‘Reputation’ was a dark time for Taylor Swift. The artist’s last album was an uneven effort, preoccupied with bickering and score-settling, leaving space for only a handful of genuinely great tracks. Two years later, she seems to have stepped out of the darkness with an album that shines far brighter – something made blindingly obvious in her pastel-coloured marketing.
Beneath the superficial sheen of rainbows and hearts, however, is an album that does leave much of the petty negativity behind in favour of a renewed focus on songwriting, with pure love songs and a pinch of personal politics thrown in for good measure. Opening with I Forgot That You Existed, there’s a brief concern that Taylor Swift still hasn’t buried the hatchets that haunted ‘Reputation’, but once this is out of the way, it allows space for a new transcendent Taylor.
With 18 tracks clocking in at just over an hour, ‘Lover’ is a pretty hefty album. A smarter artist may have worried about editing that down to a tight 10 (and left London Boy firmly on the cutting room floor), but Swift has always been one to lay out all her ideas and feelings, allowing fans to pick and choose what resonates with them, from her strokes of genius to her more throwaway thoughts.
As is often the case with a Taylor Swift album, the weakest elements of ‘Lover’ are the attention-grabbing lead singles – ME! and You Need to Calm Down. But push these and a few other loose strands aside and you’ll find a set of more substantial, more sophisticated tracks.
For the most part, Swift has gotten back to the business of writing endearing love songs. Her strength as a songwriter has always been in noticing small moments of romance and heartbreak, and crafting lyrics that are both highly specific and wholly universal. The only difference now is that she has abandoned the fantasy imagery surrounding ex-boyfriends and short-lived crushes in favour of the everyday ups and downs of long-term love.
This ranges from the sleek, subdued False God, replete with wandering sax, to the simple, sweet electro-pop of Cornelia Street, stripped-back synth ballad The Archer, and the St Vincent-assisted Cruel Summer, which oozes with 80s charm.
‘Lover’ also marks the first time in years that Swift has revisited her country roots, with the slightly cheesy Paper Rings and the altogether weightier Soon You’ll Get Better. The latter, which features the Dixie Chicks, is the most painfully personal track on the album, tackling the topic of her mother’s cancer with honest lyrics wrapped up in swelling guitar and strings.
One standout among the rest is Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince – a Springsteen-esque commentary on the state of US politics through the lens of a teenage couple, but updated for the 21st century with a sound more akin to Lana Del Rey than the Boss. “American stories are burning before me, I’m feeling helpless, the damsels are depressed. Boys will be boys, then, where are the wise men?” Swift is forlorn as a cheerleader chorus of “Go! Fight! Win!” echoes in the background.
Title track Lover, meanwhile, is probably the culmination of Swift’s work so far. The song’s guitar-backed simple storytelling harks back to the golden era of ‘Red’, but with some of the synth overtones and dreamy vocals of ‘1989’, and the sonic creativity from the best parts of ‘Reputation’. It’s the product of someone who has experimented and evolved over seven solid genre-crossing albums, and still seems to have more to offer.
In the quietly brilliant closer, Daylight, Swift revisits the idea of love she depicted in Red seven years ago. “I once believed love would be burning red, but it’s golden like daylight”. With ‘Lover’, Swift shows that she hasn’t forgotten what made her music special in the past, but she is also finally maturing and moving on to the next chapter in this long-running narrative.