Taylor Swift’s almost aggressively magic touch seemed to have lost some of its extraordinary power over the last couple of years. There was something about her defensiveness in respect to almost everything that, when combined with her reluctance to commit to anything that might sully her brand, added up to a singer, and bona fide star, who constantly seemed to specialise in failing to read the very big room.
Swift’s last album from two years ago, Reputation, was a reaction to all of these claims and was, understandably, a hard edged and steely monster that took some risks musically but failed to reach the heights, commercially and critically, of her previous album, 1989. Lover then is the Taylor Swift that’s been attacked, who has attacked back and who now seems happier to speak about what she believes in (democrats, the LGBT community, love) and what she doesn’t (Kim and Kanye, Trump, hate), and this record kind of chronicles that in it’s own, messy way.
The album starts deceptively with ‘I Forgot That You Existed’ and seems to suggest a continuation of Reputation with Swift happy that a foe has now been mentally extinguished (and it could be one of a few but it’s West that certainly springs to mind). But this serves somewhat as a palate cleanser and before long we’re whisked off to a more personal and emotional world of boyfriends, self doubt and gender politics.
Jack Antonoff returns as producer for the majority of the record and gives Swift soft electronics and springy 80s synth chords that won’t rewrite the pop rulebook by any stretch and is more of a return to 1989’s lusher soundscapes than the spikier robo-beats of Reputation. The breezy and slick ‘Cruel Summer’, for example, has a nicely throbbing synth undercutting it and is surprisingly co-written with St Vincent; and the suspended and juddering, electronic ambience of ‘The Archer’ is unexpected, somewhat depressed and lovely.
The title track sounds a lot like a Jenny Lewis song and Swift sounds relaxed and charismatic. All of these tracks are good examples of how Swift quietly subverts the mainstream and the underground and does so with great skill.
‘The Man’ is a tight and catchy ode to sexism in the industry and if you ever wondered what Taylor Swift would sound like if she were produced by electro-pop titans The Pet Shop Boys, well this is the probably the closest you’re going to get. ‘I Think He Knows’ is a dalliance with Paisley Park rhythms and is a chunky, funky delight.
On ‘Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince’ Swift delivers the line ‘I’m feeling helpless, the damsels are depressed, boys will boys then and where are the wise men?’ with an ironic wink and irksomely peppy cheerleader chants, and to great effect.
Lover is an 18-track album and for no good reason other than cynical streaming playlist potential, surely. It certainly doesn’t feel as though Taylor had either a concept that lends itself to such an ambitious track list or that she had so many great songs that editing it down to a more manageable number was impossible. The second half of the album struggles to stay afloat under such weight with several pleasant enough but forgettable mid-tempos and missteps like the divisive ‘London Boy’ and ‘ME!’ which hinder any kind of cohesiveness. Only the emotional ‘Soon You’ll Get Better’ with the Dixie Chicks and ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’ have enough personality to peek far enough above the muddled banality to make an impression.
There are enough solid and passionate performances and interesting songs here though for Lover to be an album that sees the new Taylor Swift learning how to adapt and subsequently maintain her status as America’s most persistent pop queen.