August 23, Lover by Taylor Swift
Total Number of Tracks: 18
Songs you might know:
– “The Archer”
– “You Need to Calm Down”
– “ME!” (ft. Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco)
My prior relationship with the album: I listened to all four songs that were released prior to the album’s release (the four listed above), and liked about 1.5 of them. “ME!” left me underwhelmed, but I also know that it’s Taylor’s pattern to make her lead single one of the weakest songs of the album, so I was still willing to give the rest of the album a chance. “You Need to Calm Down” came out, and while I didn’t hate the song itself, I hated the marketing push behind it. “The Archer” was my favorite of the pre-released tracks, and felt like the only one that revealed an interesting side of Taylor we hadn’t seen before, while the title track was neither irritating enough to be hated, nor impressive enough to be loved.
I had seen some of the buzz and heard a friend’s mostly positive opinion on the album before listening to it, so I at least went in with more optimism than I ever had for reputation. A couple things still left me a bit skeptical. I was worried knowing that Lover would have 18 songs, since Taylor albums consistently include songs that are straight up bad, or songs that are overly generic and forgettable. I also had concerns about the overall tone of the album.
If you read my earlier reviews of Red and 1989, you know I said that “Stay Stay Stay” is one of my least favorite songs of the former and “Shake It Off” is one of my least favorite songs of the latter. Both happen to be uptempo, happy songs. Both also fall appallingly short of the high standard Taylor can achieve when she goes for a sad, vulnerable mood (“All Too Well”) or even a more angry mood (“Should’ve Said No”). So the idea of a Taylor album that was supposed to center around happier, lighter music kind of had me worried.
My impression this time around: Lover struggles with an all-too-common Swiftism, and is perhaps the most obvious example of it: this album is cluttered. Now, the fact that this is 18 songs isn’t as bad a problem as I initially thought it would be. There’s enough variety that I can listen to the whole thing without getting bored, and even most of the songs that I think are holding the album back still have some redeeming qualities. My least favorite songs from Lover are still preferable to my least favorite songs from reputation or 1989, so that’s nice.
But what makes Lover so hard to really LOVE is that I can’t stop imagining the album it could’ve been. Taylor could have put out a version of Lover that was 10-12 songs long where every track was fire, and it was all tied together by a cohesive narrative. It would’ve been an interesting, profound love story that both celebrated a happy, healthy relationship while balancing that with the gritty realism of how hard Taylor has had to fight for that relationship. There would’ve still been plenty of dynamic contrast, from the euphoric “Paper Rings” to the ethereal calmness of “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” and yet it wouldn’t feel disjointed or jumbled. That version would have eclipsed any of Taylor’s prior albums, and been a true masterpiece for the ages. Taylor simply chose not to put that album out.
This manifests in a lot of different ways. With “False God,” we have a song that is inoffensive and tolerable, but I can’t help but think most people wouldn’t miss it if it was gone. With “I Think He Knows,” we get a cheap, shallow pop song about wanting to fuck your partner. That’s not always a bad thing and this certainly isn’t the worst version of it Taylor has ever done (that honor still goes to “Dress”) but it also doesn’t really play into any of Taylor’s strengths. It feels like something Taylor did just to prove she could make the same shit everyone else is making rather than something that was truly special, and unique to her. If I want a cheap, shallow sex song, there’s many artists who have done much better iterations of it than “I Think He Knows.”
Then there are the songs that aren’t 100% BAD, but also kind of feel like relics of prior Taylor albums that detract from the so-called happy vibe this record was supposed to have. “I Forgot That You Existed” is catchy enough, and I tend not to skip it when I shuffle the album. But ultimately, it’s still a song about beef with someone else and indifference towards that person. It’s an immature version of Taylor that may have “forgotten” a person, but also needs to go out of her way to make sure this subject knows how forgotten they are. Does such a sentiment really belong on an album that’s supposedly about how happy you are in your long-term, serious relationship? To make matters worse, this is the opening track. That means our first impression of Lover is a complete misrepresentation of what this album is really about.
Another track that falls into this category is “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” which has grown on me a bit since my first listen, but still leaves me feeling like it belonged on reputation moreso than it does here. While there IS a love story component to the song, it has a darker feel to it. With lyrics like “they whisper in the hallway she’s a bad, bad girl” it also seems like Taylor is lamenting how she’s no longer seen as America’s sweetheart. Her “heartbreak prince” isn’t fleshed out as a character the way he is in some of the other songs. Instead, he functions solely as a means of rescuing Taylor from the perils of petty celebrity gossip, a narrative that was commonplace on the reputation album. Apparently Taylor MEANT for this song to be about disillusionment with American politics after the 2016 election, though I found this theme didn’t really shine through without additional commentary beyond the song’s lyrics.
Then there are the more overtly political songs, “The Man” and “You Need to Calm Down.” These songs are not BAD SONGS the way that I thought “Look What You Made Me Do” and “Bad Blood” are simply BAD SONGS. I love the idea of catchy, well produced pop music that addresses topics beyond how horny you are or how much you want to party. I think the lyric “If I were a man, then I’d be the man” is brilliant in its simplicity, yet conveys so much complexity.
And yet when I look at these songs in the context of Taylor’s entire career, they frustrate me. It’s hard to listen to someone imply that their success didn’t happen quickly enough when you know that their debut album hit #1 on the country chart before their 18th birthday. It’s hard to listen to someone who has consistently built their art and persona around anger and sadness at other people give a lecture on why others should control urges to scream about the people they hate.
