Taylor Swift has made her armour-plated “superstar” record. Now it’s time to get back to being human again.
It looks good on her, too. With the calculatedly monstrous and gleaming excesses of 2017’s uneven Reputation behind her, the 29-year-old hitmaker dropped a seventh album at midnight on Aug. 23 that plays to the strengths of simpler Taylor times: solid songwriting, lingering wordplay that’s often as clever as it is confessional, and a relatable “every gal” charm that she’s somehow managed to hang onto despite the fact she put another $185 million in the bank last year.
This might have something to do with the fact that Swift has ditched most of the high-priced songwriting help (whither Max Martin?) and stuck mainly with longtime producer/collaborator Jack Antonoff on Lover to retreat to a less obviously “machined” place than either Reputation or 2014’s goin’-for-it chart-topper 1989. She has delivered a likeably personal record that she has referred to as “very much a celebration of love, in all its complexity, cosiness and chaos.”
If you’ve missed the rather more folksy Taylor Swift who made Fearless and Red back in the day, you’ll be delighted to find flashes of her here, while Lover on the whole still plays around with production, style and image sufficiently to give serious scholars of Taylor Swift, the Pop Phenomenon, plenty to chew on during the weeks ahead. And even if you’re not a serious Swift scholar, this is an album that leaves more room for study and contemplation than most of your average big-ticket pop product.
Some track-by-track points to contemplate, then, as gleaned from a first wee-hours listen on the morning of Lover’s release.
“I Forgot That You Existed”
If this is Lover’s vibe, it’s gonna be far less embattled and confrontational than Reputation. Finger snaps and a nagging “Daa-da-da-da-daa-daa-da-daa-daa” vocal loop gives this piece of fluff about moving past all the haters and toxic ex-boyfriends and getting on with life a breezy, early-Jackson 5 feel. “It isn’t love, it isn’t hate / It’s just indifference,” sings Taylor, with a few theatrical giggles thrown in for good measure. Slender, but sweet.
Sadly, not a Bananarama cover. A deceptively ominous electro intro gives way to a whoosh of a chorus that’s not quite as instant as that of, say, “New Romantics” but tingly enough. Pretty standard 21st-century techno-pop fare despite the presence of Annie “St. Vincent” Clark on guitar and in the songwriting credits, but the diarylike refrain of “I’m drunk in the back of the car / And I’m crying like a baby comin’ back from the bar” is altogether Taylor Swift. Incidentally, you can purchase a “deluxe” edition of Lover from her website that includes 120 pages reproduced from her actual diary.
What the hell? This is like a Swift version of a Mazzy Star song, right down to the simple, echoing acoustic arrangement. It’s also great. The first real standout. The lady can sing and, as has often been the case on recent Swift recordings, that fact comes through best when she casts away the state-of-the-art bells and whistles and plays it stripped down.
As a feminist anthem about the sexist nature of the music industry, this one hits hard on the lyrical front — “I’m so sick of them comin’ at me again,” snarls Taylor, “Because if I was a man / I’d be the man” — but the track itself lacks a bite to match. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe I’m simply imposing a masculine idea of “bite” on the music.
“Combat / I’m ready for combat.” A slow, synth-pop burn that doesn’t quite take off to the heights expected. With lyrics like “I’ve been the archer / I’ve been the prey,” you half-expect Steve Howe or someone to wander in and deliver a guitar solo at some point. But no.
“I Think He Knows”
Finger-snaps and more lovestruck wistfulness — yes, Swift is really into current boyfriend Joe Alwyn — in the intro give way to a low-slung, oozing groove that’s part Prince, part proof that Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” still casts a very long shadow. Bit of a gem. You’re not gonna get this one out of your head.
“Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince”
I wasn’t expecting to use the phrase “lyrical tour de force” in reference to a Taylor Swift tune today, but this play on American high-school-football iconography — complete with subversive cheerleader chants in the background — and the good girl/bad boy narrative is wickedly sharp. The track itself has a moody Lorde buzz reminiscent of Reputation’s darker-hued moments, although weirdly enough it’s one of the only cuts on Lover that doesn’t feature Lorde pal Antonoff in the producer’s chair.
