Taylor Swift has the face of an angel and the heart of an assassin; just look at the bevy of famous guys she slays in songs from her third album Speak Now. The 20-year-old singer-songwriter dips a poison dart in sugar and aims it at Kanye West on “Innocent,” patting him on the head and assuring him that “32 is still growing up now / You’re still an innocent.” John Mayer wishes he only had to worry about being patronized; on the affecting ballad “Dear John,” Swift chastises an older man for his mercenary pursuit of a painfully sweet former child star. (Lines like “Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with / The girl in the dress cried all the way home” can barely be heard over the tsk-tsking of an entire nation.) On Speak Now’s most gleefully spiteful track, “Better Than Revenge”—an often-funny takedown of her rival for Joe Jonas’ affections—Swift boasts that she always gets the last word. Anyone who doubts that will likely end up with a starring role on her fourth record.
Swift’s niftiest trick is being at her most likeable when she’s indulging in such overt nastiness. Speak Now falters whenever Swift lets her outsized personality be subsumed by big, generic ballads like “Back To December,” which aspire to Faith Hill when Swift should be aligning with kick-ass kindred spirits like Miranda Lambert. All the syrupy strings and mawkish “end of childhood” images crowd out genuine country piss-takers like “Mean,” a pleasingly spare banjo ditty in which Swift calls out an unnamed tormenter from high school. “Why you gotta be so mean?” she asks in the chorus. The poor overmatched sap will likely wonder the same thing when he hears the song.