The pop star continues to follow her musical arrow no matter what anyone has to say

By Larry Fitzmaurice
August 23, 2019 at 01:56 PM EDT
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At this point, Taylor Swift is who you want her to be: a fearless hero, a good villain, an utterly fascinating public figure, an omnipresent lightning rod, unflinchingly personal, infuriatingly enigmatic. Few figures in modern pop music (a musical landscape that, in the last five years, has become less reliant on the type of cult-of-personality stardom Swift represents) provokes such a wide variety of opinions about nearly everything they do in public; her closest analogue to date is Drake, pop’s other diaristic auteur who’s achieved a similar level of domination when it comes to our collective attention span. Similar to Drake, the digital discourse around Swift seemingly shape-shifts on a daily basis — sometimes threatening to obscure that, in the American pop cultural conscious, she’s still pop’s biggest fish in an ocean increasingly made up of smaller swimmers.

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Nevertheless, the scrutiny has inarguably worn on her, seeping (as many of her personal experiences do) into the very fabric of her music. Reputation from 2017 was true to its title, with multiple points of reflection on the public court of opinion and the vilification that comes from facing its presumptive jurors — and similar frustrations emerge early on Swift’s seventh album, Lover. “When everyone believes ya/ What’s that like?” she asks with a cocked eyebrow over the bouncy synths and carbonated drums of “The Man,” as Swift draws a straight line between her gender and the constant chatter around her every move. On the surface, her frustration is electric, nothing but exposed wires — but there’s a twist of nuance, too, when she concludes the song’s serpentine bridge on a point of peace: “It’s okay that I’m mad.” 

Indeed, perhaps the biggest takeaway from Lover is that Swift has reached a point of contentment in artistic and personal self-perception — a confidence that comes with a steady near-decade-and-a-half ascension to the top of the pop pile. Despite contributions from rap-adjacent producers like Frank Dukes (Drake, Travi$ Scott) and Sounwave (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q), the darker, clubbier fare on Reputation has been completely jettisoned here in favor of spacious percussion, bright synth work, and production so spotless that you could eat off it. 

TS/Republic

Collaborations abound, from Dixie Chicks’ glowing harmonies on the sparse, intensely personal “Soon You’ll Get Better” to St. Vincent’s Annie Clark nabbing a co-write on the dizzying climb of “Cruel Summer” — but otherwise, Lover is 61 minutes of the pure and uncut Taylor Swift Experience, and not a single moment could be mistaken for anyone else. Perpetually in-demand songwriter Jack Antonoff’s hand is felt throughout the album’s 18 tracks, and as a whole Lover makes a strong argument for him as Swift’s greatest creative foil; his ‘80s-redolent sonic approach simply suits her music to a T, as evidenced by the weightless beauty of the skyscraping “The Archer.” 

Thematically, Lover’s title is instructive. Swift’s gift for cinematic lyrical imagery conveying the peaks and valleys of romance remains singular, from the Christmas lights namechecked in the windswept title track to the distant reflection on “Cornelia Street,” in which she reminisces about being “in the backseat/ Drunk on something stronger than the drinks in the bar.” The beatific pulse of love is streaked throughout and presented in a way that sometimes verges on unvarnished corniness; the woozy, low-slung “London Boy,” its title presumably a nod to Swift’s current beau Joe Alwyn, is almost endearing in its moony-eyed silliness, as she drops pretense to deadpan, “They say home is where the heart is/ But, God, I love the English.”

Lover runs long, and despite a strong front half the album sags a bit in the midsection by design — a shame, since a sense of experimentation ebbs and flows throughout. “False God” finds Swift taking on the lovers’ rock sound popularized by Sade, while “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” is all sparse pinpricks and plucks, with a wayward trumpet echoing in the distance of the song’s vocal bedrock. Elsewhere, there’s a sense that Swift is leaning into her eccentricities more than ever; witness Lover’s first two singles, “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down,” the former a blindingly bright slice of self-affirmation asssisted by Panic! at the Disco’s Brendan Urie and the latter a bubbly invective against LGBTQ+ discrimination. 

When “ME!” first saw release, the near-cartoonish production and gleaming chorus elicited murmurs that Swift had possibly lost the artistic plot — concerns that Lover largely quells by way of its strengths. But along with the lovingly hammy key change near the end of the plucky “Paper Rings,” the song (and Urie’s presence within it) also gestures towards the unapologetically showy realm of musical theatre, the embrace of which in pop’s increasingly homogeneous atmosphere seems like a high-wire act of artistic riskiness. In Swift’s case, whether such a risk pays off is irrelevant: she’s clearly going to continue following her musical arrow no matter what anyone has to say, and Lover is the latest proof that keeping tabs on her journey still yields its own fascinating rewards. 

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Taylor Swift's seventh studio album, and her first release under Republic Records.
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