Taylor Swift has been distracted.
Her last album, 2017’s Reputation, was primarily conceived as a response to the barrage of criticism and scrutiny that ramped up as she ascended to pop megastardom. The celebrity feuds and projections of victimhood manifested themselves in the album’s moody production and darker lyrical twists on classic Swiftian themes, delivered with an air of self-righteousness and self-seriousness. Reputation didn’t feel like proper Taylor Swift. It felt like the pressures and expectations of her blockbuster success had separated her from what got her there in the first place: a blend of earnestness, honesty, optimism, and killer pop sensibilities. That sentiment was echoed by the album’s lukewarm critical and commercial reception, which lead to an inevitable reappraisal of what being Taylor Swift means in 2019.
Lover is the culmination of that effort, landing on the rather obvious conclusion that Taylor Swift is at her best when she’s singing about love, all-consuming and slightly hopeless. However, Swift isn’t the Juliet of “Love Story”, the band geek in “You Belong With Me”, or even the exhilarated passenger in “Out Of The Woods” anymore. She experiences and communicates love differently now, and she uses Lover to explore that evolution. Swift’s approach to romance is now grounded in realism and her own insecurities, not sweeping storytelling. “The Archer” channels her self-defeating tendencies through wandering, gorgeous synths that build to a euphoric climax that is brilliantly just out of reach. “False God” boldly compares the kind of runaway romance she used to canonize to sacrilege, and “Death by a Thousand Cuts” explores the long-standing trauma that comes from a failed relationship. And yet, Swift doesn’t equate these complexities with the darker atmosphere that pervaded Reputation. Instead, optimism serves as Lover’s guiding ethos. The album is swathed in positivity, even when working outside of her wheelhouse.
That isn’t to say that Swift has lost her edge, but she is savvier in how she surfaces it. Two of the album’s most potent pop missiles, “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” and “The Man”, borrow some of Reputation’s righteous fury to take aim at the sorry state of American politics and the patriarchy, respectively. Album opener “I Forgot That You Existed” is peak petty Swift, but without the off-putting sneer of “Look What You Made Me Do”. As effective as these songs are, Lover is best when the gloves are off. “ME!” may not have been the chart-topping smash it was expected to be, but its effortless, bouncy charm is still difficult to resist. The title track is a swoon-worthy waltz of unabashed romance, bound to be a wedding playlist favorite. “False God” and “It’s Nice To Have A Friend” offer intrigue by way of unexpected but welcome saxophones and trumpets (and heavy inspiration from the Big Little Lies theme). The Dixie Chicks-assisted “Soon You’ll Get Better” is the album’s emotional center, leaning back on her country roots to deliver a stunning, plaintive tribute to her mother battling cancer. Even in tough moments such as this, Swift chooses hope.
Even though the albums are diametrically opposed in aesthetic and theme, Lover and Reputation do share many musical shades. Swift and co-producer Jack Antonoff have effectively cornered the market on 80’s-influenced instrumentation, and this album only advances their relationship with heady percussion and atmospheric synths. On most occasions, the shift in mood helps Lover sound distinctive enough from its predecessor, but there are a few glaring similarities. The synth drums of Swift’s bullying and homophobia send-up “You Need To Calm Down” recall Reputation at its coldest, making it easy to nullify the song’s good intentions and write it off as another bid for public sympathy. “I Think He Knows” borrows some vocal structure from “Call It What You Want”, and “London Boy”, written for current love Joe Alwyn, is “End Game’s” more-sprightly lovesick cousin. The issue isn’t helped by the album’s length, capping at a hefty 18 tracks. Swift’s eagerness to express her re-discovered confidence is understandable, but Lover borders on self-indulgent, repeating themes and compositions when a tighter track list would’ve accomplished the same goal better.
Production ticks aside, Lover does represent a renewed sense of focus for Taylor Swift, free from the petty squabbles that bled into Reputation. The challenges of the last few years haven’t been completely wiped, but Swift has firmer control over their impact. There may be obstacles – romantic, professional, or otherwise – but she is resolute in finding a silver lining, even if the cost is even more vulnerability than she’s used to. Wherever this shift in perspective has come from (a cottage industry has emerged speculating on Joe Alwyn’s role in her life), it has helped Swift immensely. Lover is her most accessible and likable album in years, building on the promise of the game-changing 1989 and further cementing her as a singular presence in pop music.