ironclad as always, her lyrics just keep on getting more complex and dynamic. "Safe & Sound," a collaboration with Nashville-based alt-folk-country duo The Civil Wars, may just be Taylor's best ballad to date, certainly vocally but also with a distinctive lyrical style that's both quintessentially Taylor and completely fresh. With legendary producer T-Bone Burnett at the helm, the song's airy, elegiac production makes her vocals sound more hauntingly fragile than ever. And though Taylor's known for the taut cleverness of her lyrics ("You made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter," anyone?), in "Safe & Sound," there's a simplicity that's irresistible. The embedded dialogue in the opening lyrics ("I remember tears streaming down your face/ When I said 'I'll never let you go'") yields to a straightforward refrain: "Come morning light/ You and I'll be safe and sound."
The other new track, "Eyes Open," also shows a new side of Taylor, building on some of the '80s power rock influences she showcased on tracks like "Haunted" on Speak Now, with more grit and power in her voice than we're used to hearing. The details are as sharply drawn and unique as ever--"In backyards, winning battles with our wooden swords," she sings in the first verse--but there's a new urgency in her delivery. Hear the little growl in her voice when she sings the word "children" in the first verse? It sounds anything but childlike. Those anthemic chords build through the layered chorus to a triumphant finish, guitar licks and all.
With "Safe & Sound," of course, Taylor collaborated with a squadron of brilliant musicians, which is a stark contrast to Speak Now, which saw her writing every track herself. No co-writers, no hitmakers, just Taylor and her pen. This is part of what makes the incredible commercial and critical success of that album so impressive, but it also means that, by Taylor's own admission, since she's proved to herself that she's capable of producing high-quality of work autonomously, she can now work with some of the other artists that she admires. "I made my last album, Speak Now, with this idea I really wanted to make an album without writing with anyone else just because I always wanted to do that," she told MTV News last month about her upcoming LP. "And now I have a different approach to this record. I'm getting to work with people that I've always wanted to work with."
Those themes of enchantment and disenchantment will probably be as prominent as ever, given that even as she says that she's hoping to "evolve" on the next record, she also admits that "love is always going to be a huge theme in what I write about just because there are no two similar relationships, there are no two times that you feel love the same way or hurt the same way or [feel] rejection [in] the same way." But Taylor Swift has always written about love and relationships with a freshness and dexterity that few other artists can match. As her music continues to develop in its diversity and sophistication, as she collaborates with as-yet-unknown musical greats on her next record, and as she puts the finishing touches on another album that's sure to top the charts and earn her a dozen Grammy nods, it's easy to forget what's at the heart of the Taylor Swift empire -- really, really good songs. If she keeps writing those, the sky's the limit.
Photo credit: Getty Images