Review: Taylor Swift takes a breath and a step forward on Lover

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Review: Taylor Swift takes a breath and a step forward on Lover

(© 2019 Taylor Swift)

(© 2019 Taylor Swift)

(© 2019 Taylor Swift)

(© 2019 Taylor Swift)

By Benjy Wall-Feng

Exactly a minute into her seventh album Lover, Taylor Swift sings: “It isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference.” The line is a biting dismissal of a former relationship and also, incidentally, a suitable description of the world’s relationship with Taylor Swift.

She’s consistently made good and great pop music, some glaring exceptions aside. But there’s also been a creeping sense that Taylor Swift the personality has begun to eclipse Taylor Swift the artist, starting with the track “Bad Blood” off her 2014 album 1989. “Bad Blood” was a Song About Taylor Swift. It glamorized a feud with a woman whose identity is anyone’s guess, molding Swift’s character into something both larger and smaller than life — but not quite lifelike. In that sense it was a better manifesto than it was a song.

Then, at some point after 1989, Taylor Swift stopped being the biggest pop star in the world. There were any number of other reasons (a mercurial public, the decline of pop music vis-á-vis hip-hop) but “Bad Blood” and its ilk didn’t help. Nor did the dark, abrasive 2017 record Reputation, in which Swift made those problems album-length: 15 Songs About Taylor Swift that prioritized establishing a remade persona over retaining the quality of her earlier music.

On Lover, something has changed. It’s called Lover, for one thing, and it sounds accordingly gentle. The album cover is smothered in rainbow-pastel clouds. In the video for lead single “ME!” a snake literally explodes into butterflies, as if to say, Reputation-era Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. In her place is a more thoughtful artist.

That shift is tricky to take at face value, since pop stars returning from the darkness has been a recent trend — take Miley Cyrus (Younger Now), Kesha (Rainbow), and Katy Perry (“Never Really Over,” I guess). Those artists’ new music felt like sincere responses to personal transformations, but for Swift it feels like whiplash. The cynical view is that after Reputation flopped she backpedaled to a more commercially viable state. The sympathetic view is that Reputation was a playful way to experiment with her sound and fans’ expectations. Either way, it’s a little bit harder to embrace Lover as genuine, even if most of the album is solid enough to make you want to. Lover? We hardly know her.

Hence the indifference. See also “ME!” and the second single “You Need To Calm Down,” which are both facing stiff competition for the title of least listenable song of 2019. “ME!” is full of processed horns from somewhere in the uncanny valley and lyrics like “One of these things is not like the others / Like a rainbow with all of the colors,” as if that weren’t already what a rainbow is. “You Need To Calm Down” is basically the gay rights equivalent of white saviorism. These are textbook Songs About Taylor Swift, and, not coincidentally, the weakest parts of Lover.

But something interesting is that other tracks salvage aspects of the singles and make them work. For instance, “You Need To Calm Down” is problematic for more reasons than could reasonably be discussed here. Swift gets political much more effectively on “The Man,” not least because being a female artist in an industry that underpays and oversexualizes women is something she has no shortage of experience with. So she’s able to sing about it with candor: If she were a man, for example, “They’d say I played the field before I found someone to commit to.” Given the coverage that has been devoted to her rotating cast of boyfriends (“Serial dater Taylor Swift is back with another bae, and this time he’s a British guy!”), that’s probably true.

It’s also a relief that we’re two albums past the point of arguing over Swift’s full-throttle embrace of synthpop, because Lover sounds impeccable. It was largely co-produced by multihyphenate Jack Antonoff, whose resumé includes St. Vincent’s Masseduction and Lorde’s Melodrama, two of the most compelling pop records of the past few years (and Reputation, one of the least compelling). Here his production trades some of those albums’ immediacy for languor, and the decision works more often than not.

For every great song on Lover there’s another that’s forgettably agreeable (the title track) or annoying (“London Boy”). Scenes and people are reiterated without adding much substance (“Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” and “It’s Nice To Have A Friend”). Swift’s albums usually clock out at upwards of 13 songs, but Lover, at 18, is the first to feel overstuffed.

Still, there are a fair number of great songs. The immediate highlight is the ebullient, contagious “Paper Rings,” which is less about true love, whatever that is, than it is genuine love. It trades in mansions and getaway cars for smaller, more real scenes (“The moon is high / Like your friends were the night that we first met”) without losing the vibrancy of Swift’s earlier work. “Soon You’ll Get Better” is an acoustic tribute to her mother, who was diagnosed with cancer in March. Swift’s voice buckles trying to make sense of her total helplessness. “You’ll get better soon / ‘Cause you have to,” she pleads, and her nakedness is another kind of genuine love.

Some tracks are broader in scope. “Cornelia Street” and “Daylight” are pulsing, synth-washed anthems that swirl between nostalgia and hopefulness. During the dreamy outro of “Daylight,” which is also the outro of Lover, Swift says, “I wanna be defined by the things that I love, not the things I hate.” Granted, it’s not subtle. At least she finally sounds like means it.

Lover isn’t the return to form that some fans have been clamoring for. Given how much Swift has changed as a person and artist since Red, though, a “return to form” would ring insincere. Instead, Lover is a mostly mature record that reflects its artist’s best and worst tendencies. It’s six songs and 20 minutes too long, but chalk that up to growing pains.

Taylor Swift, Lover: 6.5/10
Listen to:
“Paper Rings,” “Soon You’ll Get Better (feat. Dixie Chicks),” “Daylight”