To write her seventh studio album, “Lover,” Taylor Swift went back in time. She dug up dusty diaries and flipped through the pages, dog-earing when she found the first drafts of songs or marking with a laugh times when her youthful opinions on this or that changed dramatically overnight. What she noticed, she writes in the foreword to the album, released Friday, “was how often I wrote down the things I loved.”
She decided that’s how she wants to be defined, and how she wanted to define “Lover” — a big choice for someone well-acquainted with the diss-track genre. On the album, her longest at 18 songs, she accomplishes this by dipping back into several of her own creative wells instead of going for a clear, new sound like she did on her previous two albums.
The result is a dreamy record that makes good use of its stylistic freedom. It effectively subs the chaos of loving and growing for the more one-dimensional foils of Swift’s past, squashing any fears brought on by the first pair of singles that she’d tell this as a one-sided story. We can all calm down: Happy Taylor still writes bangers.
Take “I Think He Knows,” a finger-snapping bop/crush anthem with a falsetto chorus that erupts over a bass line that’s more aware of downbeats than anything on “1989.” It puts Swift back in ’80s mode, only this time her recall lands closer to Prince than Madonna. As in much of this album, Swift’s vocals are more direct and less processed than they have been since she’s gone pop, and it works.
That’s the case, too, on “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince,” where familiar high school dynamics become a parable for disillusionment with country. With Lana Del Rey vibes, it’s a strong narrative with Swift as author because we know she didn’t always feel this way. “American stories burning before me/ I’m feeling helpless the damsels are depressed/ Boys will be boys, then where are the wise men?/ Darling I’m scared,” she sings on one of the verses, before she’s joined by a dystopian pep squad that finishes her sentences (Go! Fight!) on the bridge and choruses.
It’s so sharp, it makes you wonder how the more overtly political “You Need to Calm Down,” another collaboration between Swift and producer Joel Little, came out clunky.
Next comes “Paper Rings,” a joyful commitment song wearing a Good Charlotte T-shirt from 2003. With guitars and lyrical details (“The moon is high like your friends were the night when we first met/ Went home and tried to stalk you on the internet”), it’s a bridge back to her early work.
The one overtly country song is “Soon You’ll Get Better,” which features the Dixie Chicks and tells the heartbreaking story of her mother’s battle with cancer. It leaves no doubt that Swift could return to be a country heavyweight tomorrow if she wanted.
Not everything works. “The Man,” which imagines how Swift would be discussed were she of the opposite gender, is oddly vague for a song about the sexism she’s certainly received in acute, specific detail. The first two singles from the album rollout, “Me!” and “You Need To Calm Down,” are better as over-the-top accents buried late on the record than as solo offerings; they’re still not as good as most of what she has going.
Swift’s two main collaborators on “Lover” are Little and Jack Antonoff. Absent are Max Martin and Shellback, who have been with Pop Taylor ever since the beat dropped in “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Swift is credited as the executive producer on the album and as a co-producer on every track.
The something-for-everybody quality and the album’s length are probably considered choices made to help streaming numbers, but Swift mercifully declines to participate in 2019’s trend of slicing songs into bite-size pieces to boost play counts. Only five tracks — “I Forgot That You Existed,” “Cruel Summer,” “I Think He Knows,” “You Need to Calm Down,” and “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” — clock in under three minutes.
“Lover” is the first of Swift’s albums she will own herself, part of her new deal with Universal Music Group and something she has said, angrily, her old label Big Machine wouldn’t allow. The title track, a waltz with a stellar bridge Swift wrote solo, notably pairs themes of loving bliss with ownership. (“This is our place/ we make the rules,” she croons of leaving Christmas lights up until January.)
That made this album her first chance to take back something she’s long wanted. Appropriately, the songs snatch elements from all over her past. They’ve always really been hers, anyway, and that she grabs ahold of them on “Lover” without shunning complexity is to her credit, and our benefit.