Music

Taylor Swift’s Lover Is a More Mature (Mostly) Successor to Red

The new album finds her escaping the celebrity drama and returning to what she does best.

Taylor Swift at ANZ Stadium in Sydney on Nov. 2.
Taylor Swift at ANZ Stadium in Sydney on Nov. 2.
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Taylor Swift’s last few albums have all ended with songs that served as moody codas. But “Daylight” on Friday’s new release, Lover, takes that pattern further and closes out with a summing up, even a moral, to the whole shebang: “I once believed that love would be burning red/ But it’s golden, like daylight … You’ve gotta step into the daylight and let it go.” It’s a typically Swift-y self-conscious reference back to her 2012 album Red, and beyond that to her prefatory note to that album, in which she wrote: “Real love shines golden like starlight, and doesn’t fade or spontaneously combust. Maybe I’ll write a whole album about that kind of love if I ever find it.”

Lover, we are meant to understand, is that album, inspired by her now three-year-long love story with the flaxen-haired and forgettably faced British actor Joe Alwyn (he played Emma Stone’s amusingly sexually thwarted nobleman spouse in The Favourite). Where Red was a tasting menu of all the many flavors of erotic failure and heartbreak, Lover is primarily an encomium to romantic success, along with all the hardships of sustaining it. And while at 18 songs—her longest track list to date—it risks feeling like going for drinks with a friend who rambles on about her relationship without ever asking how you might be, most of the hour passes extremely enjoyably. It finds Swift in one of her most captivating modes, with emotions and observations torrentially rushing out of her over music—mostly co-written and/or co-produced by late-2010s smart-pop studio standby Jack Antonoff—that has the same kind of ever-ascending dynamism.

It’s arrived earlier than usual on the Swift album-cycle calendar, seemingly to dispel the miasma that lingered around her 2017 album Reputation—which, for all its many virtues, will forever be entangled with Swift’s long-running Clash of the Drama Queens with Kanye West. Reputation led with its songs about that situation and became the first Swift album not to outdo the one before it in sales and acclaim, although it still achieved success most artists couldn’t dream of.

Casting back to Red as the true prequel to Lover is smart on that level, but it also feels accurate: After one album (1989) primarily about the thrill of coming into self-possessed young adulthood, and another (Reputation) about the painful complications that often follow, Lover finds Swift re-embracing her core romanticism from a more mature, stable perspective. Or at least struggling with herself to get there.

First, unfortunately, she can’t resist one more dig at West (though some fans think the target is Calvin Harris or someone else from her personal rogues’ gallery). So Lover opens with another of Swift’s attempts at sarcastic one-upmanship in the form of “I Forgot That You Existed,” a song whose existence disproves its central claim. Thankfully, it is miles more good-humored and liberated sounding than its predecessors. She jokes, for instance, that during the feud she was “in my feelings more than Drake”—but it’s hard not to sigh as soon as she dips another cup into that poisoned well.

By contrast, a few songs later with “The Man,” she widens the lens and makes a more convincing case for her grievances than on any beefing track she’s ever written. Produced by former Lorde collaborator Joel Little, in a synth-strut mode very reminiscent of Swift’s friends in Los Angeles sister trio Haim, it takes aim at sexist music industry and media double standards and just keeps firing bull’s-eyes. If she were a man who’d conducted himself exactly the same way, she sings, “I’d be a fearless leader, I’d be an ‘alpha type’/ When everyone believes you—what’s that like?” While actor and musician dudes can boast about their riches and their “bitches,” she argues, the slightest show of overconfidence gets her called a bitch (by West, notoriously, among others). “If I was a man, I’d be the man,” she sings, and it’s impossible to deny her that.

From there, she’s done with the subject except on the song “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” where her own sense of mistreatment (“they whisper in the hallways, ‘she’s a bad, bad girl’ ”) is muddled up—albeit tunefully—with images of social erosion under Trump (“American stories burning before me/ I’m feeling helpless, the damsels are depressed”), all through a metaphor of goings-on in high-school hallways that reverts too much to 17-year-old Taylor for my liking.

“I never grew up/ It’s getting so old,” she sings on one of the album’s most thoughtful and self-interrogating tracks, “The Archer.” While there are plenty of songs both here and on Reputation that demonstrate otherwise, I do find myself increasingly impatient with the ones that find Swift falling back into girlishness, either winsome (first single “Me!”, about which I’ve already kvetched at length) or petulant (“Existed,” and to some extent second single “You Need to Calm Down,” a gay-rights-and-other-stuff anthem that I’m lukewarmly fine with), given that she’s turning 30 this year. It’s a trap set for child and teen stars who spend so much time performing the personae audiences are attached to that they don’t know how to locate their adult selves.

On Reputation, Swift often seemed clenched in the jaws of that dilemma. On Lover, at its best, we get to hear her carefully extricating herself for the sake of both love and her own sanity: “All of my heroes die all alone—help me hold onto you,” she sings, again on “Archer,” through a fog of synths that coil around her, uncertain if they will resolve into devils or angels.

Swift similarly wrestles with the romantic hazards of her capacity for sabotage on second track “Cruel Summer”—the Swift-Antonoff song co-written with, of all people, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) with which, to my mind, the album really begins—as well as “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” “False God” (where Swift plays call-and-response with subtly sensual sax licks from Evan Smith), and “Afterglow.” On all of them, Swift draws the listener as only she can into close-up lyrical movies of garden gates, vending machines, lovers’ spats, tearful phone calls, temporary splits, and erotic reconciliations. In most of them, she’s striving not to play the victim but to learn to make real apologies, to say “sorry” without the “but … .”

