Review | Taylor Swift - Lover
Lover proves the old, romantic Taylor never really went away.
I’ll come clean: while I’m a longtime Taylor Swift fan, I didn’t expect to connect with Lover. While I enjoyed several deep cuts off Taylor’s last album, Reputation, the promotion and rollout of the album confused and exhausted me. I wasn't alone; the early singles similarly alienated critics, the general public (“Look What You Made Me Do” nosedived on the hot 100) and many fans of previous Swift albums. It seemed like Taylor had hit a creative low point, and – frankly – I didn’t expect her to recover, especially after she released an underwhelming first single. I still wanted to believe in Taylor, but I prepared for disappointment.
Before I could understand why I fell in love with Lover, I wanted to figure out what went sour in the first place. While I had mixed (but mostly positive) feelings about 1989, Taylor Swift lost me with the first Reputation single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” “Look What You Made Me Do” feels like an outline of a generic Swift song – Taylor was betrayed (by an unknown person or people) and is now out for revenge. The instrumental pulls out every stop to make the song feel dramatic and dark, pulling inspiration from early Panic!, Fall Out Boy, and Rihanna’s “SOS.” The lyrics feel just as overstuffed, packing in menacing metaphors like an emo mad lib (there’s a perfect crime, a gun, and a kill list).
It’s not the melodrama that makes the song feel clunky. Taylor’s always been overdramatic, but her melodrama used to come from relatable situations. When 19-year-old Taylor envisioned her friends and boyfriend as “kings and queens…thieves in ripped up jeans who got to rule the world,” I remembered moments I felt loyal to my teenage friend group in the same way. The song’s overstatements all spring from the obvious deep love Swift feels for her people.
In contrast, “Look What You Made Me Do” isn’t about a specific person or situation – it’s about the trope of a good character who becomes bad. Instead of exploring what it’s really like for Taylor to feel cold and angry, the song obsessed over the abstract concept of an “evil Taylor.” “LWYMMD” is a song about themes, not people, and it replaces Taylor Swift’s biographical lyrics with empty signifiers.
On “Lover,” the meta-concerns fade, and the detailed, personal observations return. Swift stops speaking in abstract metaphors and returns to what she does best: narrating a story. On songs like “Cornelia Street,” Swift places the listener inside a scene with just a few well-deployed details:
“We were in the backseat
Drunk on something stronger than the drinks in the bar
I rent a place on Cornelia Street"
Unlike the darkness of “Look What You Made Me Do,” the old fashioned romance that courses through “Lover” doesn’t feel like an act – it feels like an attitude that Swift's developed naturally over the years. Taylor Swift’s always been a romantic, and Lover is just the grown-up version of the love songs she penned as a teenager. On “Fearless,” Taylor describes new love by singing, “I don’t know why, but with you I’d dance / in a storm in my best dress”; on Lover’s title track, Taylor’s deepens that sense of romance into something quiet and sure, crooning, “There’s a dazzling way, about you dear / Have I known you twenty seconds / Or twenty years?”
On Lover, Taylor Swift recreates the intimate atmosphere of her older, acoustic songs with an indie-pop palette (producer Jack Antonoff (Lorde, Lana Del Rey) deserves credit both for pushing Taylor towards indie pop and assembling the spacious, balanced instrumental arrangements). Lover takes bits of influence from many different musicians – the spacious mix and luxurious violins of “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” recall Lorde and Lana, the spare beat, saxophone, and heavily modified vocal samples on “False God” wouldn’t be out of place on a Bon Iver album, and the oscillating synths on “Cornelia Street” would fit perfectly in a Passion Pit track – but, in each case, the experimental elements match the emotional landscape of the song. Taylor Swift doesn’t change her message or her attitude in order to fit into modern trends, she uses trendy sounds to tell the stories she’s always wanted to tell.
Take “Death By a Thousand Cuts,” a song about missing a lover after a mutual breakup. The song begins with acapella singing that threads in and out of a simple, repetitive guitar line. It’s sweet and catchy in a way that reminds me of 2000s adult alternative, of "Tom’s Diner" and "A Thousand Miles". Taylor sings a flow of small, desperate observations: “Flashbacks waking me up / I get drunk but it’s not enough / the morning comes and you’re not my baby.” Occasionally, poetic metaphors arise from the stream of pain: the old love is a “house we boarded up,” but inside she sees the “chandelier still flickering here.” But then the chorus hits, and the guitar dissolves into cascades of trembling pianos (a sample from “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”). The sample sounds distant and delicately beautiful, just like the chandelier Swift describes. It’s a lonely, lovely sound that suddenly rises up and overwhelms the melody, just like the narrator’s nostalgia rises as she drives drunk past her old lover’s house.
It’s remarkable how much the songs on Lover feel like more refined versions of old Taylor Swift tunes. “Mrs Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” is a near-perfect encapsulation of the romantic tropes Taylor’s played with on every album: criminal lovers on the run, a forbidden teenage romance, love flourishing in spite of other people’s judgement. A song like this, that relies on tropes and soap opera drama (homecoming queen elopes with bad boy) needs to feel grand, stylish, and excitingly dark. Taylor must tap into the romance and danger of classic love stories – “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Romeo and Juliet” – or risk seeming lame and cliche. The production does the heavy lifting, turning the track into a sonic version of a stylish teen soap like Riverdale. A drum loop and growling bass give the song sharp edges, while violins swoop in to add glamour and theatricality. Despite the obvious Lana and Lorde influences, the song doesn’t feel like a departure for Swift – it feels like the culmination of what she’s always been working towards.
As the title suggests, Reputation was an album obsessed with appearances, of the various versions of Taylor Swift that exist in the heads of fans and haters. The “dark Taylor,” the “cute bubbly Taylor,” the “dangerous man-eater Taylor.” Many tracks – particularly the early singles – felt stunted by Taylor inhabiting a restrictive role. On Lover, Taylor Swift’s not trying to define herself as anything in particular; she’s just telling stories. In the vividness of the writing and the careful beauty of the production, her personality shines through. While the album runs long – tracks like “ME!” and “I Think He Knows” feel like more repetitive, less vivid versions of other songs – every song springs from the same creative, authentic place. As a friend of mine once said, “when you get older, you don’t change; you just learn better how to be yourself.” With Lover, Taylor’s finally released an album that expresses what it feels like to be an adult version of the teenager we met over a decade ago. Best Song: "Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince"
Worst Song: "ME! ft. Brendon Urie"