One of Taylor Swift’s very best songs is “Delicate,” a meditation that swirls lust with apprehension, stains anticipation with doubt. Under the night lights of a thumping metropolis, she nurses a surfacing realization that a new relationship is not about to end well. 2012’s Red standout “Treacherous” held a similar sentiment: She decides to dive in with a lover while acknowledging she must be wary. But five years later, on Reputation, maybe she’s the problem. “This ain’t for the best,” Swift concedes to them, to herself, and to us. “My reputation’s never been worse.”
Even casual fans of this generation’s greatest pop songwriter should note the shift; Swift’s monstrously successful records have increasingly declarative fusions of identity and artistry. Crushing ballads like “Dear John” and “Back to December” outline her history with very public breakups; anthems like “Blank Space” and “Look What You Made Me Do” are her wide-mouthed responses to collective public taunts, the assertions that Swift dates too much, says too much, says too little, is far too calculated to be genuine. With her 13-year evolution from crimp-haired, guitar-strumming prodigy to utter global phenomenon, the tendons that tie Swift to the masses have strained and twisted. In July of 2016, they nearly snapped completely: Kim Kardashian West leaked a phone recording in which Swift allegedly approved of controversial lyrics on notable frenemy Kanye West’s song “Famous,” which inspired a weeks-long viral shaming.
Victory against Swift was claimed in the name of her most earnest qualities mutated by detractors into despicable tropes. Ever malleable, she built Reputation, a master class on love in the face of spite, which bore “Delicate.” She killed every previous version of herself. And for two years, she mostly went quiet. But the question was never if Swift would ever return: With her life and music now inextricably linked, the wonder was, rather, what she would say when she did.
Taylor Swift’s seventh album, Lover, is a devoted effort to reckon with her current womanhood, as well as her own genius. If 1989 is Swift’s pop magnum opus, a high-pitched trumpeting into a newfound universe of freedom and independence, and Reputation reflects the scorn felt when the reality of the world’s cruelty drives her to distress, then Lover marks a trilogy complete. It is a pastel-hued compromise between the good and the bad — not in spite of who she’s been, but because of who she’s been. As a body of work (and, notably, as the first album that she owns), it’s a dazzling, bursting compendium of pompous hope, modest love, and sobering grief, as well as a journey to make peace with the past.
The crux of Lover is the miserably somber “The Archer,” which wades into the grief lingering in those three years of quiet, steadily building with self-inflicted punches to the gut. “I cut off my nose just to spite my face / Then I hate my reflection for years and years,” she explains over echoing synth, revisiting her pain and laying bare the moments in which she has played both victim and attacker (“I say I don’t want [combat], but what if I do?”). While the song crescendos with echoing repetitions of self-deprecation (“They see right through me / I see right through me”), Swift has reached her point of no return. “Who could ever leave me, darling?” she screams. “But who could stay?”
The emotional pendulum of Lover sways powerfully from there. Swift is gleefully in love on the kitschy “Paper Rings” and “Cruel Summer,” then enjoys a quirky lust on “I Think He Knows.” She confidently commands her critics on “You Need to Calm Down.” And she is utterly broken on “Soon You’ll Get Better,” desperate to find faith and salvation in dealing with her mother’s cancer. Where previous Swift tributes to sassy glee or bitter misery come with a deliberate finger-wag to the latest negative sentiment towards her (a notion that the bulk of Reputation was built on), that’s largely absent on Lover (the exception is “The Man,” an open call-out of the patriarchy). Having gone through the worst, professionally and personally, what does she have left to prove?
But Lover’s strongest moments sit in the middle of that pendulum’s swings — Swift’s reflections on love feel more mature than ever, making them all the more stunning. The album’s title track is a modest promise to follow each other forever, jealousy and scars and dirty jokes and all, offering to recklessly leave their home’s Christmas lights up until January. In “Death By a Thousand Cuts,” she laments the end of a relationship; while she’s wounded, drinking to quell the pain, it’s also a subtle celebration for what was, a tacit confession that she’ll be OK. “I look through the windows of this love,” she admits, “even though we’ve boarded them up.”
On “Cornelia Street” — named for the Manhattan road where Swift once rented an apartment — she waxes poetic on a mystifying boy, fully in love. If he were to ever leave, she vows to never walk the block again, stating that his absence would bring about “the kind of heartbreak time could never mend.” The song’s stuttering synths sound a bit too somber for a love song, Swift’s delivery filled with more down notes than upbeat declarations. The song’s magic is its truth: Swift rented that house in 2016 and 2017. She doesn’t live on Cornelia Street anymore.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Swift admits that the one thing she regrets in her career up to this point is not allowing herself to proclaim her own genius. “I’ve... tried very hard — and this is one thing I regret — to convince people that I wasn’t the one holding the puppet strings of my marketing existence, or the fact that I sit in a conference room several times a week and come up with these ideas.”
Much of Lover can be seen through the prism of three different relationships: Swift and love, Swift and fame, Swift and her audience. For fans, Lover is an undeniable reminder that, despite a seemingly never-ending cycle of broadcast drama, we are watching one of the biggest talents of our time eclipse her own greatness. For a woman brilliantly chronicling her life through song, Swift has realized that speaking your own truth, or trying to control your own narrative, won’t necessarily quash what others choose to believe of you. There’s a hard road to the freedom that exists in surrendering to the best and worst this world has to offer, a path that Lover’s 18 songs traverse with a peaceful grace.
That’s never to say Swift, 30-year-old pop phenomenon and strategic mastermind of her own career, would shrink into demure humility. On the mid-tempo “False God,” Taylor yet again dotes on a complicated, lust-filled relationship moments from falling apart. Her smirking confession to the love trying to evade her presence? “I’m New York City,” she boasts. “I still do it for you, baby.”
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