“I wanna be defined by the things that I love / Not the things I hate / Not the things I’m afraid of,” confides Taylor Swift over bracing piano chords on the closing seconds of “Daylight”, the final track on Lover.
The Pennsylvania-born singer’s latest album, released today, was the most pre-ordered album by a female artist on its first day on Apple Music, with pre-sales reportedly nearing a staggering one million.
Swift has sold 50 million albums thus far, but while Lover is her seventh studio release to date, it’s not simply the next in line. It’s the first album she has put out on a new label – Republic Records and Taylor Swift Productions – and follows a battle with Scooter Braun, now owner of her former label Big Machine, over the ownership of the master copies of her previous five records.
Notably, the record comes after the shortest gap between albums in the singer’s 12-year career. “It’s the first album of mine that I’ve ever owned”, Swift wrote on Instagram upon its release. With these new freedoms, Lover should be the sound of Swift coming into her own for the first time; by its very circumstances, this record should be something brand new.
But for all this liberation, this keenness to be marked by her positivity, Swift falls at the first hurdle. On album opener “I Forgot That You Existed”, she’s still sticking nails into the coffins of her old feuds. The piano-led number is a choppy, playful stop-starter featuring Swift’s giggles – so far, so good. It’s also an out-and-out dig at Kanye West (who publicly made an enemy of Swift when he crashed her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, and then claimed, in a 2016 single, that he “made that bitch famous”), thinly veiled as a confident gesture of being over it. “It isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference,” she decides – as if a whole song devoted to an enemy is evidence of her not caring.
But this is Swift’s only total misstep on Lover. Some tracks prove to be little more than bland filler – synth-fuelled “The Man” never moves beyond half-hearted empowerment, and “False God” relies too heavily on weedy horns and a barely moving melody line – but on an 18-track album, a pinch of flatness is to be expected.
Hot on the heels of 2017’s Reputation, the only one of Swift’s records so far to properly get a slamming by critics, it’s pleasing that Lover at its best sees Swift returning to her greatest strength: writing insanely catchy pop songs of love and loss. When they’re on top form, Swift and her longstanding collaborator Jack Antonoff are some of the finest pop artists of our generation.
Most impressive is Swift’s ability to make utterly charming songs out of what could have been cringe-inducing tweeness. There’s a sprinkling of rock’n’roll in the form of “Paper Rings”, a welcome upbeat track on which Swift declares her love so strong, she’d get married with a significantly less expensive ring than she’s always had her heart set on. It’s a clichéd statement, but her fun-loving attack makes it effortlessly engaging, (even if her rendition of the lyric “You’re the one I want” doesn’t pack half the punch that the original Grease line does). A weirdly sweet clip of Idris Elba being interviewed by James Corden opens “London Boy”, on which Swift raves about all the quirks of British boys. On paper, the lyrics – she references Camden, Highgate, Brixton, Shoreditch and Bond Street – sound as though she’s googled “coolest spots in London”, and worked out which names rhyme best. But if anyone can get away with that sort of ridiculous listing, it’s Swift when she’s head over heels. Her sometime collaborator and chronically embarrassing name-dropper Ed Sheeran should take note.
It’s not all straightforward love songs. Country legends Dixie Chicks feature on “Soon You’ll Get Better”, a moving tribute to Swift’s mother, Andrea, who was diagnosed with cancer in April 2015 and re-diagnosed earlier this year. Again, it’s cliché to get the acoustic guitars and string section back out for a slow, heartfelt track like this, but for Swift, whose roots are in country music, it feels like a natural homecoming. Her lyrics are draped in tenderness: “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?”, she asks, paying unfaltering attention to one of the few relationships she has openly discussed throughout her career.
Finally, too, there’s something that could be deemed political, in the form of the pared-back “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince”. Until 2018, when she was vocal in her support for Democrat candidates in her home state of Tennessee, Swift was repeatedly criticised for her lack of political expression. Support for the Democrats, critics say, from a singer with an origin as a country singer and fans in small-town America, may well have had an impact on the 2016 presidential election. Here,“I see the high fives / Between the bad guys” is the best Swift can muster, along with “American glory faded before me”, an introspective reckoning with the star-spangled banners that once infiltrated the branding of her American sweetheart image.
Despite a handful of infectious high points, when the album is considered in its entirety, Lover is mixed at best. Swift has gone overboard: no single album should ever be 18 tracks long. For all its joyful liberations, Lover is straggling; to find its gems, you have to sift through your fair share of dull moments. While it is no full return to form for Swift, it is the sound of her working out how to own her newfound freedoms. If only she’d settle into them a little more.