Wednesday, August 28, 2019

album review: 'lover' by taylor swift

I want to stop overanalyzing Taylor Swift.

I mean, in theory it should be easy as hell - she makes mainstream-accessible pop music that shouldn't require or demand such in-depth analysis, it shouldn't be difficult to do so. And yet when I reviewed reputation in 2017, it wound up one of my most lengthy, overwritten pieces that still wound up as inconclusive on the album - and what's frustrating is that upon revisiting reputation, I still feel that way. I still think the flaws are too glaring to ignore - it's too long, it's self-indulgent without feeling truly self-critical, the sequencing is terrible, the bad songs are among the worst in her career - but at the same time there's depth and complexity that can't really be ignored.

And yes, a huge part of it is bigger than the music and can't really be extricated from the artist. Hell, if you want to make one of the most striking examples for never separating the art from the artist, it is Taylor Swift - the emotional power comes not just from the personal details and the relationship to her life, but then how they can translate to the every girl, or at least an increasingly broad representation of what that is. It's one big reason why both she and Drake have translated to a massive audience this decade - the detail and the personal vulnerability that anyone might connect to is what hooked the audience, their flaws and humanity are on display to the point where you wind up as the villain in your own stories where your moral justifications are increasingly flimsy, and the fact that despite all your control, your image becomes so big that it can be anything to anyone means that you're heading for a crisis of self. For Drake it's been the paranoia that has consumed his work since 2015 but especially on Views and Scorpion and for which there hasn't been a proper correction, for Taylor Swift it was the heavy subtext of alcohol abuse and trying to build an emotionally resonant story out of quicksand that was reputation, which is one reason I find that project so fascinating.

But you don't have to steer into the skid, and with the change in labels and slight adjustment in pop sound that came with the new singles - especially with the stark self-awareness that characterized 'The Archer', I had the hope that she had corrected - hell, I had the biggest hope in the longest of times that I might really like a Taylor Swift album, especially with the producers and guest stars behind her. So how about it, what did we get on Lover?

So, I'll admit I'm a little shocked I'm saying this, but I will say it: Lover is Taylor Swift's best album since Speak Now. For the first time in years for me it feels like the actual self-awareness is back along with the cutting detail to the writing that is married to a coherent sound. That's not saying there aren't flaws - it's too long, most of the singles are by far the weakest songs, and there are moments that have carried over from reputation that show not all the scars from that era have faded - but there's a core of identity to the best songs here that feel indisputably Taylor Swift, in sound and writing, where in some capacity or the other could feel mishandled even on Red and 1989. Or let me put it like this: the biggest flaws you could highlight on Lover are far smaller than the duds on previous albums, and were probably driven by forces beyond her control - I'll get to why - and yet it also contains some of her best ever songs, hands down. 

But I might as well start with some of those dud moments and get them out of the way first because I don't them to highlight the growth here, and unfortunately a lot of them are structural. For one, I might understand why this album is as long as it is to goose streaming metrics, but if this album had trimmed some of the fat and the transparent plays for certain markets, it would have been more palatable - hell, forget 'ME!' and 'You Need To Calm Down', if there was a song trying to play for English radio more blatantly than 'London Boy' that feels more like a rote list of British stereotypes adored by Americans, I'm not sure what is; yes, I get that some of it is driven by her current relationship with actor Joe Alwyn, but it feels tacky. And while I'm on that subject of tackiness, while I understand songs like 'You Need To Calm Down' and 'The Man' are trying for "conscious" subtext, it can feel hamfisted and a little blinkered to her own perspective: for one, it's not like I don't call out acts who only indulge in flexing regardless of gender, and for another, even the ones who do it well rarely do it in a way that feels naturalistic or best flattering their skillset, and an audience not wanting you to do it has less to do with gender and more to do with the lanes you've carved for yourself. Hell, you can make the argument that songs like 'Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince' are playing with far larger, more encompassing iconography than momentary bragging - even if like with the title track and 'Wildest Dreams' that song is toying with iconography and tones in baroque pop that Lana Del Rey was tracing at the beginning of the decade and this seems destined for a Riverdale soundtrack. And a song like that does highlight a weird tension that exists across this entire project: I've mentioned before that Taylor Swift's iconography and choice of symbolism has gotten broader since her pop country days, an expansion of scope where her own reputation became crushing in its tangled immensity, so I did welcome the moments where she returned to smaller-scale intimacy. But she's still got a few of the bigger songs too, and that demands a tonal balance that's increasingly tricky, where she wants the grandiose swings with broader, heavier resonance from a first person narrative, give them that weight... and yet the smaller Taylor Swift goes, embracing those finer details, the richer the emotive punch seems to be.

