“I’m ready for combat,” Taylor Swift sings on her seventh album, Lover. “I say I don’t want that—but what if I do?” That unanswered question hangs like mist over the sunset-hued synths of “The Archer,” the album’s third single and one of the most convincingly candid songs Swift has released in some time. The title is a subtle nod to her astrological sign (Swift will turn 30 a few months from now, during the next Sagittarius season) but the chorus finds her as divided as a Gemini. “I’ve been the archer, I’ve been the prey,” she sings, her delivery emotive but refreshingly understated. “Who could ever leave me, darling / But who could stay?”
Combat has had a way of finding Taylor Swift throughout the past decade of her fame, though she’s usually taken pains to convince the world that she was the one on the receiving end of the arrow. Her most infamous feud, with Kanye West, has now been raging for a decade—it was recently the 10-year anniversary of West’s interrupting Swift at the 2009 VMAs, if that’s the sort of holiday you observe—while she recently announced the end of her years-long spat with Katy Perry, with great public fanfare, at the end of a music video. Wounded, Swift has fired back at such archers as Amy Poehler and Tina Fey for making award-show jokes about her love life, a music critic for failing to properly appreciate her artistry, and Kim Kardashian West for leaking the audio of a private phone call between Swift and West. As time went on and her fame grew, Swift came to seem less like a plucky David and more like a Goliath picking epic fights with other people her size, celebrities whose concerns seemed petty and prohibitively distant from the mere mortals listening to her music.
Part of what has made Swift a more interesting and tolerable celebrity in the lead-up to Lover is that she seems to have both accepted her innate love of combat and learned how to direct her energy toward worthier adversaries. In August 2017, she took the stand to testify against former radio DJ David Mueller, whom she was suing for groping her under her skirt at a meet-and-greet event four years prior. Swift recently told journalist Laura Snapes that when she was in the courtroom “something snapped, I think,” and the quotes that emerged from Swift’s testimony were full of a righteous kind of anger we’d never quite heard from her before. When Swift was asked by Mueller’s lawyers why his hand wasn’t visible in a photograph of the incident, Swift replied, it was because “my ass is in the back of my body.”
In the time since her tabloid-pop-opera Reputation, Swift has also aimed her arrows at Republican politicians in her adopted home state of Tennessee (specifically senators Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn), the head of her former record label Scott Borchetta, and, however belatedly, President Donald Trump. The person she’s currently cast as her supervillain, though, is famed pop manager Scooter Braun, who recently paid $300 million to purchase Borchetta’s former label Big Machine and, with it, the master recordings of Swift’s first six albums. Days before Lover came out, Swift revealed her sly strategy to combat this perceived injustice: She plans to rerecord all six of her original albums, so she can once again own copies of her songs. “I’m glad that this has shone light on it because it’s sort of an insidious part of our business,” she told radio host Elvis Duran on Friday morning. “I’m happy to take full ownership of this album. … The person who bought my art, he’s never made any art in his life ... so he could never understand that personal connection.”
Maturity is often the simple realization that two seemingly opposing facts can both be true. Taylor Swift has been the archer. She’s been the prey.
In April 2016, Swift filmed an installment of Vogue’s video interview series “73 Questions.” While guiding a cameraperson through her idyllic Los Angeles home, Swift fielded a string of rapid-fire queries about her favorite cocktail (“vodka Diet Coke”), the first song she learned to play on the guitar (“Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer) and the last movie that made her cry (“The Martian!”). Midway through the interview, she was asked what career she would have pursued if she had not become a musician. “I might be in advertising,” she replied. “Maybe coming up with slogans and concepts is the same as hooks and songs.”
It was a revealing glimpse into Swift’s mind, and the way that her mysterious gifts as a songwriter have always been tied to an inherently pragmatic business savvy. She is uncommonly good at expressing, within the structured confines of a song lyric, the internal rush of an intense feeling—a skill she perfected on her great 2012 album, Red. But some of the less compelling songs on her previous two albums, 1989 and Reputation, veered too far from the nuance of lived experience into that realm of empty sloganeering. Reputation misfires like “I Did Something Bad,” “Look What You Made Me Do,” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” felt less like lived-in experiences and more like the studied creation of an inauthentic persona, Taylor Swift’s Chris Gaines.
She’s ready to put all that unpleasantness behind her, though. In a spoken-word snippet in the final minute of Lover, Swift can be overheard telling someone, “I want to be defined by the things that I love, not the things I hate, not the things I’m afraid of, or the things that haunt me in the middle of the night.” It’s a worthy thesis statement for this uneven but occasionally dazzling return-to-form record, and it’s also something of a risk, because many of the things that Taylor Swift loves are not exactly cool.
