From the moment Lover’s lead single “ME!” featuring the nails-on-chalkboard grating voice of Brendon Urie operating as a depressing foil to Taylor Swift’s infectiously endearing charm, I’ve been skeptical of her latest project. To pull such a 180 from the polarizing yet bold reputation seemed like an overly calculated move that didn’t bode well, and kicking things off with her worst lead single ever only further cemented my pessimism.
It was a depressing feeling. From the first time I heard “Tim McGraw” way back in 2006, I’ve felt a kinship with Taylor Swift. We’re both hopeless romantics doomed to be viewed as irritating sideshows rather than fascinating troubadours, and that baggage followed Swift throughout her early career despite her catalog of truly fantastic albums that have, in many ways, defined my generation. In a sense, I feel like I’ve grown up with Taylor Swift. I’ve pined for her, celebrated and mourned with her, and, like many of my favorite artists over the last decade, have truly appreciated her presence during many of my life’s most harrowing transitions and trials. But as I listened to “ME!” which sounded like it could have come straight from a toothpaste commercial, I was confronted with a sobering thought: Maybe I have finally outgrown Taylor Swift.
Lover’s opening track “I Forgot That You Existed” didn’t do much to alleviate my fears. While superior to “ME!” by a long-shot, its understated production really lacked the sonic fireworks that have made previous standouts like “Style” and “Getaway Car” pop. But those fears were instantly alleviated by the icy electromagnetism of “Cruel Summer” featuring a phenomenal chorus, celebrating that special kind of pain that you almost relish, and demonstrating that once again, Taylor Swift and I are kindred spirits destined to support one another.
Thankfully, the momentum from “Cruel Summer” gives way to a plethora of truly excellent music that blows reputation out of the water and creates an impressive climax to an already legendary career for an artist not even in her thirties. The underlying pulse progression of “The Archer” is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” “Miss Americana and The Heartbreak Prince” is a delightful little dose of darkness followed up immediately by the infectiously unburdened “Paper Rings” that’s dripping with such irresistible intensity even Joe Strummer would’ve appreciated it, and “Death by a Thousand Cuts” features an almost Bowie-level production that includes an operatic piano and the welcome return of guitars to Swift’s lexicon.
That varied production is a surprising strength throughout Lover considering how uniform things have sounded since 1989. The album sports an impressive list of producers including Louis Bell, Frank Dukes, Joel Little and Sounwave, not to mention Swift herself. But it’s quite evident that the unsung hero of this album is Jack Antonoff; every single song he’s on is an absolute stunner. Songs like the title track actually pull from legendary groups like The Band while Swift’s shudderingly stunning duet with The Dixie Chicks “Soon You’ll Get Better” recalls her best work from her early days. Who would’ve thought this collaboration would come at this point of her career of all times? It’s a magic moment that serves as a beautiful gracenote to the album.
But as great as the production is, nothing outshines Swift herself and the truly excellent songwriter she continues to be just as she has been for well over a decade. With her dogmatic adherence to the standard pop music song structure, it’s easy to miss incredible lines like “Holy orange bottlers/each night I pray to you,” and the Springsteen-esque “I get mystified by how this city screams your name” on the album’s emotional high point “Cornelia Street.” But they’re there ready to be appreciated by those intent enough to listen, which at this point seems like pretty much everybody.
I still question why Swift decided to make “ME!”, by far the worst song on the album other than the questionable steel-drum sporting detour that is “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” the lead single, or even why she felt the need to include it at all. But with 18 songs and almost no fat to trim off, the woman had plenty to say. She even provides a girl-power anthem for the generation with “The Man” which dives into the sexism she’s faced from the very beginning of her career when she was labeled as a pathetic tramp for singing about her relationships. You know, that thing that literally every artist has done since the beginning of recorded music? But as always, she’s really at her best when she’s riffing on what she really is and always has been: a shameless romantic.
In a nice little touch, Lover’s final song “Daylight” closes with a small bit of spoken word from Swift who astutely declares that “You are what you love.” Guilty as charged. In a discography filled with dramatic works of love-torn greatness, Lover is a towering achievement that inspires as it revels in the intoxicating rapture of its subject matter.