It also frustrates me that one and a half of the “political” songs are really just about Taylor’s same old favorite topic: Taylor. Sure, she’s taking on the patriarchy, but she does it by singing exclusively about how she, one of the richest, most powerful people in media, has been unfairly treated. She implies that any unfair portrayals of her simply would not happen if she were a man, as though people like Kanye West and Justin Bieber are universally loved and respected with absolutely zero haters of their own. When Taylor “gets political,” there’s no sense that things like patriarchy and homophobia are making life far, far worse for many, many more people. Instead, we are limited only to how one, super rich, super powerful, super successful person has been adversely affected by these power structures.
The first third of her “gay pride anthem” is actually just about how she, a straight, white woman has to deal with people saying mean things about her on Twitter. When she does address LGBT issues directly, there’s zero recognition that homophobia can be worse than rude signs killing the vibe at Taylor’s happy rainbow party. That’s not to say Taylor or anyone else with money or power is immune to sexism and homophobia. It’s simply to say that if Taylor genuinely wants to incorporate political activism into her lyrics, she needs to put a lot more effort into narratives beyond her own in order to be good at it.
All that’s a real bummer, because I can’t help but think I would love “The Man” had it been some new artist’s breakout hit about her years of struggles trying to make it in an industry that didn’t want her. Instead, Taylor’s complete lack of self-awareness about the power she holds within her industry makes the song sound whiny and bratty. And to reiterate, both “The Man” and “You Need to Calm Down” distract from what could have been a tight, focused album about Taylor and Joe’s love story.
Another thing holding Lover back is the song order.
- “Cruel Summer” has a great album-opening energy to it, and got me genuinely excited about what I was going to hear on the rest of the album. It’s the sort of pop magic that Jack Antonoff does so well, and gives us a glimpse of the stories future tracks hold for us. Instead, we get a lackadaisical opening track which is completely out of step with the rest of the album thematically.
- “Lover” seems like it was obviously written to be a happily-ever-after song, but it’s only track 3. Its cozy, comfortable contentment would have been a great ending note for this story. We don’t really get to appreciate that when a few tracks later Taylor is describing more of a friends with benefits relationship in “I Think He Knows,” and then a breakup a few tracks after that in “Death By a Thousand Cuts.”
- We get a glimpse of this relationship in its earliest stages on “Cornelia Street.” Yet this song about the beginning of a new relationship and the accompanying anxiety doesn’t show up until track 9. To worsen matters, it comes immediately after a ridiculously happy song about how well the relationship is going where Taylor’s practically begging her man to propose.
It’s frustrating to see all the puzzle pieces of a cohesive story there, but thrown together so haphazardly, especially since it seems like Taylor DID put careful thought into song order on her last two albums.
But, I DO want to talk about those puzzle pieces because most of them are pretty freaking amazing. I get so frustrated and critical of Taylor’s weaker work because when she IS good, she’s great. “Cornelia Street” delivers the sort of trance-like, reflective pop that she’s done well in the past with “Delicate” and “Wildest Dreams.” The only true breakup song on this album is “Death By a Thousand Cuts” and it’s just the kind of fantastic breakup song that we’ve come to expect from Taylor. The joyful, bouncy melody juxtaposed against its hyperbolically tragic lyrics epitomizes how Taylor can’t pretend it’s okay when it’s not. She goes back to her roots with a Dixie Chicks collab called “Soon You’ll Get Better” which yes, is so different from the rest of the album both lyrically and musically that it arguably doesn’t belong here. But it’s also hard to really diss this song since it’s so hard-hitting, raw, and beautiful in ways Taylor certainly hasn’t been since 2014, and arguably has never ever been ever.
But I think possibly the most positive thing I have to say about Lover is that there actually IS some… dare I say it… growth. For the first time in seven albums, we get to see a version of Taylor who’s self aware of her own bad relationship habits and actively trying to work on them (“The Archer” and “Afterglow”). We also see her succeeding in ways that have been a shortcoming on prior albums. “Paper Rings” is an uptempo, fluffy Bop with a capital B that I think should’ve been this album’s lead single. After Taylor’s super peppy songs have consistently been a weak spot in her discography, it’s great to see her stick the landing on such a song here. “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” is a relaxing ballad with some steel drum in it, feeling slightly experimental without being obnoxious about it.
Lover is an album where the Taylor Swift who dreams about her happy, fairytale ending gets to coexist with the Taylor Swift who refuses to compromise, even to her own detriment. Both of these sides are portrayed as valid, and I think that duality is hella interesting and incredibly relatable for most people. If it had really been THE focus of the whole album, without any forays into self-centered political activism or generic pop horniness, this album would’ve been a 10. The cluttered version we actually got is maybe a 6.5.
Who would enjoy it? I would recommend certain tracks on here to literally everyone, namely “Soon You’ll Get Better,” “Paper Rings,” and maybe even “It’s Nice to Have a Friend.” Outside of these three, the album kinda feels like business as usual for Taylor. If you liked 1989 and reputation, it’s certainly worth a listen, but if those weren’t your cup of tea, the interesting tracks that ARE here aren’t enough to make the whole album worth your time.
*Special thanks to Carlie for helping providing a fresh set of eyes on this post when I had was drowning in Taylor Swift criticism and could not determine if I was still writing good stuff or not. Click here to read her good stuff!