Reading native Taylor Swift is no stranger to extroverted introspection. On her first six studio albums, featuring some singles that you may have heard here and there, the singer/songwriter visits topics ranging from relationships and breakups to being interrupted while receiving a Video Music Award, a scenario we can all identify with. On her last album, Reputation, which was released less than two years ago, she veered further than ever from her humble country roots and delivered a collection of dark, biting, brooding electronic songs. Having expelled those demons, she returns with 18, count ’em, 18, relatively upbeat and cheery sounds on Lover.
That’s not to say that the subject matter is all unicorns and rainbows (well, there are definitely some rainbows). But the pervasive sound of Lover is as colorful as the album cover and press materials, in stark contrast to the black-and-whiteness of Reputation. Lover starts with some playful synths and syncopated rhythms with “I Forgot that You Existed.” The implication is that, “yes, I’m over you, and it was kinda rough, but I’m better off now. Have some sprinkles.” In “Cruel Summer,” Swift approaches a relationship from the other angle — from the beginning, and the stresses and pains implied therein. But she’s kinda happy about it because it led her to better things. Sad, but optimistic.
On the title track, Swift, who refers to Philadelphia concerts as “hometown shows,” shows the diversity of her capabilities and her influences, finding her inner Mazzy Star with a slow, moving ballad. For someone who spent the last two albums straying ever further from her early girl-with-guitar years (when she attended middle and high school in Wyomissing, just two short hours away from Philadelphia), it’s a relief to see her revisit a simple approach, and it works; this is the song that you’re likely to look forward to on repeat plays of the album.
“The Man” takes the listener to different musical and thematic places, sounding closer to electronic-rock-pop artists like her friends HAIM or later Tegan and Sara, and showing her Feminist side. Even though she has done fairly well for herself in her chosen career, she acknowledges that she has had to deal with obstacles and assumptions that would not have been present were she a man. “You Need to Calm Down” also finds Swift waxing political as she gleefully defends her LGBTQ+ friends, showing concern and sympathy to their detractors rather than anger. Even her shade is colorful on Lover.
One of the main criticisms of Swift’s music is also her superpower. She has a limited melodic range as a songwriter, seeming to rely on the same relative notes and resolving tones song after song, album after album. But the end result is akin to having a conversation with a friend whose inflections and mannerisms you know and love and wouldn’t change a bit. Then when the friend goes off-script, as Swift does in the slightly offbeat and exotic-sounding “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” it’s exponentially effective.
Swift could have left about four to six of the songs off of Lover and they wouldn’t have been missed, but there are some indispensable numbers that unlock doors to Swift’s personal side that she hasn’t shown before. “Cornelia Street” gives us a look into her relationship with Joe Alwyn, which has been kept largely private, and she reminisces about how the street brings back memories of their early days together. Who among us doesn’t have a street that they identify with time spent with someone special? And on “Soon You’ll Get Better,” Swift is joined by her friends, The Dixie Chicks as she describes in painfully emotional detail her time with her mother as she was battling with cancer. The honesty of these lines brings tears to my eyes every time: “I hate to make this all about me/but who am I supposed to talk to/what am I supposed to do/if there’s no you?”
In 2012, Taylor Swift followed a strong of country albums with Red, an album that served as a transition to two largely guitar-free pure pop, relegating her to spend two full tours in sparkling leotards. With Lover, she appears to be mutating again, into someone who is comfortable with her voice, her skin, her past and her future. When one listens to this album, one can’t help but hear a range of colors, cool muted pastels and persistent primary hues, even on songs that may have touches of melancholy or vengeance or even snark. If her fans have learned anything, though, it’s that they would be wise not to predict what Swift will do next, but to appreciate what she has shared with them, here and now.