An album that only comes into her own when she is truly herself...

“This album is very much a celebration of love, in all its complexity, coziness and chaos,” explained Taylor Swift about ‘Lover’, her seventh album. For someone who generally doesn’t do interviews and whose Instagram account is laced with clues worthy of a Scooby Doo cartoon, this admission wasn’t exactly revealing, especially given most albums concern themselves with these topics anyway.

‘Lover’ was initially trailed by ‘ME!’ and ‘You Need To Calm Down’, both of which – in hindsight – were cheeky, but ultimately disposable, attention-grabbing pop nuggets in the vein of ‘Shake It Off’. ‘The Archer’ signalled something altogether different – earnest, heartfelt outpourings over reductionist electronics, all of which progressed toward an epic, but ultimately unresolved, distress.

The release of ‘The Archer’ signalled – mercifully – that ‘Lover’ wasn’t going to be 18 tracks of self- indulgent cheesiness and might find Taylor Swift doing what she does best: delivering songs that effortlessly meddle with your emotions; songs which leave you strangely altered; songs presented as personal outpourings but which allow you to somehow relate to their embedded universal themes of heartbreak, loss, anxiety, falling in and out of love, optimism, frustration, growing up, being let down and anxiety.

‘Lover’ is the third in a series of albums that started with ‘1989’ (2014) and continued with ‘Reputation’ (2017). These were records which saw Swift going through a major metamorphosis from her country roots, their sharpness and voguish electronic-laden presentation relying in no small part on the production nous of Jack Antonoff, whose Bleachers project has cornered the market in effortlessly epic, shouty songs. ‘Lover’ once again reunites the Swift-Antonoff writing and production team for some of the record’s finest moments.

One of those is ‘Cornelia Street’, a bittersweet, breathy song which feels like the response to the call of 1989’s ‘Welcome To New York’; here we find a jaded, tired Taylor mourning events in the same city that she sang with such wide-eyed wonder about before. This eulogy for a love affair gone painfully sour is worthy of a pivotal moment played out on the big screen, but if you’re feeling especially bleak you could see ‘Cornelia Street’ as a poignant allegory for how much more shit our worlds have all gotten since 2014.

That same tragic quality is writ large on ‘Cruel Summer’ (co- written with St. Vincent), a happy-sad song dominated by a restless uncertainty, and it appears again on the sensual, sax-inflected lamentations on ‘False God’ and the steel drum melodies and ‘Last Post’ finality of the wistful ‘It’s Nice To Have A Friend’.

We also find Swift retuning to the sound of her older, younger self. ‘Soon You’ll Get Better’ and the album’s title track find her reaching a sort of acceptance of her country past, nodding to the acoustic interludes that peppered the ‘Reputation’ tour dates. These are tracks that effectively act as an olive branch to her earlier self, while ‘Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince’ finds Swift back at high school, returning to the themes of teenage rejection and first loves that felt like they’d been lost for good as she embraced the strictures of the modern pop’s monoculture.

It isn’t all such plain sailing. ‘London Boy’ might ostensibly be a jocularly tender love letter to Swift’s London beau but its saccharine-sweet presentation of the sights and environs of our capital city sounds as risibly cringeworthy as Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent in Mary Poppins; the Christine and The Queens-esque ‘The Man’ is a brilliantly accurate depiction of needless sexual inequality and injustice by someone who’s already done more than most to level the playing field as a role model, but its confused delivery seems to unintentionally elevate the worst faults of the alpha-male celebrity.

Moments like these jar painfully when placed next to the best songs on ‘Lover’, and the casual name-checking, the giggling, the playing with the jaded vernacular of modern pop all feels a little careworn and predictable for 2019’s Taylor Swift. Ultimately, the album’s highlights are those songs where the voice and sentiment we hear is truly her own, the enthralling, stirring, emotion- manipulating voice that’s threaded its way through every album since her 2006 debut, not the voice that leans too close to what the pop music machine demands.

It’s surely a peculiar – and troubling – place to be when the biggest risk being taken on a Taylor Swift album is Taylor Swift simply being herself, not who she is (now) expected to be. 

7/10

Words: Mat Smith

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