Taylor Swift: Lover review – It's not bitter but her grudges smudge her star power
Five years ago Taylor Swift cheerily sang that the haters were gonna hate and the only thing for her to do was to shake it off. Alas, that’s proving a little difficult. Here we are, two albums later, and she’s still putting those words into practice by throwing shade at rivals past while forging a new life as a rebuilt woman in love.
Carrying over the synths and dreamy vocals from that 2014 album, 1989, and losing some of the spite from the messy pop of Reputation, from 2017, Lover is a muddled message of burying the hatchet – the opening track, I Forgot That You Existed, is the equivalent of a restrained “I’m fine” after a fight with a friend when it’s clear nothing is – and the googly-eyed love she’s experiencing with her new beau (of three years), the British actor Joe Alwyn.
He gets the Emit Remmus treatment – Emit Remmus is the Red Hot Chili Peppers track detailing the friendship between Anthony Kiedis and Mel C – on the saccharine London Boy. “They say home is where the heart is, but, God, I love the English,” is one of the riskier lyrics on Lover. A close second? “You can find me in the pub, we are watching rugby with his school friends.”
A few songs could be shaved off this 18-track album. (The Man, Me! and You Need to Calm Down, plastic pop muddled with memeable content for the fast-paced and always-ageing world of Twitter, could have remained in a dusty drawer somewhere.)
But this a stronger offering than Reputation, with Swift returning to the place that suits her best: writing personal songs that create an entire world designed for two. She wrote Cruel Summer with Jack Antonoff and Annie Clark (aka St Vincent), and they darkly capture the warped beginnings of a new love that’s fighting to exist. Surviving in shadows and in secret, crying in taxis and sneaking around, it’s the breaking point between a fling and forever, all with the dulling thud of a 1980s ballad. “And I screamed, for whatever it’s worth, ‘I love you!’ Ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” is confirmation that, with a little help, Swift still has it.
For when she locks eyes on one person rather than expand into a global crowd-pleaser, we have the honour of seeing things as she sees them, sparkly-eyed or darkened.
Lover, the title track, is a 1990s-inspired slow country song that has us waltzing along as she commits to Alwyn and her guitar.
The Springsteen-style storytelling on the chilling Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince takes the stereotypical complications of high-school romance and makes them political. “American stories burning before me. I’m feeling helpless. The damsels are depressed. Boys will be boys, then. Where are the wise men?”
More poignantly, Soon You’ll Get Better is a delicate letter to her mother, Andrea, whose breast cancer has returned. Capturing the fear and the silence of a hospital room, she is joined by Dixie Chicks on this heartbreaking country song. Praying to empty pill bottles, she prays to Jesus, too, and tearfully verbalises everyone’s worst fear: “What am I supposed to do if there’s no you?”
If Reputation addressed how Swift was torn to pieces by the media, other celebrities, famous exes and online fans, Lover is the aftermath. Forever bruised by the personal and professional events of previous years, how could she ever be the same again? Playing her vulnerability as a strength, two of the album’s closing tracks, Afterglow and Daylight, cleverly explore the embers of the burnt bridges and look towards a new dawn.
And as long as Swift continues to aim for timeless songwriting and stunning country-pop compositions, rather than of-the-moment digs and the playground melodies of Me! and You Need to Calm Down, she will finally be able to shake off the grudge that has been smudging her star power.