Taylor Swift describes Lover, her first album for a Universal Records imprint, as “a new beginning”. But it is really an endpoint, the destination towards which her previous six albums have been heading like the arrows that feature in several of its songs’ lyrics.
These metaphoric barbs belong to Cupid. He has been a busy archer in the 29-year-old’s prior work, as liable to deliver a glancing blow (“I Almost Do”) as hit the wrong target entirely (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). In Lover, however, Cupid’s arrows are reduced to a single bolt. Its bullseye is “the one” of romantic legend — the final guy of all the guys that the girls in Swift’s songs have tried to get.
In real life, he has a name: the British actor Joe Alwyn, with whom Swift is romantically involved. But although we are encouraged to view the album autobiographically — the deluxe CD editions are packaged with extracts from her diaries — Swift’s personal life provides a thin guide to its songs. It is as a work of imagination that Lover proves most satisfying, a carefully plotted and excellently performed distillation of the qualities that have made Swift one of her generation’s definitive pop stars.
“I Forgot That You Existed” feints at picking up where 2017’s vengeful Reputation left off, dismissing a nameless male nemesis. Candidates include old foe Kanye West and current enemy Scooter Braun, owner of the copyright to Swift’s old songs through his purchase of the record label she was formerly signed to. But the song is more notable for how it manages its mood than who it might be directed against. Astringent words are framed by colourfully jaunty music; the hurt is remembered in order to be cancelled out.
“Cruel Summer” switches to graceful electronic pop. The topic is a past romance summoned through a series of vividly recalled moments, sung by Swift with a bittersweet ache in her voice. This mode recurs on other songs (“The Archer”, “Cornelia Street”, “Afterglow”), which are interspersed by more brightly hued numbers (“I Think He Knows”, “Paper Rings”, “Me!”). The two styles combine well. Described by its maker as a “love letter to love itself”, Lover is structured along the principle that opposites attract.
Current chart trends are ignored. Instead, the musical terrain that Lover occupies is Swift’s own space, which has grown capacious after 13 years of recording. “Soon You’ll Get Better” looks back at her Nashville past, with The Dixie Chicks on backing vocals. “You Need to Calm Down” borrows a melody from MIA’s “Paper Planes”. “London Boy” is charmingly silly bubblegum pop in which Swift reveals that she is sufficiently smitten by her British boyfriend to watch rugby matches in the pub with him and his university friends.
Such moments verge on kitsch, but they are salvaged by Swift’s sense of playfulness. Her sing-song vocals have an attention-holding conversational cadence, with pauses for comic effect and bursts of laughter. Her attentiveness to words is acute. “Soon you’ll get better/Get better soon,” she sings in the chorus to “Soon You’ll Get Better”, addressing a gravely ill person: the circularity of the sentiment expresses the wish to mend something that is broken. “I hate accidents/Except when we went from friends to this,” she tells her lover in “Paper Rings”: the step outside the rhyme scheme is not accidental.
Themes and images recur throughout the songs. The “arrowhead” of nocturnal city street lights that she sees stretching before her in “Cornelia Street” seems to have metaphorically flown over from nearby track “The Archer”, in which Swift dedicates herself to a new life of romantic stability. It has an interestingly elegiac tone, as though she were loosing the last arrow from the quiver. On Lover, her aim proves true.
‘Lover’ is released by Republic
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