A kickin’ back beat reminiscent of the Cure’s “Close to Me” or Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” gives this lark an instant infectiousness reminiscent of “Shake It Off.” It’s also another mild callback to Swift’s rootsier beginnings, with a hint of — wait for it — rockabilly thrown in for good measure. A deftly executed little love song.
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Another unabashed love song — yep, Taylor really, really digs that Alwyn fella — bursting at the seams with that real-girl relatability upon which Swift’s career was first staked. “We were in the back seat / Drunk on something stronger than the drinks in the bar,” sighs Taylor. Fairly standard 21st-century pop again, but when the production drops out and Swift delivers the line “I hope I never lose you” over a delicate piano line your heart kinda bursts. It feels real.
“Death by a Thousand Cuts”
The intro sounds like Laurie Anderson, for some reason, although the actual track to follow is considerably more straightforward than that. Probably could have excised this one from the final track listing, though. It’s fairly slight. Antonoff’s production is a little distracting, too — is that a harpsichord loop? — and far more complicated than it needs to be. Which, as the record goes on, might be a recurring complaint; it’s like everyone occasionally went “Well, we’d better burn out the production budget or we’ll never get it back next time” and threw everything they had at a song when Swift could easily get back with voice and guitar.
In case you didn’t figure it out, Swift is really, really into Joe Alwyn these days. He’s probably embarrassed by this tune, in which Taylor declares “I saw the dimples first and then I heard the accent … I fancy you” and proceeds to invoke a bunch of Anglicisms that will make most Brits cringe. At least she doesn’t actually fake an English accent. Could probably lose this one, too, as we’re only at 11 of 18 tracks and Lover is starting to feel a tad long.
“Soon You’ll Get Better”
The Dixie Chicks come on board for a heartbreakingly specific account of Swift’s mom’s recurring battle with cancer. “Desperate people find faith / So now I pray to Jesus, too,” she sings. “You’ll get better soon / ’Cause you have to.” Proof again that a little acoustic guitar, her songwriting chops and her voice are enough for Swift to get by.
A tangle of saxophone at the beginning signals a sombre, midtempo late-night ride through neon lights that might have washed in over the Miami Vice soundtrack during the 1980s. A real creeper.
“You Need to Calm Down”
A loping kiss-off to homophobes and internet trolls and people who should just shut up in general that’s already made it to No. 2 on the Billboard chart, so you’re probably familiar with its catchy-as-hell chorus. Smile, turn your back and sing the haters away is the message and an easy one to get with.
OK, Lover is getting too long. We could have weeded out some of these slow, dramatic ones. Especially this one. I get that Swift is blinded by romance, but it plods a bit. Could be a ballad from an ’80s movie, but not a good John Hughes one.
Lover’s lead single has a distinct whiff of Antonoff’s sometime bandmates in Fun, but in this case that’s not a good thing. This one’s pretty awful all around, and neither the inclusion of both marching-band rhythms and Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco in the mix make a great deal of sense. But it will be sung along to in a lot of teenage bedrooms.
“It’s Nice to Have a Friend”
What a strange late-album entry this is. A childhood reverie about passing notes in class and sharing mittens on a cold day, it’s all spectral backing vocals and steel drums — and trumpet, of course — and a rather beautiful stroke of late-album genius. Pity the album isn’t shorter because some might have given up by now.
OK, this one might merit a John Hughes climax or at least a credit roll. Like much of Lover before it, this is a patient, synth-pop burbler that seems like it’s gonna open up all ooey-gooey and go for it and kind of does but still realizes that there’s some value in holding back. Which is why Lover generally works. After going all in on Reputation, Swift has realized she can do more with less. Not a lot less, granted, but less is still more in this case.
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