Taylor Swift emerges from the darkness unbroken on ‘Lover’

Taylor Swift emerges from the darkness unbroken on ‘Lover’
Two years ago, Taylor Swift was painted into a corner, and lashed out. “Reputation,” her sixth album, was her darkest, her most aggrieved and, not coincidentally, her most stylistically experimental. She was already a pop star, but “Reputation” was when she arrived into the understanding that klieg lights can scald. Often a conscientious objector, she became a combatant.
Reception was mixed; “Reputation” is a genuinely great album, if not a particularly appreciated one. It pushed the boundaries of what people expect from Swift — the kind of singer she could be, the kind of collaborators she could work with, the moods she could adopt. By far, it’s her least commercially successful effort.

Which says something quite loudly. Swift’s antagonists have always been intimates, and the joy she’s taken in either loving them or eviscerating them has always been evident, and thrilling. But lashing out against the Kanye-Kardashian industrial complex was an awkward fit, and also bad business.

“Lover” (Republic), her reassuringly strong seventh album, is a palate cleanse, a recalibration and a reaffirmation of old strengths. It’s a transitional album designed to close one particularly bruised chapter and suggest ways to move forward — or in some cases, to return to how things once were. Once again, Swift’s concerns are largely interior: who to love, how to love, how to move on when love is gone.

The album’s power is encapsulated on “Paper Rings” and “Cornelia Street,” two songs in the middle that couldn’t be more different. “Paper Rings,” written and produced with Jack Antonoff, is jumpy punk-pop, vibrating with almost a nervous energy. Swift talk-sings about the flush of a new obsession that becomes something deeper: “Went home and tried to stalk you on the internet/Now I’ve read all of the books beside your bed.” Bubbly and wise, it’s peak Swift.

That’s immediately followed by “Cornelia Street,” another Antonoff coproduction, but one much more in line with the atmospheric gloom of “Reputation.” Here, Swift is coy and lost in reverie: “‘I rent a place on Cornelia Street,’ I say casually in the car/We were a fresh page on the desk, filling in the blanks as we go.”

These songs have one thing in common, though. Near each bridge, the music thins out, and Swift sings less busily, leaning on her voice’s natural contours and emphasising the way she effortlessly communicates fragility. They are jolts of the personal, a reminder that there is a person inside the song, something Swift has sometimes overlooked in her quest for bigness.

On “Lover,” there isn’t a consistent musical throughline so much as a slate of options, some familiar and some new. “I Forgot That You Existed,” the opener, is cheery, almost glib — a lyrical disinfectant for the “Reputation” era. “You Need to Calm Down” has a sleek viciousness to it. As a song, it didn’t benefit from the simultaneous release of a heavy-handed video emphasising Swift’s LGBTQ allyship. And there are duds: The shimmery “London Boy,” presumably about her paramour, British actor Joe Alwyn, is an effective argument against transnational romance.

If she leans in to a particular pop style, it’s the one she and Antonoff have been honing for her last two albums, with thick, ethereal arrangements that suggest the scores to films where children discover fantasy worlds. The best example here is “Cruel Summer,” on which Swift sings in several of her signature voices — the question-mark syllables that shoot to the sky, the hard-felt smears and the childlike chants: “I don’t want to keep secrets just to keep you!”

But in the middle of “Lover” comes a hard brake: “Soon You’ll Get Better,” an intimate acoustic song about Swift’s mother, Andrea, who is battling cancer. Swift was never a completely unvarnished performer, but early in her career, she cut extremely close to the bone. Here, agonised harmonies by the Dixie Chicks serve as an empathetic swaddle as Swift is lyrically immediate: “Holy orange bottles, each night I pray to you/desperate people find faith, so now I pray to Jesus too.”

The jolting specificity of these words only underscores how Swift has been retreating from detail in her lyrics, once the cornerstone of her power. Broad strokes can be just as emotionally potent as diaristic impulses, but from her earliest songs, her lyrics have always communicated a bracing amount of information in digestible fashion, a consistently stunning high-wire act.

The shift in emphasis from words to music on her recent albums has left her on less steady ground. But there is no Max Martin or Shellback here — super producers who helped guide her recent pop tracks — which means no cheat code. And in her songwriting, in addition to Antonoff she collaborates with Louis Bell and Joel Little, who have been some of the most successful songwriters in pop over the last two years, but who don’t approach the power of Swift’s pointillism.

“Soon You’ll Get Better” captures that energy, though, and also points to a quiet thread on this album: There is country here — nods, winks. Swift’s ease with it is like flirting with an ex.

Take “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” a song about how relationships that are ending never seem to end, which could be a Kelsea Ballerini song: “I get drunk but it’s not enough/’cause the morning comes and you’re not my baby.” Or the title track, which has echoes of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” but also sounds like a steroidal take on the alt-country of the 1990s.

Were Swift ever to explicitly return to the genre that catapulted her to global acclaim, she’d be as fluent as the day she left town. But it’s more provocative to wonder — especially after her experiments with trap production on “Reputation” failed to connect — if Swift remains committed to pop centrism, what shape that might take.

There have been two major jolts to Swift’s musical grammar over her 13-year career: on “Red,” when she first attempted pumped-up pop, and completely rebuilt the foundation of her sound; and on “Reputation,” which will likely stand as the outer boundary of the risks she’ll take. As performers get older, and more successful, their willingness to pivot typically softens as well.

So it’s intriguing that “Lover” offers a whole set of newish propositions, most of them promising, especially “Paper Rings.” The excellent and pointed “The Man” is a stern synth-pop take on sexism that’s also Swift at her funniest. “Every conquest I had made would make me more of a boss to you,” she deadpans, running down a litany of the double standards she’s been dodging for years. In this alternate timeline, she avers, “I’d be just like Leo in Saint-Tropez.”

The strutting “I Think He Knows” delivers a sweet intention with a blend of elation and petulance. And on “The Archer” — which is redolent of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” — she’s restrained and a little imperious, using her voice as a mood piece.

On an album premised on leaving the past behind, these are the songs that suggest a way forward. In recent years, it’s been clear that the less Swift sets her own terms, the more challenges she’ll face. And so on “Lover,” she’s back to steering. Being a pop star, she’s learned, is different from being yourself — except when it isn’t.

 2019 New York Times News Service
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