Flashes Of Brilliance And Glimpses Of Awful: First Impressions Of Taylor Swift’s ‘Lover’
'Lover' has arrived - so is it any good?
Well, it’s here. After a whirlwind of pastel palettes, questionable queer discourse, and pregnancy conspiracy theories, Taylor Swift’s highly anticipated new album Lover has arrived.
It’s her seventh studio album, following the divisive and attention grabbing reputation which dropped back in 2017. The run up to the album has been typically topsy turvy: we’ve seen arguably the worst single Swift has ever released in ‘ME!’, and we’ve also received one of the most touching pieces of songwriting of 2019 with ‘The Archer’.
In classic fashion, Swift has kept us guessing about the true nature of the album right up until its release. But now, it’s here — all 18 tracks of it. So without further fucking around, let’s dive into Lover.
‘I Forgot That You Existed’
Usually, Taylor Swift’s albums start with a bang: 1989’s ‘Welcome To New York’, reputation’s ‘…Ready For It?’, Fearless’ quite literal title track drum hit. ‘I Forgot That You Existed’ completely throws out that precedent, instead finally answering the question that nobody was asking — what would it sound like if Taylor Swift wrote a Sara Bareilles song?
The answer? Not great at all. Also, no points for this clanger of a lyric: “In my feeling’s more than Drake’s, so yeah”.
Score: As soon as it’s over, you’ll forget it ever happened.
First of all, it’s a tragedy that this isn’t a cover of the Bananarama song. Secondly, did Taylor perhaps know that the title was already the name of a Kanye West GOOD Music compilation album? This is Taylor Swift, so of course she knew.
Regardless, ‘Cruel Summer’ is a stadium made smash — thankfully, it makes you forget instantly about the lacklustre track that came before it. The chunky chorus hook soars, the drums thunder, and Taylor makes one of the first references to being drunk we’ve heard: “I’m drunk in the back of my car” she throws down in the rushing bridge.
First appearance in the album track list of frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff — and first appearance ever in a Swift song of Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent.
Score: For when you’re racing to find your lover at the airport.
Across 1989 and reputation, Swift largely avoided incorporating any of the country cadences that defined her prior to 2014. So it was with some surprise, and joy, to hear her third single ‘Lover’ make a timid return to Nashville.
The shimmering strums and gun-shot snare recall a late night dive bar, while Taylor lays out images of Christmas tree lights in January and friends crashing on living room floors to depict the happy warmth of a relationship at peak comfort.
Score: Warm and fuzzy like a blanket fort.
“I’m so sick of running as fast as I can,” Swift sings in the chorus. “Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man.”
For someone who has weathered more than her fair share of slut-shaming and misogyny, you’d think that Taylor could muster up something a lot more powerful and venomous than ‘The Man’, which floats by on nothing production provided by former Lorde collaborator Joel Little.
It’s a disappointing near miss.
Score: The glass ceiling remains intact.
Swift’s finest songwriting comes in her moments of introspection. One of her best — if not just outright best — songs, ‘All Too Well’, was a calm and resigned rumination on a relationship’s decay. Another, 1989’s ‘Clean’, is a gut wrenching moment of vulnerability.
‘The Archer’ follows in this vein. Searingly raw, it depicts the tortured push and pull of two people struggling to keep their relationship above water. It also contains one of the more quietly devastating lines of the Swift canon: “Who could ever leave me darling? But who could stay?”
After the rocky start to the album, ‘The Archer’ reignites your hope.
First Impression: You will almost certainly cry in the shower to this song before the year is out.
‘I Think He Knows’
‘I Think He Knows’ is a confusing song from Taylor, because for perhaps the first time ever she doesn’t seem to know where to go with it.
It doesn’t reach anywhere — it has no stadium lift, but also no searching introspection. It just…mills, purposeless, and forgets to find any kind of hook and drive. Generally Taylor’s missteps are big (see ‘ME!’) which at least makes them interesting, but ‘I Think He Knows’ is nothing — which is worrying.
Score: Taylor, what is going on?
‘Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince’
Let us start off by acknowledging that ‘Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince’ is easily the worst song title of 2019. Okay? Great, now let’s move on and praise the lord that Taylor seems to have found all those hooks we thought she’d lost.
‘Miss Americana…’ is packed with classic Taylor imagery. “Ripped up my prom dress, running through rose thorns,” she sings breathlessly in the first verse. “I saw the scoreboard and ran from my life.”
And you know what? When that terrible song title is sung in the chorus, it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as you’d expect. Joel Little, as the co-producer, redeems himself slightly.
Score: If ‘You Belong With Me’ had a dark sequel, this would be it.
If ‘I Forgot That You Existed’ was Taylor doing Sara Bareilles, then ‘Paper Rings’ is what happens when Taylor decides to update ‘Walking On Sunshine’. There’s a jittery, energetic edge — exacerbated by a man (Antonoff?) yelping the count in like an over enthusiastic band leader.
That said, there’s a silly joy to ‘Paper Rings’ that plasters a stupid grin across your face. Extra points for a mid-song key change.
