Why is Lover so much more than just another great Taylor Swift album? Because it’s the one where she’s trying to make all the great Taylor Swift albums, at the same time. She’s closing down her twenties, which she spent making five of the decade’s best albums — Speak Now, Red, 1989, Reputation and now this one — all released before she reached the age when Leonard Cohen made his debut. (Here’s betting Taylor keeps writing great songs into her 80s, just as L.C. did.) So overdramatic. So true. It’s her career-capping masterpiece: She touches every place she’s ever visited along her musical journey, and makes them all sound new. So overdramatic. So true. She’s had you for 13 summers, honey, but now she wants them all, and she wants to make you fall in love with this magnetic force of an album. It’s a ridiculously excessive demand, but what other kind would she ever make?
It’s the first time since Red she’s attempted to gather together all the Taylors and sit them down for a summit. But Red was seven years ago, and there are a lot more new Taylors in the mix. All over Lover, she’s in touch with her younger self — “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” revisits the high-school girl she was on Fearless, just as “Daylight” updates the six-months-sober young-adult romantic of 1989. The girl who sang about making her mom drop her off a block away from the party is now driving her mom to the hospital. The teenager with teardrops on her guitar is now a woman with guitar-string scars. Yet on Lover she wants to show why all these girls are authentically her.
In Prince terms, if Speak Now was her 1999 and Red was her Purple Rain and Reputation was her Parade, this is her Sign o’ the Times, the one where she shows she can do all her best tricks on one album. Her goopy guitar ballads, her new wave electro-pop, her Southern accent, her English accent, her brilliant ideas, her terrible ones, every corner of her borrowed and blue heart — it’s all here. Practically every song is saturated in her personal mythology, packed with tiny musical and lyrical details for only hardcore fans to notice — love the way she adds a lost glove to go with the lost scarf from “All Too Well.”
For a songwriter who tends to fall in and out of love on a roller-coaster rhythm, Lover is an album about being in love, which is both scarier and harder to write songs about. “The Archer,” “Lover,” “Cornelia Street,” “Cruel Summer” — these are the kind of disruptively, devouringly hyper-emotional ballads Taylor used to write about her fleeting crushes, but it’s a totally different song when it’s about trying to hold on to a real human being (and trying to stay one).
You could call Lover her “Saturn’s return” album, as people are fond of saying these days. But “Saturn’s return” is too good a word, babe, so I’ll just say, “getting old.” Great songwriters always tend to get introspective when they’re facing 30, whether it’s David Bowie on Low, Joni Mitchell on Hejira, or Al Green on The Belle Album. When I was a little boy, I’d look at Carole King’s wise eyes on the cover of Tapestry and ponder all the adult pain she sang about — but Carole was only 29, the age Taylor is now.
My favorite Lover song as of right now — it will keep changing for weeks to come — is “Cornelia Street.” It’s basically the same plot as “Holy Ground” — a girl in New York City, surrounded by a city that reminds her of a boy she misses before he’s even gone. But it’s from a totally different emotional perspective. “Holy Ground” has always been a fave because it sums up Taylor’s zero-to-60 heart — she goes off the deep end about her latest crush, all the private jokes they share, the poems she writes about him, their deep soul connection. Then she delivers the punch line: “And that was the first day!” (Never accuse Tay of lacking a sense of humor about herself.) What a surprise: the “Holy Ground” romance falls apart in the usual way. Probably on the second day.
But in “Cornelia Street,” it’s not the first day anymore. She’s trying to hold on and make it real before it burns out. How do you keep your holy ground when you actually have to walk on it and live there? That’s the question she’s asking all over these new songs.
“Lover” begins with her trademark Sad Taylor guitar in the Mazzy Star mode, then turns out to be not sad at all, but a ballad of a long-running ever-evolving adult relationship, without any compromise of her extra extra-ness. When Taylor sings, “I swear to be overdramatic and true,” her vow is extremely believable. “Lover” has sent me back to all her Mazzy Swift ballads over the years, which means “Last Kiss” has been currently re-ruining my life on an hourly basis. (Seriously: how the hell did a 20-year-old write the hook “I feel you forget me like I used to feel you breathe”?) It’s the perfect autobiographical title song, for this most nakedly autobiographical of Swift albums.
She goes back to country with the Dixie Chicks in “Soon You’ll Be Better,” a poignant sequel to “The Best Day” about her mom’s battle with cancer. (She sings about Jesus for the first time since her long-forgotten juvenilia ditty, “Christmas Must Mean Something More.”) On the other side of the spectrum, she enlists Idris Elba for “London Boy,” a roll call of Brit stereotypes that achieves the ultimate in blimey-sploitation. (“Brixton” is the new “therein”? Discuss!)
The lead single “ME!” turned out to have basically nothing to do with any of the music on the album, which — in case you’re late to this game — is the way she always does it. Her lead singles tend to be camp one-offs. But “You Need to Calm Down” holds up well after months of airplay, from the New Romantic synths (play it next to Elvis Costello’s “Green Shirt” for the full effect) to the grand joke of Taylor calming anyone down, which is like the Human Torch advising you to chill. “The Man” is the righteous feminist bombshell Reputation could have used, and Taylor picked the absolute perfect moment to compare her self-image to Leo DiCaprio. As the little girl in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would say, poor Eazy Breezy.
And for old times’ sake, there’s the obligatory dud, just because it wouldn’t be a real Taylor album without one moment that goes off the rails. So step right up and shake hands with “I Forgot You Existed,” which sounds like it was left off Reputation for wise reasons. I don’t plan to listen to it again, yet I’m glad it’s there because the album needs it to be emotionally authentic — just as the Beatles knew Abbey Road wouldn’t be complete without “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
She still zooms into emotional extremes, like in the hilarious way she begins “Lover” by boasting about how she’s wild and carefree enough to leave her Christmas lights up until January, which is (if my math is correct) a week. It’s just like she ended her last album singing about cleaning up the morning after her New Year’s Eve party, which means she didn’t spend New Year’s Day nursing her hangover with an eight-hour Love After Lockup binge like a normal person. Like Reputation, Lover has plenty of acerbic “therein lies the issue” moments, but she dials down the Therein Factor a couple notches to make room for a whole avalanche of emotion. When she takes that vow of eternal devotion in “Lover” — with every guitar-string scar on her hand — the soulmate she’s really embracing is her chaotic self, and it’s an overpowering moment from an overpowering album. All the Taylors, all the time.