Review: Taylor Swift’s ‘Lover’ tells stories of love and loss

by Mia Nelson | 9/20/19 2:00am

Taylor Swift. The name of one of America’s most successful musicians conjures up images of cowgirl boots, sparkly dresses, Twitter feuds and boyfriends. Often the mere mention of Swift induces a chorus of eyerolls or sighs of disgust. Very rarely do conversations about Swift mention her enormous success as a musician, including the fact that her most recent album “Lover” became 2019’s best-selling record in just a week. A common critique I hear of Swift’s work is that her music is too sophomoric, too girly and hyper-focused on relationships ­­— according to Swift in a recent Rolling Stone article, the media has long since decided she was a “a boy-crazy man-eater.” And it’s true to a certain extent; the success of “Lover” demonstrates that Swift’s strength is highly rooted in her ability to write and compose songs based on love. 

The title of “Lover” brings to mind romantic relationships, but the content of the album explores varying types of affection. “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” explores a friendship that goes from elementary-aged (“School bell rings, walk me home/Sidewalk chalk covered in snow”) to adolescence (“Sun sinks down, no curfew”) to adulthood (“Church bells ring”). “Soon You’ll Get Better” is about an ailing loved one. “ME!” is about self-love.The album title as well as its contents demonstrate to me that Swift is owning her reputation as love-lorn and unapologetically admitting to her public persona. Swift, who has been long embroiled in various public feuds and breakups, seems to be wearing a scarlet “A” in “Lover” ­— Swift loves and loves hard, and she is embracing that now more than ever. 

Another way “Lover” represents a new Swift is in the simplicity of her songs. Many of the tracks demonstrate a stark contrast from Swift’s 2017 album “reputation,” which was bombastic and highly orchestrated — even convoluted at times. Where “reputation” relied heavily on shock value, “Lover” uses more simple, bare bones storytelling and musical accompaniment. I see “Lover” as a direct descendant of Swift’s best song on “reputation,” the stripped down “New Year’s Day.” “It’s Nice To Have a Friend” is similarly sweet, with whispery vocals from Swift and a simple, chiming background. The lyrics “You’ve been stressed out lately, yeah, me too/Something gave you the nerve/To touch my hand” evoke a simple, yet sweeping image in the listener reminiscent of the “New Year’s Day” lyric “There’s glitter on the floor after the party/Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby.” Even the infectiously fun “Paper Rings” shows evidence of a cleaner song writing technique for Swift with the line, “I like shiny things, but I’d marry you with paper rings.” Gone is the Swift of endlessly detailed storylines, as in her 2010 album “Speak Now” which contained the near seven minute-long song “Dear John.” In her stead is a Swift comfortable enough in her own evocative details to leave her songs un-belabored with novel-esque character development and exhaustive storylines. 

Swift’s stripped-down album reinforces what she said in her Rolling Stone interview, “I used to be like a golden retriever … now, I guess, I have to be a little bit more like a fox.” She is certainly giving her audience less to digest, but that doesn’t mean what is left is any less intimate. In one of my favorite songs, “I Think He Knows,” Swift details just exactly what turns her on: “I think he knows his hands around a cold glass/Make me wanna know that/Body like it’s mine.” “Cornelia Street” also leans on personal moments but uses such an adroit hand that the lyrics sound more like a really good poem than a song: “Windows swung right open, autumn air/Jacket ’round my shoulders is yours/We bless the rains on Cornelia Street/Memorize the creaks in the floor.” 

Such autobiographical details are reminiscent of old-school Swift but thrown in without the excessive explanation I have come to expect from her. Her songs have always been confessional, but these less-cluttered lyrics make me believe her more. The less Swift hits me on the head with her stories, the more I see myself in the details. Nearing the end of “Cornelia Street” Swift sings, “I’d never walk Cornelia Street again,” insinuating that if the person she walks down Cornelia Street with ever leaves her, she’d never be able to go back to the places they loved. Simply, Swift is telling us that she loves someone so fully in the world that it would be hard to move through it without them. It is easy to superimpose oneself in these lyrics, as likely most people have a Cornelia Street of their own — I know I do. 

As successful as I find most of this album, she slips in the songs where she does too much. In “ME!” with Brandon Urie, Swift sounds like a crazy caricature of herself, with juvenile lines such as “Hey, kids!/Spelling is fun!/Girl, there ain’t no I in “team”/But you know there is a ‘me.’” Similar pitfalls exist in “You Need To Calm Down” with lines as odd and seemingly parody such as, “But I’ve learned a lesson that stressin’ and obsessin’ ‘bout/somebody else is no fun/And snakes and stones never broke my bones.” In both, Swift is trying to do too much. “ME!” sounds like what store-bought birthday cake tastes like (overly sweet and stomach sickening) and “You Need To Calm Down” made me laugh out loud with its weirdly political line, “And control your urges to scream about all the people you hate/ ‘Cause shade never made anybody less gay.” Swift, it is clear in both of these ridiculous songs, should stick to what she knows — because nothing sounds more discordant than a singer reaching beyond her skill set.

I applaud Swift for (mostly) doing what she is exceptionally, and even uniquely, good at — telling stories that make listeners hear themselves in love and loss. This strength of hers was intensified by leaning into simplicity. “Lover” her seventh album, will presumably continue to get Swift flack about her subject matter, but it is that same subject matter that makes Swift so wildly successful. According to Forbes, “Lover” debuted on top of the Billboard 200, pre-sold more album copies than any other in the history of album sales at Target and is the most successful Amazon music launch, breaking global records. In “The Archer,” Swift sings, “I’ve been the archer/I’ve been the prey,” owning up to her occasional America’s sweetheart/America’s villain image in the media. She’s polarizing, clearly. But it’s also pretty clear that whoever Swift is — sweetheart, villain, archer, prey — she will sell albums. And what’s not to love about that?