Taylor Swift does not do anything quietly, not that the world would let her even if she wanted to. Her existence is one where new eras are rolled out like political campaigns, and where an actual political endorsement is a seismic event. Swift often bemoans the attention, but she feeds off it, too. Her music is entangled in the myths of its creation, inextricable from the clues she leaves behind in videos, Instagram posts, and essays, which encourage the internet to devote its resources to uncovering her secrets.
No album of Swift’s has been more driven by this love/hate relationship with the outside world than Reputation, her last. Its songs were fully enmeshed in the struggle to control her public image, an acknowledgement that the machine had grown larger than the person it exists to serve. Swift leaned into villainy, writing thunderous songs like “I Did Something Bad” and “Don’t Blame Me” on which she relished being in the position to manipulate and control the men entering into her life. (On the latter, she described “older guys” as “just play things for me to use.”) This heel turn could have been a disaster. Swift, broadly speaking, is usually the victim in her songs, sifting through the rubble of crumbled relationships to uncover and display how she was wronged. But aside from the ridiculous “Look What You Made Me Do,” the Swift of Reputation was one who seemed to achieve an elusive freedom in assuming the role—evil snake—that the public had carved out for her.
Still, Reputation was best in its most hushed moments, when Swift exited the thunderdome of public opinion and described what it’s like to move in the shadows. On “Delicate,” she sings of tucking into the corner of a Lower East Side dive bar to meet a boy. “My reputation’s never been worse,” she reasons, “so you must like me for me.” The song itself is as breathy as a whisper, placing the listener in a space where no conversation can risk being overheard. There was also the vacuum-sealed bedroom ballad “Dress,” a deep exhale about being able to do something secret in private, and the closer “New Year’s Day,” a gentle near-demo about the bond shared between two people who will go to sleep together after the house party clears out. Swift surprisingly thrived as the bad guy, but it was still the album’s most tender moments that felt like the truest expressions of her songwriting.
Being the villain is a hard and lonely life, especially when it’s one you haven’t sought out for yourself—just ask LeBron James. So it’s probably not a surprise that Lover, Swift’s seventh album, leaves all that behind for something that is altogether sunnier and far less tense. Swift telegraphed this move openly with the video for lead single “ME!,” which opens with a snake exploding into a flock of butterflies before ushering the viewer into a pastel fairyland where people dance in the streets underneath rainbows. Nonetheless, like its predecessor, Lover shines when the bombast is stripped away and the songs are humble and discreet, even muffled.
Though Swift clearly intended to lead with a winning positivity—in a recent interview with The Guardian, she speaks at length about the toll that being seen as evil took on her mental health—Lover is still tethered to Taylor Swift, the public figure, and it isn’t necessarily the better for it. The album opens with the fizzy “I Forgot That You Existed,” where she sings, “I forgot that you existed / It isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference.” You can hazard a guess at which famous man she’s singing about, but the song oversells its position, as Swift giggles with the exaggeration of someone trying to convince you that their smile means they aren’t crazy. Even worse is “You Need to Calm Down,” a vague diss of homophobes and sexists that sags under the weight of ill-fitting lyrics about shade and the right way to litigate a feud in the age of social media. The same can be said of “The Man,” where Swift wonders how her life would be different if she wasn’t a woman; alas, the lyric “If I was a man, then I’d be the man” doesn’t really offer much insight.
Coincidentally or not, the songs where Swift addresses her public image are also the ones that find her in an uneasy negotiation with pop music. Since deciding to become a pop artist instead of a pop-country artist, Swift has been an omnipresent and dominant artistic force; still, she has never found a sound to call her own, singing instead over beats that are, at best, basic and functional. Her songs have stood at an odd distance from pop music, not so far away as to be their own thing entirely, but not close enough to be in conversation with those of her peers, either. Reputation, which leaned heavily on Max Martin and his partner Shellback, felt frozen in amber, as if Swift’s idea of pop music had remained unchanged from when she first started making it in earnest in 2012.
On Lover, you can detect a desire to change that—to reenter the world backed by its soundtrack. Martin and Shellback, for what it’s worth, are gone, replaced by Lorde producer Joel Little and the duo of Frank Dukes and Louis Bell, who have been behind recent hits by Post Malone (“Wow.”) and Camila Cabello (“Havana”). (The one carryover is Jack Antonoff, a frequent collaborator.) But their contributions don’t bring Swift any closer to leaving her fingerprints on the contours of pop music, instead providing her with production that exists only as a backdrop, like a stage designed to not draw too much attention away from the actors. On these aforementioned tracks, the productions feel interchangeable and disposable, the songs forgettable.
One exception among the songs helmed by Dukes and Bell is the muted “It’s Nice To Have a Friend,” with its lightly glimmering steel drums. Swift, singing a lullaby about schoolyard romance, is woven into the fabric of the production, which itself contains more nuanced emotion than a lot of the album, at once funereal and uplifting. It’s here, in the album’s most inward moments, where Lover stands out from the rest of her discography. On “False God,” hiccuping vocal samples and a lonesome saxophone perfectly accent a song about how a belief in love can overcome the barriers erected by a long distance relationship. “Soon You’ll Get Better,” the song featuring the Dixie Chicks about Swift’s mother’s health, is so intimate that it conjures the image of the song being performed at the foot of a bed.
Those latter two songs were created along with Jack Antonoff, who, with Swift as co-producer (as she is on all tracks), handles half of the album. Swift and Antonoff have had a fruitful working relationship dating back to 1989, and here he cements himself as Swift’s best current collaborator. Their “Paper Rings” shocks the album into place, its power-pop arrangement giving Swift’s sneer the stomping support it deserves; it’s followed shortly by “Death By a Thousand Cuts,” where Swift’s vocals play tag with a slippery guitar line, resulting in one of the album’s most purely pleasurable moments. Like Lover’s worst songs, “I Think He Knows” is spare and snappy, but it has textures that feel new to her discography, with the chorus isolating Swift’s upper register and letting it scrape against bass and guitars that have the spikiness of post-punk.
The album’s most stunning song is also an Antonoff collaboration. “The Archer” opens with Swift stating that she’s “ready for combat,” but she isn’t talking about Kanye West, Katy Perry, gossip rags, or the general public. She is instead talking about romance, the thing she has written about better than any of her peers in the world of contemporary music. When Swift’s songs are at their most powerful, she pulls apart the threads that bind two people together with an uncommon clarity, and rarely has she been more bracing than she is here. “I’ve been the archer, I’ve been the prey,” she sings, synths lingering like a fog. “Screaming, who could ever leave me darling, but who could stay?” In the background a solitary kick drum thumps steadily, just Swift alone with the beat of her own heart.