Sitting in a hot tub on “Saturday Night Live,” Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch stole the sobriquet “love-ah” from the lexicon of acceptable terms of endearment — and, by golly, Taylor Swift is reaching into that oily water and stealing it back. The word doesn’t sound unctuous on her lips as she repeats it in the gentle, waltz-time title track of “Lover,” her seventh album. Released as a single a few weeks prior to the rest of the collection, the song “Lover” is an unabashedly winsome mash note that’s an effective calling card for the astute sweetness of the entire project — a warmth that wouldn’t seem so audacious if this set didn’t directly succeed 2017’s “Reputation,” in which Swift tried shedding her princess skin to enjoy being cobra queen for a day. As she narrows in on 30, Swift is looking to prove that love is something she does even better than revenge.
At the very end of this 18-song album, over the final, fading synth-iness of the closing ballad, “Daylight,” Swift speaks her overarching theme aloud: “I want to be defined by the things I love,” she says, “not the things I hate, not the things I’m afraid of, not the things that haunt me in the middle of the night. I think that you are what you love.” This is all well and good and woke, but just as Bruce Banner once warned us that we wouldn’t like him when he’s angry, is it possible we wouldn’t like Taylor Swift when she’s not?
By the time “Reputation” rolled around two years ago, Swift was seemingly in a sustained and contented place in her love life for the first time, which some wags had predicted would portend doom for such a diaristic songwriter. But in a twist of fate, she ended up with something to get much madder about than being merely lovelorn, as a tilted-stage power couple brought a wide world of trolls down on her head. She grew her ire and usurped her image as America’s sweetheart in the deliriously base “I Did Something Bad,” in which, weirdly, Evil Tay seemed oddly more lovable than ever. But there’s only a modicum of “Kanye content,” if you will, on this new album, as breakup songs fade further into the distance. Meanwhile, there’s that blissed out, mathematically specific status update embedded in the title track: “I’ve loved you three summers now, honey, but I want ’em all.”
Happy anniversary, then… but where’s the dramatic tension in that, you, dear reader and lover of Dear John letters, may ask?
Fortunately, Swift knows her William Faulkner — instinctively, anyway, if not literally — and so the great author’s declaration that “the past is never dead; it’s not even past” underlies even a lot of the dominant sunny moments on “Lover.” Even as the romantic reveries keep on coming, she can’t help recalling just how effed up things were in prior situations, and just how concerned she is about effing up this one, too — and this minor war between past doubts and current happiness adds sophisticated lyrical shadings to what is, in large part, sure, one big pop bubblegum blast of a record. It’s an album with a lot of froth to it, but weighted froth — her most mature collection as well as her most fun one.
Sometimes this self-awareness comes with a laugh: “Swear to be overdramatic and true,” she sings with a wink as part of the title song’s mock-matrimonial vows. But when she’s delving deeper into old fears, as she does in the “With or Without You”-like slow build of “The Archer,” the stock-taking is startling and sober: “All of my enemies started out friends,” she warns, as a prelude to pleading, “Help me hold on to you.” In the closing “Daylight,” she confesses, “My love was as cruel as the cities I lived in. … There are so many lines that I’ve crossed unforgiven.” With its tender throb, “Daylight” is a finale that recalls “Clean,” the epilogue of “1989,” except these days, Swift is more concerned with cleansing herself of her own sins, not somebody else’s.
Having established that singer-songwriter-ly reflection is still deeply part of Swift’s brand, it’s hard to overstate how much “Lover” is characterized by an unalloyed ebullience that the singer has only rarely allowed herself. The mood is set right at the outset with “I Forgot That You Existed,” placed there as the one real point of continuum with the Kanye-gate themes that sparked much of “Reputation.” It’s essentially part two of that record’s “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” with finger snaps leading into an “Everyday I Write the Book” bounce of a rhythm as Swift proclaims she’s graduated to “indifference” toward her famous antagonists. You could argue she’s protesting too much by devoting a song to the subject, but it’s a kick to get a reprise of her bratty side, channeled as nonchalance — and if it’s intended as a micro-exorcism, it works: Any other lingering traces of “Reputation’s” defensiveness evaporate as the album gets subsumed in open-hearted self-care and three-year crushes.
The playfulness takes a romantic turn in the two most light-spirited and irresistible bangers. “Paper Rings,” meanwhile — the album’s second maritally themed song (hmm) — benefits from a rhythm rooted in, believe it or not, rockabilly. “I Think He Knows,” meanwhile, is a delicious slice of Prince lite — at least, that’s where the sound of her falsetto against a low bass and a marching beat takes some of us — with a cockiness worthy of the man himself: “He’s so obsessed with me, and boy, I understand!” There’s another moment of self-consciousness when she adds as a moony-eyed aside, “It’s like I’m 17, no one understands” — underscoring that, in these giddiest moments, at least, she almost sounds more like a teenager than she did in her teardrops-spilling-on-guitar days.