The finest of these is “Cornelia Street,” a portrait of her and Alwyn’s early amorous idylls in a rented carriage house in Greenwich Village (which she makes sound far more quaint than the five-bedroom cavalcade of swank it really is): “Windows swung right open, autumn air/ Jacket ’round my shoulders is yours,” she sings, and then, with a wink to Toto, “We bless the rains on Cornelia Street/ Memorize the creaks in the floor.” But the singer gets suspicious of her lover’s true intentions and runs out on the love nest without saying goodbye, barreling toward the Lincoln Tunnel till her beau calls and lures her back. Classic rom-com stuff, but Swift confesses that years later, she’s still frightened she might misstep again and lose him, “the kind of heartbreak time won’t mend/ I’d never walk Cornelia Street again.” Antonoff evokes those mixed emotions with fluttering synths, but sustained acoustic-piano chords ground the sound the same way Swift uses the repeated street name to anchor the lyric in the real world.

Place names are much less this listener’s friend when it comes to “London Boy,” which is nearly as cloying as “Me!” Here, in tribute to her U.K. hunk, Swift anglo-fetishistically drops every London borough name and Britishism she can muster in three minutes and 10 seconds. This global celebrity who’s gone on multiple world tours somehow makes herself sound like she’s just gotten a passport and fallen for the first guy she met who had an accent. If you’re Joe Alwyn, most of this album should be pretty gratifying, but “London Boy” is a red flag as big as a double-decker bus. Somebody call a bobby.

Thankfully, most of the other celebrations of besottedness here require no such cringing. The finger-snappy “I Think He Knows” is bouncy pop-R&B standing on the verge of getting it on. The hand-clappy “Paper Rings” (“I love shiny things, but I’d marry you with … ”) has shout-along Go-Go’s verve. And “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” uses plucked strings, steel drums, and a sample by producer Frank Dukes of a student choir from the Regent Park School of Music in Toronto (a nonprofit youth program) to create a delicately novel setting for an intimate triptych—in which Swift sketches first elementary-school bonding, then rooftop romantic overtures, then a wedding scene and staying “in bed the whole weekend,” so that the title phrase becomes a bit more coy with each refrain, finally even a little playfully dirty.

My favorite of the straight-up love songs is the straightest-up of them, title track “Lover,” which came out as a single last week and was matched with a deliriously swoony video on Thursday afternoon. The acoustic-guitar-and-percussion waltz (eventually joined by piano and mellotron-simulated strings) is Swift’s least try-hard moment on this album, and maybe on the past few. That musical self-assuredness is part of what makes the song’s romance so comforting and convincing. Who else but Swift could take the label “lover,” usually the domain of the worst sort of polyamory enthusiast, and restore it as a treasured honorific? Only the same kind of songwriter who hilariously thinks it’s daringly unconventional of her and her boyfriend to “leave the Christmas lights up till January.”

And yet I am won over by practically every cornball line, each one peculiarly and perfectly Taylorized to be, in her words, “overdramatic and true.” The lines at the end of the bridge—“And you’ll save all your dirtiest jokes for me/ And at every table, I’ll save you a seat”—are so modestly evocative of the sweetness of long-term, everyday love that my eyes well up every time.

And finally, in a category of its own, there is “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a song that required a family meeting before it was given a place on the album because it is about Swift’s mother Andrea’s recent cancer relapse, for which she’s still in treatment. As Swift has said in interviews, it’s a situation that makes many of the album’s other concerns seem trivial. Accompanied unobtrusively by the banjo, fiddle, and harmonies of the Dixie Chicks, Swift sings of praying to the “holy orange bottles” (of her mom’s medication) as well as, in desperation, to a Jesus she doesn’t really believe in. She admits her own denial, compared to her mother’s coping skills: “I know delusion when I see it in the mirror/ You like the nicer nurses, you make the best of a bad deal.” This frank lyrical realism (balanced against a gently yearning, sighing chorus) is the bequest of Swift’s Nashville country pedigree, the best possible cultural equipment to handle this material, though it doesn’t make it any less crushing, especially when you’ve been through similar ordeals.

Swift albums tend to sound better with time—Reputation’s reputation, for instance, began to rise after it was out for a year or so. But even on a first night of listening, Lover shows more strengths than lapses. She’s ensured the efforts of Antonoff, Little, Dukes, and the other producers all cohere, with none of the ungainly stretches for on-trend sounds that Reputation was prone to. Swift’s vocals are also in peak form throughout, with varied timbres and layers of harmony and spontaneous sounding interjections that constantly catch me by surprise.

Still, I feel some dissatisfaction that all of Swift’s moves toward a more mature songwriting style on both recent albums are partly neutralized by her retreats. The distraction and turmoil of her public battles have helped to stall her, and perhaps she’s also too concerned with what her biggest fans—who’ve seen her through all that—want from her. Not that I know specifically what I’m seeking, either, though “The Archer” strikes me as the nearest evocation. To take up her own suggested comparison, next to Red, Lover is more emotionally advanced and compositionally sophisticated, but is it that album’s artistic superior, or even equal? Not clearly. That will take some other kind of breakthrough, and I can hardly imagine how amazing it will be when a thirtysomething Taylor Swift discovers it.

Lover cover
Republic

Lover

The new album from Taylor Swift