Taylor Swift is having fun again on "Lover," and in a way that feels much more natural than "Reputation."
Almost everything star-producer Jack Antonoff touches on Swift’s seventh full-length record sounds warm, colorful and uplifting, a welcome — if a twinge too saccharine — shift from his icy, hip-hop-influenced approach to her last album. Antonoff and Swift complement each other best when they’re allowed to present as good guys, and both of them have taken more heat than they’ve been used to since 2017.
Swift has been dealing with the loss of her own recordings to Scooter Braun in a bad deal she signed in her early days of stardom. She’s also been dealing with the loss of an image, of an identity that everyone wanted for her as much as she legitimately maintained. And Antonoff’s wimpy haircut and association with megastars make him an easy target.
One of my early Swift-as-celebrity memories was her "60 Minutes" segment following her "Speak Now" world tour. Lesley Stahl watched Swift present herself to her adoring fans with her mouth agape, incredulous that this many people showed up for her, and that they knew the words to the songs she wrote as a teenager.
Stahl noted how shocking it was that Swift still seemed so genuinely astonished by her fans’ response. It was almost unbelievable how unaccustomed to her fame she was, even at age 23 on her biggest tour yet. The commentary has always stuck with me, because it says a lot about how Swift sees herself and how the world has always expected something slightly different during her rise, at her peak and, lately, at her stumbling.
We’ve always wanted her to be a little more well-adjusted, a little more settled-down, but we also apparently want her to be a little more vocal on politics. Swift has to be bolder, but not date so many boys. She has to be cooler, but still just as mom-van-friendly. We’ve been waiting for the fall since she left the Country Music Awards and officially entered the canon of global pop phenoms.
After "1989" was her most successful record in terms of critical appraisal and chart domination, she betrayed expectations. For so long she was young and aspirational and lovestruck, so she turned inward and crafted something reactive and jeering and antagonistic. On "Reputation," her likeness was looking straight at us for the first time since her debut, except she was obscured by newspaper font instead of curly blond hair.
Kanye West, nor Kim Kardashian, nor a bad Future collab could keep her star from shining.
Swift is as self-aware as ever on "Lover." I mean, the album opens with “I Forgot That You Existed,” which doubles as an anthem for ex-loves and trashy dissenters who think they had the capacity to rattle a pop overlord like Swift. (They might have, but she’s not admitting it here.)
She goes more dream pop than ever before, with breathy vocals and some cloudy synths carefully condensed through Antonoff’s secret pop formula. She sounds bigger than ever on “The Archer,” at war with herself and with expectations impressed upon her from fans, enemies, lovers and the press.
She’s less at home on songs such as “The Man” or “ME!” (featuring a confounding Brendon Urie performance) when her messaging is more explicit. She’s also a little out of place on “London Boy” when Antonoff can’t help but break out more 808s and Light hi-hats, and her falsetto isn’t always quite up for the challenge anyway.
“Cruel Summer” might be the most deserving hit that hasn’t quite popped yet. It wasn’t released as a single, but it has my favorite hook on the entire record. It’s the loosest she has sounded in years, and she even screams! Or at least the closest thing to a scream that would appear on a Swift record.
I appreciate, ultimately, that Swift is wearing her own skin more comfortably again. The songs aren’t always quite as fierce or memorable as her earlier work, which is also so drenched in nostalgia at this point that I can’t even properly evaluate an album like "Fearless."
But at least she’s turning inward in a more positive way on "Lover." It feels more at ease with the idea that she’s in a long-term relationship, her fame and power may not increase from here in the way it used to, and she might not make something that gets the same reaction as "1989" or "Red."
"Lover" is for her, and it’s who she wants to be, and I’m glad Ed Sheeran is not involved.
"Music Mondays" is a weekly column run in conjunction with the University of Richmond radio, WDCE.
Contact contributor Conner Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org. Evans is the music director for WDCE.