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Taylor Swift’s ‘Lover’ Is a Perfect Snapshot of Her Life—and Possibly Her Best Pop Album

The pop queen’s seventh studio album finds her balancing private bliss with public unease and making some of her strongest songs along the way

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It is time to take seriously, and literally, Taylor Swift’s threat to rerecord her back catalog, now that it appears to be a promise. In the interest of full disclosure (and receipts), here is her exchange with CBS Sunday Morning’s Tracy Smith on the matter, as transcribed from an interview airing Sunday:

“Might you do that?” Smith asks.

“Oh yeah,” Swift says.

“That’s a plan?” Smith asks.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Swift says.

So: That’s a promise. Oh yeah. Absolutely. The sordid backstory here—in late June, Swift’s first record label, Big Machine, was sold to a company owned principally by Scooter Braun, superstar manager and professional guy named Scooter, over her vehement objections, in that the master recordings to her first six blockbuster records are now controlled by a cohort of Kanye West—is both a fascinating music-biz conundrum and the 100,000th installment in the 21st century’s defining celebrity feud. The implications of the world’s biggest pop star redoing and rereleasing all her old albums are staggering, legally and logistically, but set aside the industry intrigue for a second and just think about how bizarre that’s going to sound.

What we’re talking about here, specifically, is Taylor Swift, who turns 30 in December, rerecording “Fifteen.” Rerecording “22.” Rerecording “Our Song,” from her self-titled 2006 debut, famously released when she was 16, a Pennsylvania native with a pronounced Nashville twang and an even more pronounced teenage exuberance as she delivered the lines, “When we’re on the phone and you talk real slow / ’Cause it’s late and your mama don’t know.” Picture her even singing the words your mama now. She’ll be relitigating eight to 12 highest-possible-profile relationships, from that guy to that guy to that fuckin’ guy. Goodness gracious, she’ll be rerecording “Mean,” from 2010’s Speak Now, with added motivation from the 6 billion additional people who’ve been mean to her in the decade since.

Today, we welcome Swift’s seventh blockbuster album, Lover, out on her new label, Republic, and yes, she owns the masters, and yes, it is light-years better than 2017’s stormy Reputation and very arguably her best pop album to date, and yes, that’s (arguably) counting 2012’s Red as a pop album. Lover is alternately lovey-dovey in the extreme (“London Boy,” from the “Darling I fancy you” refrain on down, is the dorkiest song she’s ever written amid fearsome competition) and something far moodier and deeper and weirder and more startling. (“London Boy” is immediately followed in the tracklist by the single saddest song she’s ever released, and also her best song since Red’s “All Too Well,” at least.)

What makes Swift’s back catalog valuable is, of course, the gazillion dollars it stands to generate; what makes it invaluable, to her especially of course, is that every record is a very specific snapshot of a very specific person at a very specific moment in her life. They are time capsules she buries in each and every one of our heads. More than any other pop star of her time or perhaps anybody else’s, she puts out albums that function as vivid eras unto themselves, as self-contained and almost painfully distinct as seasons of a prestige anthology TV series nearly everyone on earth is more or less forced to watch. American Taylor Story. As we contemplate the baffling notion of 2020 Taylor Swift taking another crack at the power ballad 2010 Taylor Swift sang about the Owl City guy, we are perhaps better equipped to appreciate the relentless nowness of Lover, a sprawling behemoth of clumsy lust and wounded grace, imperfect by necessity but enthralling by design. Messiness once again suits her, just as her ferocious devotion to the present tense always has.

What I’m saying is that for, incredibly, the second straight Taylor Swift album, the first single also turned out to be the worst song.

Lover, at first blush, will be viewed primarily (and charitibly) through the prism of Reputation, a 200-ton Goth Phase excursion that was not, lousy first single aside, as lousy as it first appeared. “Actually, Reputation was good” is 2019’s foremost hot take, and sure, we can agree that “You should take it as a compliment that I got drunk and made fun of the way that you talk” is actually a pretty great opening line for a song. We can marvel, furthermore, that the record did well enough that she toured stadiums to support it, even if the Netflix documentary of that tour peaks with, uh, Red’s “All Too Well.”

But the first thing that makes Lover superior is that it dispenses, immediately, with the celebrity-feud angst that weighed down even Reputation’s lovey-doviest moments. Which is to say Track 1 is called “I Forgot That You Existed,” and is either about Kanye or that other fuckin’ guy, and includes the line “And I couldn’t get away from ya / In my feelings more than Drake, so yeah,” and has a winsome, giggling, finger-snapping buoyancy that lousy first single “ME!” tried and failed to manufacture. The concept, in a word, is whew. Her relief is also yours.

