Lover is a cornucopia worth combing through to find some of Swift’s best, some of her worst and a lot of her most interesting songs.
Deep in her pop phase, Taylor Swift sprawls out and lets us know what she’s capable of on her seventh album Lover. Most will prefer the tightness of 2014’s 1989, which first united her with ‘80s-indebted superproducer Jack Antonoff and announced a complete severance from her country roots. But Lover is definitive, a cornucopia worth combing through to find some of her best, some of her worst and a lot of her most interesting songs.
Because “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” isn’t a fake Pixar theme and “False God” doesn’t actually turn into free jazz, I wouldn’t go so far as to call Lover Taylor’s White Album. But there’s a reason for the sprawl. There’s just so much weird shit buried in here. It’s mischievous to place a Dixie Chicks collab, which is every bit as maudlin and heartbreaking as you’d hope it would be, directly after the deeply kinky “London Boy.” You have to take things like the gay-pandering “You Need to Calm Down” and the moldy DJ Mustard rip “I Forgot That You Existed” along with the near-undeniable gems like St. Vincent collab “Cruel Summer” and pop-punk “Paper Rings.” The shitty tracks are more challenges than deal breakers, and Lover yields riches rather than doldrums. Even after a few listens you might forget what comes next and be pleasantly surprised.
Swift’s songwriting hasn’t always squared well with her decision to move firmly into pop, but she manages fireworks here. Lines like “I hate accidents except when we went from friends to this” make us smile because we’re hearing classic Swift. Ditto details like “we could let our friends crash in the living room” on the title track’s inflamed matrimony fantasy. Or the alarmingly Prince-like lyric “I’ve loved you for three summers now.” She must release underwritten pabulum like “Me!” to make us expect a horror show from her next album until we remember she’s still a great songwriter. We like her when the album’s out, less so when we’re waiting for it.
Swift’s kinship with Jack Antonoff remains strong, in part because he’s the only thing standing between her and inane finger-snap bullshit like “I Think He Knows.” She flows naturally and easily over his liquid-smooth beats, which aren’t far from the kind of thing Dev Hynes made for Solange and Sky Ferreira. “Death from a Thousand Cuts” is pleasingly baroque in an “A Thousand Miles” sort of way, and “Cruel Summer” surrounds her with a small army of vocoders. But Lover doesn’t sound vintage because it channels the ‘80s; it sounds vintage because it channels the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, when Katy Perry and Lady Gaga were making bona-fide disco and pop was less interested in being futuristic than being good.
Between Lover, Katy Perry’s “Never Really Over” and the recent work of Kim Petras, conservative pop has been looking awfully cool lately. Maybe it’s because futurism and optimism are rarely concurrent and any pop that flirts with the language of memes is flirting with fatalism. Sincerity is a scarce commodity in 2019, and there’s something healing about the album’s self-containment, its lack of baggage, its disinterest in acting as an arm of Swift’s public persona. Fans and detractors alike have long accused Swift of running a Machiavellian scheme, as if that’s not the entire pop industry. If Lover is pulling a trick, it’s convincing us we need Taylor Swift around.