And the other issue comes in production and instrumentation - and I'll admit this is a little more nitpicky, for sure, but there are a few tonal choices that just don't flatter the pop sound Swift is trying to create. Now to her credit, this is the first time in years where you can tell Taylor Swift is trying to craft a distinctive sound for herself without the sonic influences feeling blatant - pulsating but melodic synth grooves against richer swells of atmosphere, tighter percussion and bass but never to the point where it overwhelms the melody or swamps out her vocals - Jack Antonoff isn't about to let his melodies get suffocated - and if a more organic touch is required, guitars or strings to provide more choppy texture than outright tone. And while I've already made the Lana Del Rey parallel to certain moments - you can also see slight hints of late-80s George Michael and maybe a splash of Shawn Mendes' more staccato side - Taylor's tones are brighter and fuller, and if there's brittleness at the forefront it's more incidental and not defining of the whole track... but that also means if you get a synth tone that doesn't work, it can clash in an awkward way, like the tinny but blaring post-chorus squonk on 'The Man', or the slightly off-key elegance on 'London Boy' or that faint squeal oozing behind the more intricate guitar work of 'Death Of A Thousand Cuts', a song where I might like the writing but the composite parts have never quite come together for me. And I'm still a bit on the fence whenever she uses horns, because while it can feel really garish on 'ME!', the slight accents across 'False God' really compliment the atmosphere - and while I'm on the topic of atmosphere, I'm blaming Frank Dukes for how weirdly hemmed in Swift's voice sounds on 'Afterglow' and how the steel drums never quite work on 'It's Nice To Have A Friend', which in contrast with the spacious mixes she has from Jack Antonoff or even Joel Little, is utterly jarring; damn shame, because the song is otherwise really pretty. And that's perhaps the most exasperating part, because when Taylor Swift locks into a sound, the pop tones feel defiantly hers - yeah, I can hear the blocky pulses and vocoder from Antonoff and Annie Clark on 'Cruel Summer', but Swift makes it her own; same with the ethereal stutters of 'The Archer' and 'Daylight', the undeniably chipper indie pop of 'Paper Rings' with that fantastic key change, the padded elegance of 'Cornelia Street', and especially the acoustic heartbreak and ragged fiddle of 'Soon You'll Get Better', where Swift recruits the Dixie Chicks for backing vocals and yet it never becomes obtrusive.

And that takes us to the content - and where if I'm going to take a step back when it comes to overanalyzing these cuts, it'll come here, because what's more interesting than much of the content of these songs is how they're framed, and the measured temperance that finally feels organic again. And while the obvious highlight might be the desperation that fuels the song to her mother on 'Soon You'll Get Better' in the face of her renewed cancer diagnosis, it also feels a bit more like an outlier in comparison to the loose arc of the project. Sure, the album might start with a relationship over, but the emotion is more bemused relief that she's finally over those old emotions - it's why she calls the song 'I Forgot That You Existed', and there's a similar mature weariness to the slow decay of the relationship on 'Death Of A Thousand Cuts'. And while she's just as uncertain as ever about where her new relationship might take her, the tentative steps along that path gradually feel more assured, without losing some of that capricious personality and regaining her self-awareness in how to apply it - the instability but blessed chase of 'Cruel Summer' that slowly stabilizes on the title track and 'I Think He Knows', where she can weather the symbolic melodrama on 'Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince' before feeling gloriously exuberant in the little details on 'Paper Rings' and the exhalation of relief on 'Cornelia Street' and 'False God', where the second-guessing is fading away naturally and she gradually opens up. That's why 'Afterglow' doesn't end in a breakup, and why 'The Archer' remains one of Taylor Swift's most painfully honest and revealing songs, where her motives and self-destructive tendencies are laid bare and yet she wishes deep down that something might work. It's also why 'Daylight' is a phenomenal closer calling back to it - I'm always a sucker for when an artist can reference their larger catalog of love songs, especially if they were intended for someone, and just like Marianas Trench did with 'Dearly Departed' on Astoria, Taylor Swift calls back to the old loves of Red and 1989 and is able to finally put them to bed. And even if I think this album runs long and has more than its fair share of unnecessary diversions that don't quite land, the emotional arc and sequencing does coalesce and hit the right balance by the end, leaving a wealth of possibilities to behold going forward.

And that's probably one of the biggest reasons why I like Lover as much as I do - it might not feel as much of a monumental pop 'event' as other projects, especially with the misguided choice of early singles - but the measured balance is more rewarding, the scope is more contained, and she's synthesized a pop sound for which she can mostly call her own. Along with her continued growth as an expressive vocalist and some of her best ever songs, I'm confident in calling this her best project since Speak Now... perhaps not quite better than that album, but it's close, and more importantly it reflects a wealth of possibilities for her going forward that shows a nice rebound from reputation, which for a lesser artist would have been a career ender. And for me, this is a very strong 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you've been put off by the first two singles and think they're representative of the project, which they really aren't as a whole. And in the mean time... yeah, I look forward to the possibilities - Taylor Swift may have stepped into the daylight, but I get the feeling the day is just starting.

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