Swift described Lover to Vogue as “a love letter to love,” and a smitten dorkiness does indeed animate the likes of “I Think He Knows” (in which she repeatedly sing-raps the line “He got that boyish look that I like in a man”) and “Paper Rings” (which kicks off with her sing-rapping the lines “The moon is high like your friends were the night that we first met / Went home and tried to stalk you on the internet / Now I’ve read all of the books beside your bed”). Shout-out to Joe Alwyn, Swift’s boyfriend of three years or so, a handsome actor and agreeably empty vessel (you likely remember Emma Stone saying “What an outfit!” to him in The Favourite, but don’t remember the outfit) such that their love can be reduced in song to we day-drink and watch rugby together and other such agreeable I’m Smitten; He’s English celebrity-relationship vagueries. Lover’s title track, a dusty and flagrantly country-ish shuffle, was the best-received of the record’s pre-release singles, very sweet and, as always, very specific: “And I’m highly suspicious that everyone who sees you want you,” she purrs. (Not really.) “I’ve loved you three summers now, honey, but I want ’em all.” (Absolutely.)

For those who comb every new Taylor Swift pop album for clues that she might one day make an old-guard Taylor Swift country album, “Lover” is nearly this album’s peak. Nearly. I am here to tell you that “Soon You’ll Get Better”—costarring, as long threatened, the Dixie Chicks—immediately enters her top five songs of all time, and not at no. 5. It concerns Swift’s mother’s ongoing experience with cancer and constitutes a throwback in terms of both instrumentation (acoustic guitar, Dixie Chick Martie Maguire’s aching fiddle) and unbearable intimacy, especially the catch in Swift’s voice as she sings, “You’ll get better soon / ’Cause you have to.” It made me cry on first listen while I watched a bunch of 8-year-olds bumble through soccer practice; it is a devastating reminder, if you needed one, of why it is worth enduring all the tabloid drama Swift creates, and why she’s at her best when she manages to fully set it aside.

Lover’s 18 tracks are produced mainly by Joel Little (best known for his work on Lorde’s first album, Pure Heroine) and your old pal Jack Antonoff, best known for Swift’s formal 2014 pop debut 1989, not to mention Lorde’s second album, Melodrama. (“Cruel Summer,” the song reportedly cowritten by St. Vincent, has by far Lover’s biggest chorus, for whatever that’s worth.) There is a smeary, narcotized, digital-bubblebath haze to much of this record, an au courant Spotify-core subset of electro-pop that will never be Swift’s specialty, but can still suit her quite well. “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” (coproduced by Little) is a moody and mesmerizing little faux-chillwave mash note, a very forward-looking approach to high school regression, from its vivid homeroom angst (“The whole school is rolling fake dice / You play stupid games, you win stupid prizes”) to the cheerleading squad backing Swift up amid all the decaying beauty: “And I don’t want you to (Go!) / I don’t really wanna (Fight!) / ’Cause nobody’s gonna (Win!).”

Moodier still is “False God,” which with its eerie sax moans and breathy, downbeat dream pop sounds more like Carly Rae Jepsen singing a Blood Orange song than Blood Orange’s Devonté Hynes cowriting a Carly Rae Jepsen song. That’s an Antonoff joint, as is “The Archer,” another well-received early single that dropped Swift into a blaring synthesizer reverie but presented her at her most direct, and most wounded: “They see right through / Can you see right through me? / They see right through / They see right through me / I see right through me / I see right through me.” The panic in her rising voice by the time she gets to “I see right through me” is another reminder of the nearly unparalleled craft at work here, fueled as always by the boldface noise constantly threatening to drown it out, but still plenty capable, at times, of cutting through it.

In terms of generating headlines and think pieces and exhortations to calm down, Lover’s flashiest moment is “The Man,” a lush and pointed and distinctly Haim-like 2010s-does-1980s-pop jam with a chorus that begins, “I’m so sick of running fast as I can / Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man.” It is, indeed, Swift’s gender-flipping lament in the vein of Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy,” but with Swift’s very distinct sense of playfulness and content generation: “And they would toast to me / Oh let the players play / I’d be just like Leo / In Saint-Tropez.”

Sony Pictures

The song, much like the final verse of the somewhat opportunistic gay-pride jam “You Need to Calm Down,” is in part a denunciation of society’s insistence on comparing female pop stars to one another, so sorry about the Haim and Beyoncé stuff. But Swift is at her best when she’s angry about something (or better yet, someone) very specific, but still light-footed and lighthearted enough to sharpen that anger to a lethal point. Lover is a jumble of private bliss and perpetual public unease; contrary to its opening track, she has not forgotten that her various enemies exist, and neither, at any point, will you. But it’s got some of her best songs, from her official pop era or otherwise, and even as it swings from the painfully intimate to the awkwardly universal, it strikes her most effective balance yet between the flawed human and the even more flawed megacelebrity.

And so, just as it’s absurd to imagine 2020 Taylor Swift fully reinhabiting, say, the Taylor Swift who conjured up 2008’s teen-queen triumph Fearless, this album, too, will feel tremendously antiquated to even her biggest fans a decade from now, and likely feel tremendously antiquated to her too. It is, by design, a perfect snapshot of a flagrantly imperfect moment; that’s what makes Lover, in its greatest moments, so great.