Review Summary: Listeners are always equidistant from good and bad on Taylor Swift's seventh album.
Pop music draws its strength from a listener’s ability to suspend disbelief, to trust – to know
– that a song about love is expressing something that has never been expressed before. The emotions are achingly real and so genuine that you can reach out and touch them. Taylor Swift excels in the details – the scarf from “All Too Well”, the kiss that was “really something” in “Fearless”, Polaroids on the hardwood in “New Year’s Day”. The intersection of these two things is where the magic happens: when she uses those seemingly small details to get you to feel exactly
what she feels. It’s powerful because you’ve felt it before, and it’s powerful because it feels like the first time all over again.
As her career moves onward, these moments have become less frequent, coinciding with her move closer to modern pop and away from the country-lite that built her up. The songs became shorter, less expansive, and much more likely to follow a typical ABABCB structure. After dedicating an entire cycle to her supposed reputation, Lover
opens with “I Forgot That You Existed”, a kiss-off to all her haters and a promise that she never thinks about them anymore, honest. “I Forgot That You Existed” is completely uninteresting and is only saved from being her worst album opener because “Welcome to New York” exists. Musically, it borrows sounds from Camila Cabello’s “Real Friends”, and the lyrics presume that anybody gives a shi
t about whether she still thinks about Kanye (or whomever else has slighted her throughout the years). More power to those that do, but Lover
truly begins with “Cruel Summer”, a song that begs for a few more weeks of hot weather so that it can be the soundtrack to summer love (even if its title – cribbed from Kanye – gives another lie to the premise of “I Forgot That You Existed”).
, stretched out to 18 tracks, lacks a songwriting filter. Anything
can be a song, and in the streaming era, there’s even a financial incentive behind all the filler. On an album this long, there is equal room for good and bad, and you’re always equidistant from either one no matter what track you’ve reached. An absolute knockout like “Cornelia Street” – the only song that captures that intersectional magic of detail and emotion described earlier – is followed by the white bread of “Death by a Thousand Cuts”, a song only worth mentioning because of its proximity to greatness. “Soon You’ll Get Better” hearkens back to her first few albums and even features the Dixie Chicks (only in backup, sadly), but the folky sound is adrift on an album full of songs that sound nothing like it. It’s a beautiful composition about her mother’s cancer, but, sandwiched between the intensely corny “London Boy” and the steamy “False God”, it feels as if it was destined for a project that never reached fruition.
The ups and downs recall Swift’s most uneven album, Red
, which was full of great songs but nonetheless revealed an identity crisis at the center of her songwriting and lyrics. The tight focus of 1989
and, to a lesser extent, Reputation
had seemingly put an end to that crisis, but Lover
revives it. This late into her career, it is surprising that she still doesn’t seem to know who she wants to be musically. Throughout the album, she continues to borrow from other artists, even from albums released this year. “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” has a bridge seemingly meant to evoke high-school cheerleaders, but Ariana Grande’s “bad idea” used a very similar trick just a few months ago for a much better song. “The Man” is her version of Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy”, almost to the letter, and the song would still be boring as hell even if a guy performed it. Elsewhere, she intersperses some rare political lyrics that are so generic and vague that it almost feels wrong to call them political at all. If a line like “Our songs, our films, united we stand/Our country, guess it was a lawless land,” plopped into the middle of a breakup song with no rhyme or reason, is meant to be a response to those who bash her apolitical songs, it’s hard to hear it that way. “Miss Americana…” features a few similar sentiments, but the song is so aimless that they sound like non-sequiturs.
While she sometimes indulges in its more vapid conventions, pop has been good to Taylor Swift, for the most part. The two lead singles, “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down”, all but force listeners to remember them because of their choruses, which are purely emotive, barely bothering with lyrics in favor of high-pitched, joyful noises. “ME!” is still the weaker of the two, but, blessedly freed from the “Spelling is fun!” expectoration in the bridge, it becomes easier to simply sing along without stopping to cringe. The bouncy “Paper Rings” sees her walkin’ on sunshine, perfecting the immature “Stay Stay Stay” with less sterile production and an electric guitar instead of a twee ukulele. “Afterglow” tones down the overtly breathy “Dress” with an admonition to meet her “in the afterglow,” a line that is beautifully suggestive of a private passion.
Closer “Daylight” is a little formless, a little plodding, but the production is beautiful, all pianos and synths. She sings about a love that’s still new, though getting older as the years pass. Whereas she used to write about love as if it progressed overnight from first kiss to old age, she now acknowledges the dark nights of yelling and tears and walkouts. Of course, those nights make the sunrise more meaningful. It’s why she loves to end songs with their opening line, to invoke the journey’s beginning as it reaches the end: look where we are, and look at what we went through to get here.