By the time “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” arrives on Lover, her seventh and most epic album, Taylor Swift has entered uncharted territory. For one thing, it’s the 17th song here, and none of her previous albums have run more than 16 tracks. (Lover actually contains 18.) More importantly, it’s not about being 16 or 22 or even her not-insignificant current age, 29. It’s about being six or seven, and walking home from school in the snow: “Lost my gloves / You give me one / Wanna hang out? / Sounds like fun.” There’s no beat, no banjo, no metaphors or coded messages. There is, instead, deconstructed steel drum, horn and cooing voices — Animal Collective as interpreted by hip-hop-savvy pop-producers-of-the-moment Louis Bell and Frank Dukes, the song’s co-writers. It’s like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a long turbulent journey through outer (and, naturally, inner) space culminates in the sudden appearance of a planet-sized fetus. For two and a half minutes, Swift regresses past all the drama and heartache she’s cataloged since her teen years to curl up in a weird little pocket of beauty.
Swift has always been vulnerable, of course. And just as obviously, that vulnerability has been her strength. Female pop stars since Madonna have been expected to constantly reinvent themselves, lest it seem like they’re aging — an impossible standard that vexed Swift contemporaries like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. In sharing her actual feelings about relationships chronicled by the tabloids — and parrying the entire internet’s judgements of those feelings — Swift helped open up a space for Ariana Grande to directly address Sean, Pete, and Malcolm on “Thank U, Next” (to name one glorious example). When Swift went pop, that wasn’t so much a transformation as an annexation of new territory. Grande might’ve picked up something here, too, with her triumphant embrace of hip-hop-style surprise drops. If Ariana, Billie, Halsey and others seem so effortlessly themselves, it’s in part because Swift worked so hard at speaking her truth and smiting her enemies.
Lover is, fittingly, evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But nevertheless it feels like an epiphany: free and unhurried, governed by no one concept or outlook, it represents Swift at her most liberated, enjoying a bit of the freedom she won for her cohort. Made mainly in collaboration with Jack Antonoff, female songwriting ally nonpareil, the album’s dominant sound is sleekly updated Eighties pop-rock. In a bonus making-of track destined for a Target edition of the album, Swift tells Antonoff she wants a “dreamy guitar-y throwback, but not camp throwback” sound for the title track, and that’s pretty much the vibe. (Think recent Carly Rae Jepsen, if she made actual hits.) Swift loads “Paper Rings” up with a “1-2-3-4,” a “hey! ho!” and a key change for a jittery bit of Cars-meets-Eddie Money-meets-Go-Go’s delight. On the terrific “Cruel Summer,” written with Antonoff and Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), she tells a simple tale of tortured love in under three minutes of pure pleasure, with what sounds like a smattering of talk box. When she sings “Out the window / I’m always waiting for you to be waiting below,” there’s no question you’re supposed to picture John Cusack in Say Anything.
Swift adjusts her frame of reference as needed. She claims to be “In my feelings more than Drake” in “I Forgot That You Existed,” a pro forma, post-trop-house declaration of her “indifference” to the haters. Thankfully, that’s mainly it for the sassy, winking Swift. Instead, she mostly goes for the big moods. “False God” is as minor-key and seductive as anything by the Weeknd, with a chorus, well — I’ll just leave this here: “Religion’s on your lips / Even if it’s a false god / We’d still worship / We must just get away with it / The altar is my hips.” She zags into oblique political commentary with “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” a high school parable where she sees “high fives between bad guys” and delivers “O! K!” interjections in her best cheerleader voice. Like Euphoria, the HBO teensploitation extravaganza, it’s dark, melodramatic and, against all odds, perfect.
There’s plenty more fodder for the Swifties, haters, and bloggers here. Leo takes a proverbial volleyball to the face on “The Man,” a usefully blunt indictment of double standards, and the dub-inflected “London Boy” counts all the ways she “fancies” her boyfriend Joe Alwyn. “Soon You’ll Get Better” was recorded with Dixie Chicks, but giving the country-radio exiles a feature isn’t the point — the song is note-perfect ballad for Swift’s mother, whose cancer returned earlier this year. Whatever there is to be read into these songs, they are for one person and one person alone: Taylor Swift. Finally.