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Released on Big Machine Records in 2006, Taylor Swift’s eponymous debut album was possessed of the kind of crossover finesse that country pop heroines Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Lee Ann Rimes pioneered in the preceding decade. Swift would prove herself to be their heir apparent (and then some) in the ten years to come after Taylor Swift arrived. Taking her leave of the warm, doe-eyed country that characterized her first three LPs, Swift embraced a clever mainstream aesthetic of her own making initially with her fourth and fifth records, Red (2012) and 1989 (2014). 1989, styled in fashionable, if purposeful synth-pop and anchored by her sharp scripting, was to become one of the definitive albums of the 2010s.
The dizzying rise of Swift’s star made her an easy target to knock down and as public sentiment toward her grew toxic in the slipstream of 1989’s success, it inspired Swift to push forward with her most ambitious collection to date with Reputation (2017). Musically steeped in caustic electro-R&B, hip-hop rhythms and moody electronic textures, the long player was thematically inset with Swift’s ruminations on identity, social anomie and the darker aspects of amorous attraction. It was a brilliant about-face from 1989 that further secured her creative agency. And yet, some Swift devotees and cynical press pundits sneered that the singer-songwriter had supposedly gone astray from the feel-good vibes of her output antecedent to Reputation to curry critical favor.
Enter Lover, her seventh album and first parted from Big Machine Records (Republic Records now represents the superstar), which is as much of an event as anything she’s done since Red. The three singles spun off from the recently certified platinum effort—“ME!,” “You Need to Calm Down,” and “Lover”—are all luxe, straight-ahead pop. For the jaundiced listener, this might point to Swift recoiling from the overt experimentation that was seminal to Reputation’s appeal. Of course, like any of Swift’s long players, there’s more to Lover than one will glean from just a cursory encounter with it.
While there are new faces among the cast and crew for Lover—the Dixie Chicks and Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie feature as guests on “Soon You’ll Get Better” and “ME!” respectively—much of the writing-production of the LP is owed to Swift and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff. Having worked with Swift on 1989 and Reputation, Antonoff is aware of how to frame Swift’s sugary vocal tone across the sprawling 18 tracks of the album.
The superb high gloss and pastel sonics of Lover—as best heard on the twinkling electro-pop of “Cruel Summer” or the marching band stomp of “ME!”—are lighter in tone than the music Swift utilized on Reputation and go down easier; but their aural complexities do reveal themselves with return listens. Additional hat tips to the pop-soul (“False God”) and acoustic country (“Lover”) soundscapes Swift has traversed before Lover see her looking back affectionately into her own canonical rearview.
Loosening the conceptual reins that she held tightly to on Reputation, Lover is a relaxed album where Swift (primarily) continues to expound on her “red lip classic” leitmotif of romance. She flawlessly captures the spectrum of this emotion from its first flickers (“I Think He Knows”) to the eventual difficulties that follow in a long-term relationship (“Cornelia Street”). Only “I Forgot You Existed,” “The Man,” “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” “Soon You’ll Get Better,” and “You Need to Calm Down” deviate from her love song blueprint. On this quintet she investigates the mores of friendship, gender politics, American social myths, familial bonds and social justice respectively. Whether or not Swift hits these marks will be determined by the expectation of the individual partaking in them.
However, one cannot fault Swift for trying to grow as a writer nor can anyone contest her earnestness, humor and heart showcased on these and every other piece present on Lover. By its conclusion, Lover will leave audiences with the understanding that this project is far from a retreat into established comforts, rather Swift is taking stock of her legacy, so far. Lover celebrates one of today’s most prominent pop figures in all of her glory and signals that there are even greater things to come from her in the future.
Notable Tracks: "Cruel Summer" | “The Man” | "ME!" | “Paper Rings”