The absence of longtime producer stalwarts Max Martin and Shellback from this album’s credits was a cause for concern. But another returning producer, Jack Antonoff, and some new additions, Joel Little and the pairing of Frank Dukes and Louis Bell, are up to the ear-candy task. Antonoff in particular is peaking as a specialist in quirky Top 40 fodder; equal to the charms of “Paper Rings” and “I Think He Knows” is “Cruel Summer” — co-written by another client, St. Vincent — with vocoder background voices making it sound like a greatest hit of the ’80s, even if it’s not actually a Bananarama cover. That’s one of the few breakup-memory songs. Swift is back to present-tense grins with “London Boy,” which has a sampled intro of Idris Elba discussing his scooter leading into a horn-fueled celebration of Anglophilia with more than a little autobiographical content.
The British place names in “London Boy” get called out in such quick order that it’s impossible to follow along without a lyric sheet, a map or a not-so-regular joe as a tour guide. There’s a sense of place in other songs, too, less so than in the English sojourn but enough to root the locations as well as emotions in reality for fans. In “I Think He Knows,” she’s “skipping down 16th Avenue,” suggesting that Nashville’s Music Row still has a place in her heart, if not her sound. “Cornelia Street” really gets specific — it’s where the New York apartment was where she and her beloved shared their first “sacred” memories, and also a tentative moment or two, as she movingly describes packing her bags and being headed toward one of the tunnels out of Manhattan before a phone call turned her around. Later, in the record’s vibeiest track, the neo-soul “False God,” where Swift deigns to share space with a minimalist saxophone (more of that, please), place and personhood become one: “You’re the West Village — you still do it for me,” she declares.
Swift does find some things to get mad about in “Lover”; it’s just not boys. A good chunk of the album is given up to statement songs, some of which are played for fun and anger, like the GLAAD-happy, homophobe-baiting “You Need to Calm Down.” An even more deceptively up-tempo tune, “The Man,” addresses how women suffer from sexism’s double standards when their power moves render them “a bitch, not a baller.” If she were a guy, Swift reckons, “I would be complex, I would be cool / They’d say I played the field before I found someone to commit to / And that would be okay for me do / Every conquest I had made would make me more of a boss to you / I’d be a fearless leader, I’d be an alpha type / When everyone believes you, what is that like?” (This comes during a week when the music world is believing that she means to do more than just complain when she feels wronged, as she’s establishing with her vow to re-record her catalog in response to having her master recordings end up in what she considers enemy hands.)
Electronics and any pretense of fun take five in the honest tearjerker “Soon You’ll Get Better,” where Swift is joined by the Dixie Chicks’ vocals, banjo and fiddle as she explores the prayerful panic of having a loved one in sustained and sometimes hopeless medical distress, surely to be taken a reflection of her own shellshock as her mother has gone through cancer treatment. The title of the record takes on broader connotations, there: Greater love hath no man than he or she who spends endless nights in waiting rooms or sleeping on hospital floors.
Stark as that low-spirited highlight is, there’s something just as startling about “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” the album’s most political song. You might not immediately recognize it as such, since the song disguises its social statement in deep metaphor. But while the high school milieu of the lyrics at first makes the song seem like a dystopian sequel to “You Belong With Me,” it’s hard to make that mistake by the time she gets to lines like “American story burning before me / I’m feeling helpless / The damsels are depressed / Boys will be boys then / Where are the wise men?” The chant of a cheerleading squad is even pumped into the minor-key choruses, but it’s clear she’s singing about her disillusionment as a young American patriot who can no longer feel so proud about waving the school colors. When she emerged as an activist for gay rights and the Equality Act earlier this year, you could sense the disappointment beneath the rallying, and “Miss Americana” shows that this grappling wasn’t a one-off. Here, Swift has found an ex truly worth writing about: the naive spirit of national optimism.
These medical and political malignancies make only cameo appearances on an otherwise exuberant album, but invoking them does bring into sharper relief why we maybe need lovers now more than ever, and why ballads like “Afterglow” and “Daylight” have her trying to figure out — in public — how to use love as a scalpel, not a bludgeon. She intends the album title to put you in mind of indigo-eyed objects of desire, for sure, but she’s just old and wise enough now to also be thinking of “Lover” as a job description. This album gives us something to love, too: Event Pop where the sharing of emotions on a massive scale is the richest part of the blockbuster occasion.
Producers: Jack Antonoff, Joel Little, Frank Dukes & Louis Bell. Featured guests: Brendon Urie, the Dixie Chicks
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