Saturday, August 24, 2019

Review: Lover • Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift was ushered into tabloid celebrity echelon at 19 years old, when she first experienced public humiliation at the hands of Kanye West. Grabbing the live microphone from her hand on the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards stage, he set into motion a narrative that casts Swift as the perpetual victim. Sometimes admittedly playing the part and other times attempting to shoot higher than her critics, she used the position in some capacity or another to release a blockbuster album every two years, no more and no less – all of which became the chart-topping soundtracks to millions. But when mud was slung from West's camp and into Swift's again in the summer of 2016, it cornered her into the most vulnerable position of her decade-long career.

Even before her online cancellation from Kim Kardashian, Swift was in an awkward spot. The responsibilities attached to celebrity status had shifted since her debut in 2006: Today, they are expected to be dynamic sociopolitical trendsetters, using their voices to speak for the disenfranchised – or more often, to influence their ravenous fans who collectively operate on a 24-hour news cycle dedicated to only their favorite artist. And while she was busy at the helm of her own brand in the politically dormant country music scene, she hadn't quite caught up to speed: Folks began to tear into her evergreen innocence and had grown furious with her silence during the tense presidential election cycle in 2016.

The album to follow, Reputation, attempted to massage a few conflict points – primarily, she leaned into the whole snake idea, reclaiming Kardashian's insult – but with its accompanying media blackout, its framework was detached from the remarkable time in her personal life. In 2015, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Two years later, she won a symbolic one-dollar sexual harassment lawsuit against a radio deejay who groped her during a meet-and-greet photograph years prior. Last election season, she stepped away from her timid neutrality on politics to endorse Democratic nominees in Tennessee. She was an adult, dealing with very adult problems, but her music certainly didn't reflect it.

And for the most part, it still doesn’t. Singing once again about fairytales and hallway bullies, Swift pivots back into escapism on her seventh record, Lover. When she took to heavy hooks on Reputation, she dropped her nuanced storytelling; on Lover, she swaps priority for poetic tales and some snippets that had to have been transposed from journals and text messages, though her melodies sag a bit as a result. Her attempts at political activism are admiral, even if she’s sometimes unable to break free from the same classroom metaphors: While she crafts a high school drama on "Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince" that requires a hop and a skip to arrive at a political subtext, the bouncy "You Need to Calm Down" is more blatant. (Some slammed the track as two-dimension, but at the very least, she proves there's always time for a little fun amid the #Resistance.)

However, in all fairness, she shouldn't have take a stand. Other women on Swift’s caliber have proven that good pop music can take many forms, from light entertainment to a voice of opposition, without a dynamic, deeply personal context. And frankly, the demands for Taylor Swift to become a political activist echo a double standard: Not a single male star – not Sheeran, not Bieber, and not even Adam Levine, who chose to deliver a painfully neutral Super Bowl halftime show performance during an intense racial relations battle – has been bullied to this extent. And she knows it: Check out sleek banger "The Man," on which she wonders out loud what her life could have been as a star the opposite gender. "I'm so sick of running as fast as I can, wondering if I could get there quicker if I was a man," she sings.

When Taylor Swift watched her image crumble between her fingers then danced over its grave during her last album cycle, she created a blank canvas for this record. Lover is without expectations, allowing Swift to regrow on her own terms, and provides her ample space to experiment. She toys with some fuzzy pop-rock worthy of college radio on "Paper Rings" and the St. Vincent-assisted "Cruel Summer." Although the latter is a more successful experiment, "Paper Rings" and the album's sappy title track are predestined to headline a teenage rom-com soundtrack soon enough. The infectious, sax-laced "False God" simmers with sexual tension, focusing on the physical dependence that glues together the complicated relationships she’s been writing about for years. Another impressive take on roomy downtempo pop, "Afterglow" boasts one of the record's most hypnotizing melodies over booming drums.

The project’s headlining collaboration – "Me!," which surely became the lead single due only to its Brandon Urie feature – stumbles hardest here: Even Swift herself seems to have heartburn over it, considering she has since altered the song’s digital footprint to omit some lyrics. But in a massive power move, she invites the Dixie Chicks onto this record to take her back to fiddle-dominated country with "Soon You’ll Get Better," the emotionally supercharged addition to the album that "The Archer" was marketed to be. Dedicated to Swift’s mother as she battles cancer for the second time, the Dixie Chicks collaboration is raw – and as Swift begins to explore how to cope herself, the fear of losing her mother is palpable. Tapping directly into her love for her mother without metaphor, it’s a straightforward moment that we didn’t get on Reputation, or on 1989, for that fact.

"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," she says at the close of "Daylight," a dreamy finale that closes the whopping album with an alluring glimmer. At 18 tracks, Lover is surely at least six too long: Unremarkable middle-ground moments like "Death by a Thousand Cuts" and "It’s Nice to Have a Friend" slip into the album’s gaps without notice. Moreover, not a single obvious radio hit contender can be found in the bunch – if anything, she leans against the tides of radio airplay rather than flow with them. But none of this is to be construed as an insult: As a 29-year-old woman who has swung from one wildly anticipated, highly scrutinized record to the next for almost half her life, Taylor Swift deserves a record like Lover – one that will stand in her catalog as a monument of a personal and professional rejuvenation. 

Lover is available now under Republic Records.

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