The title of Taylor Swift’s seventh album isn’t misleading. After 2017’s bitter and combative ‘Reputation’, she’s returned to the wide-eyed but incisive romantic pop that made her a superstar. At 18 tracks long, ‘Lover’ is more sprawling and further from flawless than her 2014 pop crossover ‘1989’. But it succeeds in spite of its clunkier moments because Swift’s melodies are frequently dazzling and her loved-up lyrics are ultimately quite touching.
It’s telling that terrible lead single ‘Me!’ has been relegated to track 16 at the tail end of the album. With playful lyrics like “I know that I’m a handful, baby”, it’s supposed to be a sparkling reintroduction to Swift’s fun side, but tries too hard and ends up sounding like a jingle for a cheesy TV ad offering you £50 to switch your bank account. Thankfully, it’s one of only two major misfires. The other, spare opening track ‘I Forgot You Existed’, is a tedious ‘Reputation’ retread. “It isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference“, Swift sings to someone who’s wronged her in the past, somewhat undercutting her message by, um, writing a song about them.
Much of ‘Lover’ is far more infectious. “‘I love you’ – ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?’” Swift sings knowingly on ‘Cruel Summer’, a brilliant pop song co-written with Annie “St. Vincent” Clark. The equally fantastic ‘I Think He Knows’ tip-toes as close to funk as Swift can get away with, and peaks with one of those economical-yet-evocative lyrics that she built her pre-‘Reputation’ reputation on. “His hands around a cold glass, make me wanna know that body like it’s mine,” she sighs, capturing all the excitement of unbridled lust in a neat 15 words.
‘London Boy’ is an endearingly awkward celebration of spending time with her partner, Joe Alwyn, in various parts of his hometown – both Brixton and Shoreditch get a mention. “And now I love high tea, stories from uni, and the West End,” Swift sings unselfconsciously. “You can find me in the pub, we are watching rugby with his school friends.” A spoken-word intro from Idris Elba – because Swift obviously can call in a favour from Idris Elba – adds to the clumsy fun.
Other ‘Lover’ highlights are more stripped back. The title track is a lovely, dusky nugget that suggests Swift could have been an alt-country singer if she’d wanted, while ‘Soon You’ll Get Better’ recruits the Dixie Chicks for an affecting snapshot of her mother’s cancer treatment. “You like the nicer nurses, you make the best of a bad deal, I just pretend it isn’t real,” Swift sings matter-of-factly; anyone who’s visited a sick loved one in hospital will relate. The glistening synth-pop’ of ‘The Archer’, home to another excellent melody, benefits from a similar effortlessness and lightness of touch.
One of the album’s two most obvious statement songs is a qualified success. “They’d say I hustled, put in the work, they wouldn’t shake their heads and question how much of this I deserve,” Swift sings pithily on ‘The Man’, a blunt clap-back to the sexist double standards that have infected her press coverage. “I’d be just like Leo in Saint Tropez.” It’s thrilling stuff and the DiCaprio name-check is bang on, but the song is probably too focused on the particulars of the Taylor Swift experience to become a hugely useful feminist anthem.
The other, ‘You Need To Calm Down’, finds Swift trying to align herself with the LGBTQ community – the video is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of queer celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Orange Is The New Black actress Laverne Cox, Pose star Billy Porter, Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon and pop singer Hayley Kiyoko. It’s clearly well-intentioned, but when Swift sings “shade never made anyone less gay”, she sounds less like someone whose mind was blown when they watched Paris Is Burning for the first time, and more like someone who caught a couple of episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race at their mate’s house.
Then again, Swift is hardly the first singer-songwriter to sound most comfortable when she’s singing about herself. Despite the odd dud, ‘Lover’ is a welcome reminder of her songwriting skills and ability to craft sonically inviting pop music. Together with co-producers including Jack “Bleachers” Antonoff and Joel Little (Lorde, Khalid), she’s made another slick and accessible record flecked with surprising production flourishes. ‘False God’ offers a balmy mix of sax and trap, the shimmering ‘Death Of a Thousand Cuts’ has echoes of ‘Tango In The Night’-era Fleetwood Mac, and ‘Paper Rings’ is an ‘80s-style pop stomper punctuated with Ramones-style “eh! oh!”s. Yes, really.
To call ‘Lover’ a comeback feels like a reach considering that ‘Reputation’, her lowest-selling album to date, still went triple Platinum in the US. So let’s just say that the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now – ‘cause she’s busy writing songs that suit her again.