The imperial phase always ends. That period — the time when an artist has such a firm grip on the zeitgeist that she can take the entire listening public wherever she wants — can last for years, but it will never last forever. Every hugely popular artist in history has a dropoff point, a time when the world moves on to something else. That moment can be awkward and ugly and humiliating, and it can also be liberating. Because once you’re past the imperial phase, you can do what you want. And you will always have an audience — those who stick with you even as the general public moves on to the next thing.
Taylor Swift’s imperial phase ended on the evening of July 17, 2016. That’s when Kim Kardashian posted a grainy video of Swift speaking to Kanye West, seemingly giving the OK to the lyrics that Swift had decried from the Grammys stage. (Kanye West’s own imperial phase was long over by then. It probably ended the moment he interrupted Taylor Swift onstage at the 2009 VMAs.) Swift was already a dominant, world-conquering pop star when that call went down. Before that call, it was disingenuous for her to play the underdog, or the victim. She still tried. After the call, it became impossible. Swift had a rough time dealing with this. Reputation, the 2017 album that followed, was a squalid and ugly and confused and angry record. It was still a Taylor Swift album, so it was still full of gleaming, impeccable pop songs. But it was unmoored. On the stadium tour that followed, Swift surrounded herself with animatronic snakes — trying to delight in playing the villain but ultimately broadcasting her resentment at her new role to the world.
Reputation still sold millions of copies, but it was the first Taylor Swift album ever to underperform expectations. Taylor Swift will remain tremendously popular long after she, or we, cease drawing breath. But she’s now something like a cult artist — albeit the kind of cult artist who can charge hundreds for tickets and still sell out stadiums in every city in America. Lover, Swift’s new album, is the first thing she’s done since she stopped reaching for pop’s no-longer-extant center. Before she released the awkward and ungainly single “ME!” earlier this year, a lot of us speculated that she would scale back, that she’d release an album of acoustic singer-songwriter music next. Lover is not that album. And yet it sort of is.
The two early singles from Lover might stand as Swift’s final attempts to recapture her imperial-phase glory. “ME!” was a humiliating Broadway-Disney display, one that failed on every conceivable level. “You Need To Calm Down,” while catchier, still tried to conflate Swift’s own PR issues with the plague of American homophobia — a desperate and transparently self-aggrandizing reach. Both of those songs, despite loud and flashy rollouts, debuted at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, stuck behind the out-of-nowhere colossus of “Old Town Road.” (In a delicious symbolic irony, it turned out that Swift would’ve probably done better at capturing the zeitgeist if she’d gone back to her country roots, the way so many of her fans were hoping.) But it brings me great pleasure to report that “ME!” and “You Need To Calm Down” are anomalies in the greater context of Lover — clanking embarrassments buried at the end of an album that trends small and soft and personal.
Lover is the first Taylor Swift album in nearly a decade that features no input from Max Martin, the Swedish math-pop titan who helped Swift leave country behind completely and sacrifice her songwriting subtlety in the process. Reputation had been evenly divided between Max Martin/Shellback productions and Jack Antonoff productions. Lover, by contrast, is mostly divided between Jack Antonoff productions and fake Jack Antonoff productions. It’s never been hard to make fun of Antonoff, but he’s emerged in recent years as an ideal collaborator — someone who excels at helping artists, primarily women, broadcast their own voices without imposing too much of his own. Lover is full of Antonoff’s sonic trademarks: Murmuring sci-fi synths, booming reverbed-out Phil Collins drum sounds, fists-to-the-rafter choruses. But more than any Swift album since Red, it’s an album driven by Taylor Swift’s songwriting voice — the angry freakouts and lovestruck reveries and finely observed details that made her such a towering persona in the first place.
There’s a story to Lover. Taylor Swift — evidently the only American who both saw and liked Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — has fallen head-over-heels for the British actor Joe Alwyn. Alwyn was also the subject of a whole lot of Reputation; I’m pretty sure he’s the only guy in history who’s been The Guy on two consecutive Taylor Swift albums. But on Reputation, Swift was still reeling from her sudden public-pariah status. On Lover, she’s mostly past that. She sings about past travails like they’re old war stories — the kinds of memories of difficult times that couples still bond over, years later. Plenty of the stray lyrics on Lover sound like private jokes, like public explanations of the stories they’ve told to friends countless times over the years: “The moon is high like your friends were the night that we first met / Went home and tried to stalk you on the internet / Now I’ve read all of the books beside your bed.” And some of the lyrics sound like marriage proposals, or maybe like engagement announcements: “I like shiny things, but I’d marry you with paper rings.”
