Taylor Swift’s new album is called Lover, but at first it seems to still be obsessed with haters.
Lover opens with “I Forgot That You Existed,” which appears to be another visit to well-trodden Swiftian turf — one more opportunity to take revenge on all those who have mistreated her.
And indeed, it is, as Swift is backed by a finger-snapping beat and bouncy piano, singing about how being done “wrong, wrong, wrong” resulted in all of her sunshine being “gone, gone, gone.”
Internet speculators believe the song is about either a) her longtime combatant Kanye West, or b) an ex-boyfriend, Scottish DJ Calvin Harris.
But that’s not important. The way Swift chooses to put her nemesis down is, claiming he is so insignificant that she can’t even remember what she was mad about in the first place. “It isn’t love, it isn’t hate,” she talk-sings. “It’s just indifference.”
With that, Lover (Republic ***) puts pettiness in the rearview mirror (for the most part).
This is a relief. Swift has, of course, spent much of her now 13-year recording career bonding with her enormous audience through a Team Taylor vs. the World construct, aligning against the “hate, hate, hate” haters as depicted in “Shake It Off,” the hip-poppy single from 2014’s 1989 that made a break with her country past.
But by the time of Reputation in 2017, state-of-the-art pop production values and ongoing battles with West and other foes resulted in Swift’s music starting to sound mechanical.
Her abundant songwriting skills and passion for her craft were there, but you had to listen for it. Humanity had gone missing. Plus, nobody could seriously believe it was a good idea to have Ed Sheeran and Future rap on a Taylor Swift song.
Lover recalibrates, with a generally upbeat and brightly hued vibe that only occasionally comes across as cloying, as on the album’s debut single “Me!,” a duet with Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco.
Along with Swift herself, the person to thank is Joe Alwyn, the British actor who is the subject of the title song, a spare, enticing blue-mood piece that pulls off the minor miracle of making the enunciation of the word “lover” not sound entirely icky.
Alwyn is also the centerpiece of many more celebrations of bliss, including “I Think He Knows,” “The Archer,” “Cornelia Street,” “London Boy” and “Paper Rings,” the latter of which suggests — OMG — that wedding bells could be on the horizon.
That’s a lot of song titles, but not even the half of it. Lover contains a whopping 18 tracks, the most on any of the seven albums from the Wyomissing, Pa.-raised singer.
Is that because Swift has so much to say? Partly. Lover — produced mostly by Jack Antonoff, and with contributions from singer-producer Cautious Clay and Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) — is made up of more than just love songs.
After keeping to the sidelines for most of her career — and being appropriated as an “Aryan Goddess” archetype by white supremacists — Swift has engaged politically of late, and Lover has several displays of newfound wokeness.
“You Need to Calm Down,” the album’s catchy second single, hopes (in vain) for a return to reasonable discourse, while scolding homophobes and name-checking GLAAD.
Another song cleverly plays with gender-role perceptions, suggesting that if she were a man, Swift would be “The Man,” and her romantic couplings celebrated, “like Leo in St. Tropez.”
One of Lover’s strongest tracks is “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince.” Saddled with an unwieldy title, it takes on the times with subtlety, a saga of Springsteenian dreamers in search of an America whose core values have been eroded.
(Elsewhere, in “London Boy,” Swift signifies her Americanness by singing, “You know I love Springsteen, faded blue jeans, Tennessee whiskey.”)
Lover’s 18 tracks give Swift room for all that and more — including “Soon You’ll Get Better,” an aching ballad about her mother Andrea’s ongoing fight with cancer.
The song features the Dixie Chicks and is at the album’s emotional core, making an unspoken argument about the foolishness of carrying on minor squabbles when more serious matters are at stake.
But there’s another good reason that the album has 18 songs. Lover needs that many to ensure Swift’s continued world domination.
In the past, Swift has withheld new music from streaming services in the period right after her album’s initial release so fans would need to buy it. As a result, she has a hot streak going of four consecutive albums that have sold more than one million copies in their first week, twice as long as any other artist, ever.
But with streaming now supreme, Swift has gone all in. For the Billboard charts, 1,250 song streams count as one album sale, so it behooves artists to put lots of tracks on an album. Drake is the master, loading up his 2018 album Scorpion with 25. (Perhaps for the inspiration, the Canadian rapper gets a shout-out on “Forgot.”)
Lover is — dare I say it — swiftly paced. And its quieter, more melancholy songs, such as the vaguely U2ish “The Archer” and haunting, childlike “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” linger.
Over the long haul, the album inevitably starts to drag, particularly when we get to “Me!” at track 16, a song that’s been out since April and would be nice to forget about already.
But if Lover is a smidgen too much Swift, and its sunny disposition overdetermined, it still qualifies as a quality rebound from Reputation.
It’s an effort by Swift — who will turn 30 in December — to make music that’s more self-consciously mature
“Daylight,” which closes the album, depicts love as golden in hue, rather than “burning red,” as the singer once believed it would be. The song ends with a spoken outro: “I want to be defined by the things that I love, not the things that I hate. Not the things that I’m afraid of.” That’s a philosophy even Swift’s haters will have a hard time arguing with.