They include: spelling, musical theater, melodrama, cats (the animal and the musical), ’70s singer-songwriters, ’80s synth-pop, the Dixie Chicks, extended metaphors, London, fantasizing about marriage, rainbows, butterflies, and, you know, love. While there are some flashes of anger and antagonism here and there, the songs that best define Lover are the ones on which Swift allows herself to sound giddily, unfashionably ecstatic. “Paper Rings” is “Miss Mary Mack” refashioned as a rockabilly tune; the chiming, Pitch Perfect–core “Death by a Thousand Cuts” is sure to be an a cappella group staple for many years to come. “London Boy,” Swift’s most obvious ode to her beau, Joe Alwyn, is relatively embarrassing (“Darling, I fancy you!”), but it’s also one of those highly personal lapses in judgment often suffered by the deeply smitten, so it makes perfect sense on an album earnest enough to call itself Lover.
Some of the album’s most revealing admissions, though, are subtler. Back when she was playing by the rules of the country establishment, Swift’s music featured the requisite nods to the sanctity of religion (from her early hit “Our Song”: “And when I got home, before I said amen / Asking God if He could play it again.”) Lover, though, has a few references to spiritual crises and questioned faith: “Holy orange bottles, each night, I pray to you,” she sings on “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a moving ballad about her mother’s cancer. “Desperate people find faith, so now I pray to Jesus too.” It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the next song is the sultry “False God,” which finds salvation in more earthly places: “I know heaven’s a thing, I go there when you touch me, honey.”
Though they accompany her on Lover’s quietest song, the presence of the Dixie Chicks is both a Swiftian power move and a subliminal fuck-you. “I come from country music,” Swift explained in her interview with Snapes. “The number one thing they absolutely drill into you as a country artist, and you can ask any other country artist this, is ‘Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks!’ … I watched country music snuff that candle out. The most amazing group we had, just because they talked about politics.” The times have certainly changed since the Dixie Chicks criticized George W. Bush and the Iraq War (the gleefully outspoken cowgirl Kacey Musgraves took home the most recent Album of the Year Grammy), but Swift seems to have had an old, formative score to settle with the country music establishment and is just now feeling confident enough to reach back into her quiver.
Lover’s most surefire conversation starter is “The Man,” a provocative, percussive reverie in which Swift imagines how her career would be discussed if she were a man. Not every lyric sticks the landing, but it’s refreshing to hear a Taylor Swift song about something other than romance, and one that creates a villain more formidable and systemic than just another celebrity. “They wouldn’t shake their heads and question how much of this I deserve,” she sings. This is the Swift who said “ass” in a court of law. May we hear more from her on future records.
An unfortunate trait that Lover shares with Reputation: terrible choice in lead singles. 2017’s “Look What You Made Me Do” was a head-scratcher of a comeback hit, and even on the album it’s the most cartoonish rendering of Taylor’s inner Wario. “ME!,” Swift’s anodyne 2019 duet with Brendon Urie, was a dizzying overcorrection, pushing her sound so far into the light that it makes you see sunspots. “Me!” makes slightly more sense in the context of Lover, coming as a kind of comedically excessive bouquet of I’m-sorry flowers after the searching torch song “Afterglow,” and also as a reminder that Swift is this era’s most inevitable subject of a Broadway jukebox musical. Lover’s second offering, “You Need to Calm Down,” was another casualty of Swift’s overzealous songwriting-as-advertising-slogan tendency. Its on-the-nose attempts to commodify #Pride have come under reasonable scrutiny. It’s a shame, though: From a melodic and production standpoint, it’s one of Swift’s strongest singles in years.
Much was made of the fact that “Old Town Road” “blocked” Lover’s first two singles from hitting the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and neither lingered very long in the top 10. But much of Lover suggests that Swift might be slowly, gradually plotting a sustainable future beyond the dogged pursuit of The Big Hit Single. Though it features names like Lorde collaborator Joe Little and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark (a cowriter on “Cruel Summer”), the most surprising aspect of Lover’s credits is the absence of Max Martin, the cowriter of some of Swift’s most colossal hits. Add another one to that list of Swift’s somewhat idiosyncratic loves: the old-fashioned album format. (It’s perhaps her smartest commercial strategy, too: Lover, like Reputation before it, is already on track to be the year’s biggest-selling album.)
The best single from Lover, its title track, did not get the corporate tie-in, NFL-draft-night roll-out that “Me!” did, and that’s a good thing: It would have been crushed under all that weight. It’s destined for more sacred spaces, like headphones, lonely car rides home after dropping someone off at an airport, and first dances at weddings. “Lover” is unlikely to be a smash hit on pop or country radio, because it doesn’t sound like anything else currently popular on either of those formats so much as it does a deep cut off Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club. All the better. “We can leave the Christmas lights up till January,” Swift sings, her voice rich and resonant, as if it’s testing the echo capacity of a brand-new apartment. “This is our place, we make the rules.” In that line you can hear excitement and the faintest hint of fear, as she realizes she has come to that place, in life and in love, where she can finally do whatever she wants. Can a lifelong archer trade combat for contentment? She will start with the length of one slow dance and see.
An earlier version of this piece misstated when Swift recorded her “73 Questions” interview with Vogue.