Given the amount of vitriol that’s been aimed at Taylor Swift recently, one would expect her latest album, Lover, to be a defensive strike back at her critics. She’s been vilified for everything from her dating life to her feud with Kanye West, and her most recent scandal revolves around her public condemnation of talent manager Scooter Braun, who she called out for his “incessant, manipulative bullying” in a Tumblr post on June 30.
But aside from a couple of snarky tracks, Swift is operating in her sweet spot here: nostalgic, shamelessly starry-eyed love songs. Swift is used to rolling with the punches. Her previous album, Reputation, featured songs like “Look What You Made Me Do” that attempted to remold her image into something edgier. But this time there’s something achingly earnest about her lyrics. She’s vulnerable, a bold move considering every choice she makes is scrutinized and derided as calculated. It’s a shame that most of the time the album’s production just isn’t up to the task. Despite the energy and verve in Swift’s voice, the bland synths and meek drumbeats seem to leech much of the color out of the album.
“Cruel Summer” gives Swift the chance to wax poetic about one of her favorite topics: those darned bad boys. The lyrics are quick and clever. Various images float by—vending machines, crying in the back of the car, sneaking in through the garden gate—that are just creative enough to avoid seeming cliché. It’s a fun, bittersweet end-of-summer track that harnesses the same melodramatic energy as “Wildest Dreams,” from Swift’s fifth album, 1989, and that no doubt owes some of its inspiration to Lana Del Rey.
The title track is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the album. “Lover” features round-the-campfire guitar strums, a sweet, swaying melody, and a studied imperfection that’s in sharp contrast to the stiff mannerism of the rest of the album. The guitar, piano, and drums sound rich and refreshingly real.
“Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” is about as gloriously kitschy as you’d expect. Swift plays the tragic hero in a high school-themed soap opera that features cheerleader shouts and way too many football references. It’s clear she’s having fun here, and the metaphor is pretty obvious. Swift is casting herself as the high school outsider—“they whisper in the hallway ‘she’s a bad, bad girl’”—in a period of her life that probably feels a lot like high school all over again.
Swift returns to her acoustic roots in “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a somber track about dealing with grief that features the Dixie Chicks as backup vocalists. Long-time Swift fans will welcome the low-key guitars and violins that punctuate this simple, heartfelt song. Swift avoids melodrama, instead opting for moving realism with lines like “You like the nicer nurses / You make the best of a bad deal.”
Swift draws a metaphor between a doomed love and blind faith in “False God.” Soft synths and a spare drumbeat are all that anchor Swift’s voice, and they don’t entirely succeed at it. Swift’s lyrics are strong, but there’s not enough in the production to hold one’s attention.
“You Need to Calm Down,” the second single off of Lover, feels more like Swift letting off steam than something that someone would actually listen to for fun. It certainly gets the message across. Swift sings with a sarcastic sneer over a synthpop beat, letting loose a torrent of disses aimed at her Twitter critics. Swift makes the message universal in the bridge, taking a shot at misogynistic internet trolls “comparing all the girls who are killing it” and warning them not to “step on our gowns.”
“It’s Nice to Have a Friend” is an oddball track that might otherwise go unnoticed, but it’s worth a listen. In only two minutes and 30 seconds, Swift tells the story of a childhood friendship that turns into something more. There’s no chorus, and there’s not much of a melody. The whole thing sounds like a strangely sad nursery rhyme adorned with steel drums, a harp, and trumpets.
It seems that Taylor Swift has weathered the storm, personally and musically. In Lover, she manages to retain the sense of vulnerability and authenticity that she’s hung onto since her early country days. There’s not much novelty or experimentation, but the album is quintessentially Swift. She doesn’t hesitate to fire off a few shots at her detractors, but Swift is evidently more interested in love than war.
Featured Image by Republic Records