When Taylor Swift eases up on the self-mythologising, Lover is pretty good
We have had good reason to be concerned about Lover. These pre-album hype cycles are getting longer, more byzantine, more purely tedious. Since earlier this year when the album was just known as TS7, hints and theories and Easter eggs about Taylor Swift's new music have been popping up all over the internet and filling me with a unique and special dread.
And then there were the early singles: “ME!” with its all caps and its exclamation point and its blessedly-deleted “Hey kids: Spelling is fun!.” There's “You Need To Calm Down,” whose “why be mad when you could be GLAAD” quarter-entendre and video with cameos from all the gay celebrities your dad could name in 30 seconds, which put me in the unusual position of asking a famous person to be less of an ally. It’s hard out here for someone who just wants to like Taylor Swift.
But having dived in and experienced Lover as a collection of songs and not a military exercise, I am afraid I am left with no other choice but to enjoy it. Hey kids: being wrong is fun.
It is not perfect, mind you. It is three songs too long, jam-packed with references and callbacks that will keep the world’s Swiftologists busy for months. There is the unmistakable touch of Jack Antonoff throughout, which means every other song has a moment where it sounds like a cheerleading squad is shouting “HEY” at you from really far away. There are still moments, as on “I Forgot That You Existed,” where one cannot help but wonder who’s being sung about. Pure fiction has never been her thing.
But when she eases up on the self-mythologizing—as on the title track, which runs Ray LaMontagne’s “Hold You In My Arms” through the Mazzy Star machine—you remember why you loved her in the first place: she is one of the best songwriters of her generation. At the heart of Lover are a pair of her strongest, simplest songs in ages: “Paper Rings” is so purely joyful you nearly forget “Look What You Made Me Do,” and “Cornelia Street” makes me nostalgic for both young love and Pearl Oyster Bar. “Soon You’ll Get Better,” reportedly about her mother's battle with cancer, is a heartbreaker and a leg up for the Dixie Chicks. “False God” sounds like something off of Pure Moods (this is a compliment) and it might be about religion or it might be about oral sex, and since Prince is gone, somebody has to step up with one of those.
There is plenty for the haters to roll their eyes at, and since shade never made anybody less gay, I will point a few out. “It’s Nice To Have a Friend” is a sweet moment of childhood innocence, until the chorus evokes Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart” and you worry about who Taylor and her pal are going to murder Big Little Lies-style. “The Man” carries a strong message about male privilege and sounds more like Haim than the latest song by Haim.
But of course you cannot evaluate a Taylor Swift album without doing the work. Do the frequent references to the colour blue call back to the Red album? Why are so many people rolling dice? There are still wolves and snakes and devils, and you can be a real Samwell Tarly poring over texts in the Citadel about it if you want to. She’s certainly not going to stop you. But unlike on Reputation, the music here is euphoric enough to be enjoyed on its own terms. Leave the Rosetta Stone at home and enjoy it.