Lover achieves what Reputation (2017) set out to. Thanks to Swift’s inexplicable habit of releasing awkward, anomalous novelty songs as lead singles, her previous album was obscured by the shadow of “Look What You Made Me Do,” her hideous electroclash celebrity revenge song. Fans and critics, focused on her few abrasive responses to her public image, missed the emotional heart of Reputation, which is otherwise a lovely, reflective album about settling into an adult relationship.
The contrast between the tabloid-style kitsch and the intimacy of her love songs implies a public/private dichotomy. This dynamic is articulated explicitly in “Call It What You Want,” a song about how retreating into a happy relationship’s interior realm can function as an act of defiance against the hostile outside world. In retrospect, Reputation sounds transitional, as if she wasn’t yet ready to let the love songs stand alone.
She’s described Lover as “a love letter to love itself,” which may leave you wondering how to distinguish it from her other albums, but there really is a difference now that she’s writing about long-term commitment and stability. Here, the hushed, introspective electronic softcore of the previous album’s “Delicate” and this album’s “Call It What You Want” has taken over, sustained throughout the whole album at a relaxed, masterful pitch. Her ability to choose lead singles has not improved — “You Need to Calm Down,” the one song about her public image, is particularly rank in its conflation of homophobia with being mean to celebrities online — but unlike Reputation, the 18-song Lover doesn’t feel too long. It’s concise and elegantly sequenced, sufficiently restrained so that each note clicks exactly.
Swift has finally gotten comfortable with her polished, deceptively bland electropop sound, not as a studied pose or a genre exercise, but as her default music. Lover combines the spare, subdued, reflective, attenuated qualities of chart pop in 2019 with the soaring, energetic bridges and choruses Swift excels at — a way of accommodating to present commercial conventions while making it hers. The beats abound with whooshing keyboards, breathy vocoders, slick rhythm guitars, and splashes of electronic color as lurid as the pink clouds and blue sky on the album cover.
“Cornelia Street” is the wistful electronic ballad she’s been trying to write for years, a tailored refinement of 2017’s “Delicate” (itself a refinement of 2014’s “Out of the Woods”): over a constant, shimmery synth glow, she whispers a story about the merging of place and memory. When she jumps up an octave on the chorus, the melody’s easy, natural inevitability matches the relationship she’s describing.
“Paper Rings” is the equivalent distillation of her bouncy, adorable mode, as the chorus and postchorus both loop around to her triumphant, enthusiastic declaration of “You’re the one I want!” and the skewed guitar blasts drive the point home.
There is a tendency among critics to remark on Swift’s more erotic lines with surprise, as if they were signs of maturity, indicating progress from an imagined youthful prudishness that’s still being held up as her benchmark. Lover demonstrates how the magic of pop can make songs that allude to lust rather than spell it out in detail sound like portrayals of weirdos discovering their own desires. “I Think He Knows” and “Cruel Summer” merge awkward desire and anxious excitement in her signature chaotic way, acutely aware that (as the Pet Shop Boys put it) anticipation is a stimulation. When on the latter song she exclaims “It’s new, the shape of your body/it’s blue, the feeling I got it” as the confetti synthesizers explode, she reaches a new height of daft love poetry.
Yet even on her most dramatic songs there’s an underlying calm, a sense of gratitude and relief at having made it this far. Rob Sheffield, in his Rolling Stone review, compared Lover to David Bowie’s Low and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, which are apt references: all three albums embark on purification rituals; they are cleansing gestures after years of tumult. There’s a feeling of having survived a series of ordeals, learned some lessons, and cut some ties before starting over.
Swift’s embrace of romantic stability is in a way the opposite of Mitchell’s peace in solitude, but both gestures have the same thoughtful, earned confidence. Both artists have arrived at their respective modes of being after years of experience they don’t regret but didn’t enjoy. “The Archer,” the album’s chilliest ballad, awash in electronic shiver, articulates this decision when she sings, “I never grow up/it’s getting so old/help me hold on to you.”
Lover is one of several long, sprawling albums released this year in which an artist declares their newfound monogamy, a genre that rides or dies with whether or not the relationship comes across as as a model to emulate. Of these albums, refreshingly, Swift and Bill Callahan present their breakthroughs as personal developments rather than attempts to grapple with tradition and destiny. By contrast, Chance the Rapper is corny and proud, while Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig sounds vaguely embarrassed to be a straight man, but neither succeeds at depicting a relationship’s contours.
In this way, Lover is her least prescriptive album, a celebration of her individual weirdness and the weirdnesses of her particular relationship. She’s always been fascinated by romantic archetypes, American myths, classic roles to be played out as life imitates art. She’s longed for Prince Charmings, pondered movie stars who never go out of style, written a self-help guide-song called “How You Get the Girl.” A Taylor Swift wedding can’t be imagined, in song especially; the event would have to live up to too many dreams. Instead, Lover is a modest, intimate affair, realistic and happy. There is, however, one mock ceremony: on “Lover,” when she strums a leisurely acoustic guitar and announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, will you please stand?/with every guitar string scar on my hand/I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover!”
Much has been written about the parallels between Lover and Swift’s real life, but never mind that. Her gift is formal — to precisely and beautifully delineate feeling in song. Lover is a totally delighted demonstration of pop buoyancy and romantic grandeur, overdramatic and true.
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