Seven albums in, what was the world’s biggest music star supposed to do to surprise us? Perhaps the obvious choice would have been to push ahead with the bold, electro-pop direction of 2017’s Reputation, which reset everyone’s expectations. Lover shocked in a different way, however – maybe because that’s exactly what Taylor Swift hadn’t done (prior to Folklore of course). It’s like we jumped back into the sunnier world of 1989, an album that established her as a global icon in 2014.
Songs that speak to the millions
It would be easy to speculate that Taylor was in a happier place during her Lover era, the album was undoubtedly a celebratory album, dewy-eyed as much about those luscious pop melodies as the lyrical inspirations behind its 18 tracks. Take “London Boy”… now, who could that be about? But that simplistic view of Taylor’s motivations serves to deny her solid-gold professional sensibility, which steered her back to the sweet spot: songs that speak to the millions, with universal themes packaged into each sugar-rush three-minutes-or-so.
“Cornelia Street” is a case in point. You’ve probably never knowingly been to anywhere with that name, but it’s a geography we are all familiar with: a heartful of memories made so much richer when they are drenched – as here – in the atmosphere of a soaring synth ballad. Much of Lover draws inspiration from the 80s – not so much in throwback pastiche; rather the sensibility that bigger is likely to be better, and there’s rarely a good reason to spare just one more musical hook. Promotional single “The Archer” and album track “Daylight” offers a lighter touch, but “False God” is beefed up by the drama of deeper production wizardry, and is all the stronger for it. Elsewhere, “Afterglow” is an epic stadium anthem that showcases some of Taylor’s best vocals to date. That it’s buried away towards the end of the album (alongside its first two singles, “ME!” and “You Need To Calm Down”) speaks volumes about the quality of material on offer here.
Joining Dixie Chicks on the delicate country ballad “Soon You’ll Get Better” demonstrates just how far Taylor has come from her musical roots; the genre-straddling formula she has perfected seems effortless now. At the other end of the spectrum, the jittery electro-pop classic-in-the-making “The Man” somehow seems to be Taylor’s more natural zone today. Sure, the likes of Robyn and Carly Rae Jepsen might have mastered that style too, but it’s Taylor that’s talking to the masses.
So, what did Lover tell us about Taylor Swift in 2019? It’s obvious she hadn’t lost any of her independent spirit. On “You Need To Calm Down” she captured the frustration we all feel about the tone of debate on a celebrated radio smash, while “ME!” (featuring Brendon Urie from Panic! At The Disco) plays to the campy caricature that Taylor cleverly channels to build the immense video projects that are now so central to her repertoire. But can we really read anything directly into lyric like “ME!?” Well, we’re certain there’s a knowing nod to everything Taylor puts out. Her charismatic authenticity would suggest there are kernels of fact in the fiction for fans to pick over.
So far ahead of the pack
Drenched in velvet-rich production, the steering hand of producer Jack Antonoff, with input from Frank Dukes and the genius that is Joel Little, means that Lover’s generous running time never drags. The opening salvo of the punchy pop pushback “I Forgot That You Existed” and the dreamy stutterer “Cruel Summer” (not a cover of the Bananarama classic – though that would have been interesting) means the bar is set super-high from the start. The album’s title track channels the looping groove you might find on a Lana Del Ray record; “Paper Rings” sounds like a lost Blondie gem revived by a magic dusting of accessible country-pop.
As one of the biggest pop albums of 2019, Lover. Taylor was so far ahead of the pack; there is an abundant confidence in her songwriting and a certainty about where her sensibilities are best served. Slap on the factor 50 – Lover remains a dazzling success.