Album Review: Taylor Swift Embraces The Light On Lover
With her seventh studio album, Lover, Taylor Swift follows through on her written promise of “a celebration of love, in all its complexity, coziness, and chaos.” It’s also the best she’s been in years.
Written by Annie Lyons
Taylor Swift loves love. From kissing in the rain to teardrops on her guitar to keeping a lost scarf that retains someone’s smell, Swift seems to revel in all of it, the highs and the lows. But more importantly, she also knows how to write about love, as evidenced by her countless songs dedicated to the volatility of relationships that span the course of a nearly 15-year career. Swift knows how to capture relationships with masterful lyrics that cut to your core with their specific details.
She’s unabashed in being overly dramatic when it comes to love, whether it involves the melodrama of heartbreak or getting caught up in the fireworks of a new crush. Take “Holy Ground” off of Red (2012): Swift sings of the fervor at the start of a past relationship, but she drops a self-aware kicker at the end of the first verse: “And that was the first day!” It’s also hard to forget the few years where the celebrity gossip coverage of her famous boyfriends and the ensuing break-ups was inescapable (and occasionally slut-shamey), but Swift both celebrated and poked fun at her headlong tendencies with the infectiously fun “Blank Space” off 1989 (2014).
But up until Lover, her latest release, she hadn’t fully explored what happens after a crush softens out, nor what a relationship looks like after its honeymoon period. Despite not being her most sonically-cohesive album, there’s a steady undercurrent driving Lover’s narrative forward — presumably, her three-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. It’s not just that “first day” anymore, and Swift wonders about the kind of love that stays and lasts. On album closer “Daylight,” she sings “I once believed love would be burning red / But it’s golden / Like daylight, like daylight” — a direct shift from the drama of “Red,” off her 2012 album, where she compared love to racing a new Maserati.
“Cornelia Street” is Lover’s counterpart to Red’s “Holy Ground.” Both songs memorialize the deep connection of New York to a relationship, but while “Holy Ground” follows the aftermath of the relationship’s end, “Cornelia Street” details Swift’s desperation to make sure this one lasts. “The Archer” deals with similar territory of Swift fighting to “help me hold on to you,” and the title track lets us know why her current relationship is one worth fighting for. All the while, she continues to employ the self-aware recklessness so famously inherent within her music. The title track sees her questioning, “Have I known you 20 seconds or 20 years?” before promising her partner constant melodrama in the mock marriage vows of the bridge.
Swift’s first five albums showcased a steady journey from country to pop, with 2017’s reputation sticking out as a chaotic one-off both in its harder production sound and themes mainly dealing with her public persona and negative media portrayals. Lover sees Swift return to the purer pop sound of 1989, but she and producer Jack Antonoff keep the sound updated. “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” doesn’t sound so far off from a Lana Del Rey song, and the verses of “Paper Rings” are reminiscent of 2000s pop punk. There’s some fun vocoder action on album standout “Cruel Summer,” a St. Vincent co-written track that showcases Swift at the absolute top of her game. She’s never sounded better as she sings over arching synths (“It’s a cruuuuueel summer!”) about meeting Alwyn in the summer of 2016 while also dealing with the public controversies that fueled the reputation era.
But if reputation was also determined to unapologetically usher in a new, “bad girl” Taylor (“I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now / Why? / Oh, ‘cause she’s dead!”), Lover shepherds the old Taylors back inside with care. Lover offers us a more introspective Swift on the precipice of turning 30. This, of course, involves callbacks galore to her previous work, such as lost gloves on “It’s Nice To Have A Friend” to match the lost scarf of “All Too Well” off Red. But these references go beyond simply being Easter eggs for fans; Swift wants us to know the layers of her past selves are still part of her while also recognizing her growth.
Lover feels like a continuation of 2012’s Red more than anything else. Despite sounding most similar to 1989, it sacrifices perfect cohesiveness in favor of Swift’s versatility: all the Taylors, all at once. And of course, there’s the prominent blue imagery throughout: she’s got a “blue” feeling on “Cruel Summer,” paints the town blue on “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince,” and remembers painting a boyfriend’s brother wall blue on “Paper Rings.” This helps set up Lover as the thematic antithesis to Red, which Swift once described in a live chat with fans as dealing with the “tumultuous, crazy, insane, intense, semi-toxic relationships that I’ve experienced in the last two years.” Both albums celebrate the idea of love, but Lover rejects the toxic relationships of Swift’s past in favor of the healthy one she’s found. The result is a freer, more liberated Swift than we’ve heard in quite a while — and deservingly so.
And while some listeners are also speculating the blue imagery is Swift’s show of support for the Democratic party — which seems too on the nose to be true — Swift is freer on Lover when it comes to her social views as well, continuing her trend of being more politically outspoken since the 2018 midterms. “The Man” has Swift imagining how she may have been treated differently in press coverage if she was a man, with references to the 2017 sexual assault case where she won a symbolic $1 over a radio DJ who groped her. “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” concerns her disillusionment with the American landscape: “American stories burning before me / I’m feeling helpless, the damsels are depressed / Boys will be boys then, where are the wise men?” The song alludes to her recent answer in an interview with The Guardian on why she stayed silent on political matters for so long: her fear that she might make things worse due to her reputation since “they whisper in the hallway, ‘She’s a bad, bad girl.’”
The Dixie Chicks feature on “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a heart-wrenching ballad about Swift’s mom who recently relapsed in her battle against cancer. It’s an emotional song, one that Swift even questioned including on the album because of its personal subject matter, and a sad sequel to “The Best Day” off Fearless which detailed Swift’s relationship with her mom throughout her childhood. But it’s hard not to feel that the Dixie Chicks feature is critically underused, as they only provide harmonies throughout the track.
However, in retrospect, Lover’s biggest flaw is its runtime, noticeably lagging in its second half where album singles “ME!” and “You Need To Calm Down” reside. “ME!” is a campy endeavor with a confusing Brendan Urie feature which — thankfully — follows the pattern of previous album singles by not setting the tone for the rest of the album. (See: the overpromoted single “Bad Blood,” which is undeniably 1989’s worst song.) The album version of the song also smartly removed the painful lyrics “Hey, kids! Spelling is fun!”, but it’s not enough to save the song which greatly suffers from the vocal incompatibility of Swift and Urie. “You Need To Calm Down” fares slightly better as Swift’s response to online trolls with uplifting lyrics showing her continued support for the LGTBQ+ community, but it’s still one of the album’s weakest links.
The two lead singles aren’t the only songs where Swift falters. The sing-speaking cadence of “I Forgot That You Existed” isn’t catchy enough to power through a nearly three-minute song. “London Boy” is a bit of a mess with its unironic delivery of “But God, I love the English” and just as chaotic as Swift’s proposed five-hour itinerary of the city’s sights. And as much as we here at Afterglow ATX adore the name, “Afterglow” is a filler track that shines lackluster compared to similarly light-themed album closer “Daylight.”
With some editing, Lover would likely be a stronger, more cohesive album. But being too much is considerably better than the alternative, and Swift does a good job of commanding attention for everything she wants to say. And fittingly, the album’s imperfections feel right in the vein of what Swift hopes Lover to be: honest, free, and bursting at the seams.