Swift has a well-earned reputation as a singer of breakup songs, songs that gleefully stomp all over the dumb fucker who had the bad judgement to do her wrong somehow. We get a little bit of that on Lover. Swift can’t resist opening Lover with the joyously bratty eye-jab “I Forgot That You Existed”: “I would’ve stuck around for ya / Would’ve fought the whole town, so yeah / Would’ve been right there, front row / Even if nobody came to your show.” (Go and make some crowd-pleasing EDM anthems about that, Calvin Harris.) Most of the time, though, she’s utterly transported by the idea of falling in love — by the cosmically unlikely reality of two people finding each other and managing to be happy together. That’s always been an underrated gift of Swift’s, and it’s one that she spends most of the album relying on.
This doesn’t always work out. “London Boy,” for instance, is pure cringe material. The song opens with a sample of Idris Elba talking to James Corden, and it’s downhill from there. Swift spends the next three minutes rattling off names of London landmarks and giggling over accents; it’s blood-curdling. And while Swift is now more lyrically frank about sex than she’s ever been, she still doesn’t sound natural when she tries to get sensual. “False God,” for example, is a weird extended metaphor about love as religion, and it never comes close to working: “The altar is my hips / Even if it’s a false god, we’d still worship this love.” The album title itself is a word that should be stricken from the English language; even if there wasn’t a whole recurring SNL sketch about how terrible it sounds, it would still be impossible to use the word “lover” with any grace. Consider this line: “Swear to be overdramatic and true to my lover.” The second part proves the first part true.
But more often, Swift absolutely nails the holy-shit headrush feeling of falling in love and the wild drive to keep that feeling when you’re a few years in. She can convey the world-crumbling feeling of a bad fight and the intense internal struggle of deciding not to get into a bad fight: “Cruelty wins in the movies / I’ve got a hundred thrown-out speeches I almost said to you.” “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” pulls some serious Lana Del Rey moves, and it gets at something profound about trying to find happiness while you’re watching the world fall apart around you: “I see the high-fives between the bad guys… American stories burning before me.” “Cornelia Street,” one of Swift’s best songs in years, shimmers quietly around the lingering feeling of a first night together and around the way that those memories can come rushing back every time you see a familiar street sign or hallway.
And then there’s absolutely dazzling “The Archer.” On “The Archer,” Swift digs deep into internal battles, into how hard it can be to admit to yourself that you’re finally happy. Some of my younger colleagues have said that it’s just Swift biting Chromatics. And yes, it’s a blatant jack of that group’s neon-smeared synth sound. But no Chromatics songs have that utterly sure-headed sense of pop structure. And no Chromatics song would ever be as fiercely, directly emotional as “The Archer.” Chromatics could never come up with a song like that. Honestly, they wouldn’t know where to start.
Right now, though, the song from Lover that’s kicking my ass the hardest is one of the few that has nothing to do with Joe Alwyn. “Soon You’ll Get Better” strips away all the big-’80s synths; it’s a quiet, spectral acoustic song with hushed, consoling backing vocals from fellow Nashville apostates the Dixie Chicks. The song is addressed to Swift’s mother, who is now fighting cancer for the second time. Swift sings about hiding under her coat in a hospital waiting room and about distracting herself by painting rooms in bright colors. And then she breaks down and admits her own fears: “I hate to make this all about me / But who am I supposed to talk to? / Who am I supposed to talk to if there’s no you?”
I have my own reasons for being absolutely fucking leveled by this song. I live next door to a family with three fun and energetic little boys, kids who made friends with my kids on the same weekend, this past summer, when they moved in. A couple of weeks ago, the youngest of those three kids was diagnosed with cancer. He’s four. He’s going through chemo now. It’s fucked up. You say the word “cancer” to me now and I need to go sit down and collect myself for a few minutes. “Soon You’ll Get Better” just destroys me.
“Soon You’ll Get Better” does what it does to me because of my own personal circumstances, because I see this kid every single day and hate what’s happening to him. But that’s the magic of a really well-written song. Taylor Swift sings the specific details of her own life — a life that is, by all accounts, pretty much nothing like my own. But because she renders those details sharply and vividly and empathetically, pieces of it stick with me and resonate. Maybe they’ll do the same with you. Taylor Swift, you see, can still write the shit out of a song. So it doesn’t matter if her imperial phase is over. It doesn’t matter if all her corporate partnerships dry up, or if she never scores another hit. As long as she can still do that, she has something.
Lover is out now on TS/Republic.