Ladies and gentlemen, may we introduce you to the new, improved, grown-up Taylor Swift. The country ingenue's third album, Speak Now, is steeped in references to maturity and more specifically, country maturity. Which doesn't necessarily mean she isn't writing songs about being a kid: it just means that instead of making herself the protagonist of a teen angst narrative, she takes on the role of a disillusioned, slightly older big sister who advises from a distance about not taking mom and pop for granted and the struggle of making it in the big, bad world ("Never Grow Up").
Same goes for her fixation on romantic struggle (seriously, who did this girl so wrong?! Was it that werewolf kid?): the focus hasn't changed so much as the perspective and the tone. The love songs are darker and more tortured (see the Evanescence-lite of "Haunted"), but the heartbreak is also more balanced (see "Dear John," featuring Swift as jilter, albeit a sorrowful one). Most significantly, Swift portrays herself as a stronger character this time around. This Taylor Swift doesn't just sit on the bleachers while her guy goes after the girl in the short skirts. She trash-talks her rival and even stops the wedding on the title track, essentially a "Love Story" sequel.
Sonically speaking, Swift's newfound maturity means a much more Nashville sound than her last album. In place of (much of) the pop predominance (obsessed as that genre is with youth) are longing bluegrass licks, plaintive banjos and aesthetic backdrops that lean more toward over-21-ready country-rock or hushed, introspective acoustic cuts. It's a smart move: not only do the more countrified stylings distract from lingering moments of (understandable) immaturity (see the almost petty "Mean"), they bolster Swift's pretty, but frail, vocals.