Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

'Lover': Taylor Swift's new album attempts to woo without all the usual drama

The singer-songwriter's latest release feels like a rebirth of sorts, with a mixed bag of tracks

Taylor Swift's new album has been released on the back of a meticulously planned PR campaign. Reuters
Taylor Swift's new album has been released on the back of a meticulously planned PR campaign. Reuters

Long before the release of Taylor Swift’s new album, Lover was destined to be the biggest pop music event of the year – and, if the hype is right, just maybe the American singer's career.

Never mind the fact that it was rapturously received within hours, Lover’s success was assured weeks before the record went live yesterday, at 8am UAE time – not coincidentally a week before the cut-off for consideration at next year’s Grammy Awards.

Coming quickly off the back of perceived critical and commercial slump Reputation – and with just 22 months between them, the quickest turnaround of Swift’s career – Lover brims with the clear and present impulse to make an impact. And Swift’s carpet-bombing charm machine has been as admirable as it has aggressive.

Like the warm, evergreen, eager-to-please music that would eventually follow, Lover’s button-pushing, business-like release has been unavoidable, with a carefully curated campaign of singles, videos, lyric teasers and credit announcements rationed out to colonise every inch of the pop culture news cycle.

The tactics

Lover’s long lead-up was an unfashionably old school, big label approach – the antithesis of the Beyonce-esque, “sudden drop” new norm; releasing a major new product online, announced perhaps with a single social media post, making fans and reviewers play a frenzied game of catch-up.

By contrast, Swift has controlled the entertainment agenda with clockwork precision, co-opting major sporting events, commanding the neglected, nostalgic media of TV appearances and magazine covers, and even partnering with a credit card, while simultaneously employing tactical digital adverts and curating specialist content for multiple streaming platforms. Oh, and still prepping four different deluxe physical versions of the album.

The most remarkable spotlight stealer might have been the brave, bizarre and perhaps a little bonkers decree, a day before Lover’s release on Thursday, August 22, that she would rerecord every note of all six of her previous albums.

This could have chimed as an important artist reclaiming their legacy, but was widely dismissed as the final juvenile stab in an ongoing feud with Kanye West – whose manager in-all-but-name (no one “manages” Kanye), Scooter Braun, recently bought Big Machine, the publisher of all Swift’s earlier works.

Allow me to invoke what will prove Lover’s most iconic moment – and already declared by a Forbes headline as “the most important song Taylor Swift has ever written” – The Man, in which Swift imagines how her life, career and general existence would have been viewed had she been born male. Just think – how would the world have reacted to news that Bruce Springsteen was planning to rerecord his vintage work?

The backlash

This awkward moment was just the final bump in an already bumpy promotional arc. It began in April with the nauseating sugar rush of lead single Me! – a collaboration with Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie – complete with a candyfloss music video and cloying self-congratulatory chorus which was roundly rejected by critics.

Thankfully, the past 24 hours have revealed Me! to be Lover’s worst song. Even Swift may have had second thoughts – fans noticed upon release that the much-mauled “Hey kids, spelling is fun,” lyric was MIA from the album’s digital release. Expect a backlash from educators any day now.

The bouncy, urgent follow-up, You Need to Calm Down, was a loud, anti-negativity statement, released alongside a video rounding up activists and icons.

It also featured a very public reconciliation with Katy Perry – ending a long-standing pop feud with a hug between the pair, dressed in huge burger and fries costumes – which many found an egotistical distraction from the apparent anti-troll cause.

The rebirth

With Lover, Swift is defiantly drawing a line with the past. Between Reputation’s bitter swipes at celebrity enemies – notably infamous mic-stealer West and wife Kim Kardashian West – and the public’s long-exploited fascination with Swift’s former boyfriends (Calvin Harris, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Harry Styles et al), Lover is an attempt to begin again.

Album opener I Forgot That You Existed closes this era with summery finger-clicks and a sassy “shrug”, according to Swift’s own notes on Spotify’s Love, Taylor: Lover Enhanced Album.

As we never forget but rarely credit, Swift made her name as a serious singer-songwriter hewn from the country music tradition – emerging at the age of just 16 with the first of three smash country albums which preceded her then-controversial embrace of shiny surfaces and tabloid tittle tattle.

Can credibility be bought? On Friday, August 17, just a week before Lover’s release, producer Jack Antonoff posted a pointed Twitter monologue detailing the origins of its title track – a “perfect” third pre-release single recorded in just six hours, “every stitch” of which Swift penned just a night earlier.

Clearly, Swift wants to be taken seriously as a songwriter – again. It’s hard to imagine this wasn’t another pre-empted PR prong designed to massage Swift’s reputation – but it was a worthy shot. Lover’s title track is intimate and authentic, boasting an enduring melody and heartfelt lyrical detail – infused with a whiff of matrimonial vows – which make it among the album’s high points.

“[I] swear to be overdramatic and true to my lover,” sings Swift, with innocence and experience alike. Let’s hope current long-term boyfriend Joe Alwyn is suitably touched.

The music

Indie musician Antonoff himself is credited as co-writer on many of the album’s most memorable moments, including the robo-bop strut of St Vincent collaboration Cruel Summer, smouldering electro of False God and the mellow acoustic Dixie Chicks collaboration Soon You’ll Get Better – a much-talked-about hat tip to the abandoned country crowd, and an apparent tribute to Swift’s mother, who is battling cancer.

Despite the hysterical headlines to the contrary, it is too early to tell which songs from Lover’s ample stable will enter the cultural lexicon. At 18 tracks, it’s the busiest Swift album yet – and there’s little uniting sonic space, moving between moods of shiny pop, cinematic splendour and pastoral reverie.

But despite its size, there’s not necessarily so much to unpack lyrically – especially compared with Reputation’s backstabbing and the ex-boyfriend-hopping intrigues of “imperial era” classics Red and 1989.

Rather than tragic songs about falling in and out of love, Lover is instead a purer, brighter product, more concerned with that illusive, hard-to-bottle feeling of simply being in love. Or, as Swift herself put it, Lover is “a love letter to love itself — all the captivating, spellbinding, maddening, devastating, red, blue, grey, golden aspects of it".

“You know I adore you, I’m crazier for you than I was at 16,” begins high school drama Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince. “It’s you and me, you’re my whole world.” On the wistful Cornelia Street, the singer imagines with terror returning home missing a lover she can’t live without.

The incessant pop-punk jump of Paper Rings is certain to soundtrack a million teenage romances. “I like shiny things, but I'd marry you with paper rings,” runs the singalong couples’ chorus. But it’s the relatable detail of the verses which will melt singleton hearts. “Went home and tried to stalk you on the internet / Now I’ve read all of the books beside your bed.”

Is Lover quintessential Swift? Fans might miss the depth, detail and gossip of earlier work, but this is the pleasant sound of both business-as-usual, and a decade-defining artist closing her twenties and entering a new era. The haters didn’t kill Swift, and it’s now clear they never will.

“The Reputation album seemed like night-time,” writes Swift in the notes accompanying solo-penned closer Daylight. “The Lover album feels completely sunlit.”

Updated: August 24, 2019 12:24 PM

SHARE

SHARE