Score: Just lean into it, it’ll get you in the end.
Track nine has a special place in Swift mythology: ‘Enchanted’, ‘Wildest Dreams’, and ‘Getaway Car’ all occupy this coveted position on their respective albums. Thankfully, ‘Cornelia Street’ is another worthy candidate for the slot. This is Swift at her most powerful: intimate, vulnerable, raw.
Lyrically, this is well trod Swift territory — streetlights glint, autumn air swirls through open windows, rain hammers on empty streets. Simple, gorgeous, pure Swift.
It’s worth noting this is one of three tracks on Lover (the other two being ‘Lover’ and ‘Daylight’) that were solely written by Swift.
Score: Throw open those windows and prepare to cry in the street.
‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’
Forty seconds into ‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’, we’re thrown sideways by a rapid piano arpeggio that tilts the entire song off course. It’s dislocating, and almost impossible to grasp back onto the song after it occurs. There are other strange moments: a clean guitar cleaves through the vocals about halfway through, an egg shaker comes along shortly after and further muddles proceedings.
The production is an absolute mess, and does a complete disservice to a genuinely lovely topline. Shame on you Antonoff.
Score: Honestly what the fuck just happened?
Sure, Swift is maybe the most classic American girl this side of Annie, but these days her presence is spread across the globe. ‘London Boy’ is her ode to (one of) her adopted homes, and she goes to great lengths to name drop basically every suburb the great city contains. Camden, Highgate, West End, Brixton, Shoreditch, Bond Street, Hackney all get a mention. Cringe-worthy.
“God I love the English,” she sings. We get it Taylor, you’re on your gap year.
Score: If the tube map ever fails, just listen to this. But actually don’t, because this is truly…not good.
‘Soon You’ll Get Better’ (feat. Dixie Chicks)
After the anaemic ‘London Boy’, ‘Soon You’ll Get Better’ is a necessary blood transfusion. With country icons Dixie Chicks at her side, Taylor unwinds her fear and dread around her mother’s battle with cancer.
It’s gentle, it’s touching, it’s a timely reminder of the raw emotion that Taylor can wield. Plus there’s a banjo, which is something old Taylor stans have all been waiting for.
‘False God’ could be a 1989 offcut — or at least something included in the deluxe edition. Antonoff makes up for earlier mistakes with impeccable production — drums and saxophones thrum in the background, laying a bed for Taylor’s musings on sex and love and religion.
“The altar is my hips, even it’s a false god,” she murmurs over a swirling saxophone. Goodness Taylor.
Score: Put this on and turn down the lights.
‘You Need to Calm Down’
After the sugary tooth cavity that was lead single ‘ME!’, ‘You Need To Calm Down’ felt like a (slight) course correction. It was largely overshadowed by its accompanying video, which didn’t so much as lean on LGTBIQ themes as completely body slam them into dust. For some, the video felt like a blatant grab at the pink dollar; for others, it was a powerful gesture of support from one of the biggest celebrities in the world.
Wherever you landed, the fact remains: ‘You Need To Calm Down’ is perfectly fine, and ultimately forgettable.
Not many songwriters can truly nail the messy politics of relationships and love. Carly Rae Jepsen does it brilliantly, as does Lorde — but Taylor is a cut above when it comes to detailing the rough and tumble of emotions.
Built on a skyrocketing chorus hook and a classic Swiftian bridge, ‘Afterglow’ aches.
Score: After you storm out, cool off with this.
‘ME!’ (feat. Brendon Urie)
Earlier this week, eagle-eared fans observed that Swift had quietly removed the cringe-worthy lyric “Spelling is fun!” from the bridge of ‘ME!’. But even with that amendment, ‘ME!’ is still terrible. Swift has released joyfully dumb tracks in the past — ‘Shake It Off’ anyone? — but ‘ME!’ is saccharine and juvenile from start to finish.
That said, given the tripe that has come before it (I’m still reeling over ‘London Boy’) ‘ME!’ is, dare I say, tolerable.
Score: In context, not as awful as first thought.
‘It’s Nice to Have a Friend’
‘It’s Nice To Have A Friend’ may be the first steel drum we’ve ever heard in a Swift song, and it’s not half bad either. As the title implies, this track is warm, comforting — Taylor’s voice wafts over the plucked guitars and harmonies like a warm breeze brushing across sand.
Score: Hand me a cup of tea.
When Taylor Swift is left alone on Lover — that is, when Little and Antonoff aren’t trying to smother her in skewiff production — she goes back to relying on her natural songwriting instincts.
‘Daylight’ could be placed on Red, or 1989, or reputation and not feel out of place — that’s not to say she hasn’t grown in her songwriting, because she has, but it’s more that these songs feel so much more comfortable for her. “I once believed love would be black and white,” Taylor admits, in one of the most Taylor lines ever. “But it’s golden.”
The track arrives at the end of a confusing album, a salve to some of the burns we’ve suffered throughout its 18 tracks. Will it fully heal the wounds? At the moment, I’m not convinced.
Score: Actually, make that tea a wine.
Jules LeFevre is Junkee’s music editor. She is on Twitter.