The seventh Taylor Swift studio album, Lover, ends with an expressive synth-pop ballad called “Daylight.” Like a lot of Swift’s songs of late, it’s about yearning for love in a world that can be cruel and unforgiving, especially if you’re Taylor Swift. She sings about being “the butt of the joke” and how she mistakenly “trusted the wicked,” but now she insists she’s finally found solace.
For the millions who relish over-analyzing everything that Swift writes, sings, and does, “Daylight” practically begs to be interpreted as an autobiographical statement of purpose. Only you don’t have to actually interpret “Daylight,” because Swift eventually steps out of the song and addresses the audience directly, via a closing-song spoken interlude. “I wanna be defined by the things I love, not the things I hate,” she says. “I just think that you are what you love.”
The early take on “Daylight,” and Lover generally, is that it represents a more “positive” Taylor Swift after the fraught (and often fascinating) Reputation, her album inspired by the series of personal and professional catastrophes that piled on after the massive success of 2014’s 1989. In interviews promoting Lover, Swift has deftly instructed journalists and critics to perceive the album this way, talking candidly (though not all that candid) about the fragility of her mental health in 2016, when she was under siege in the media for everything from her reignited feud with Kanye West to her supposed culpability in the election of Donald Trump.
Intentional or not, this reads as a kind of apology for Reputation, which received mixed reviews and (more importantly) sold less than half what 1989 did. Many attributed the album’s relatively lackluster performance — heavy emphasis on relatively here, as Reputation was still a blockbuster by any other standard — to the barely contained hostility toward her own persona and celebrity that Swift expressed throughout. She was widely mocked for claiming, in the bonkers lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” that “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” because “she’s dead.”
Lover, meanwhile, has been presented as the proverbial return to form, in which the most dominant one-woman pop corporation of the early 21st century gets back to making instantly relatable and world-conquering bops. The album certainly looks brighter — the Hot Topic goth aesthetic of Reputation‘s album cover has been replaced by the pink and blue cotton-candy imagery of Lover. It’s suitable iconography for a record that has already been integrated into recent campaigns by some of Swift’s fellow multi-national business behemoths, including Capital One, Target, and Amazon.
Musically, Lover harkens to the scope of 2012’s Red, her greatest album and the unofficial start of her “pop” era, though it was ultimately diverse enough to encompass both the Max Martin-assisted smashes and the more countryish, singer-songwriter moves of songs like “All Too Well.” On Lover, Swift similarly oscillates from the pared-back Americana of “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a gently heartbreaking ballad about her mother’s cancer battle that includes a winning cameo by the Dixie Chicks, and the sort of infectious ’80s pop throwbacks (“Cruel Summer,” “Paper Rings”) that she can knock out in her sleep at this point.
Months ahead of its release, Lover was preceded by the singles “Me!” and “You Need To Calm Down,” which attempted to perform two radically different tasks: 1) Re-establish Swift’s bonafides as a maker of pan-generational pop hits, the sort of broad appeal, big-tent music that appeals to toddlers and senior citizens and everyone in between; 2) Placate critics who feel that Swift “isn’t political enough.” But as with Reputation, public response was mixed. The LGBT activism of “You Need To Calm Down” struck some as shoehorned in, though the song has since been streamed nearly 172 million times. Though, like “Me!,” it was ultimately kept out of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 by Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”
The most common complaint about Lover is that those singles are easily the worst songs on the record, much like “Look What You Made Me Do” came to be viewed as the biggest liability on Reputation. Why is it that Taylor Swift — one of the savviest stars in the history of the modern music business — has become so bad at making “big” pop singles? This is the most vexing, and most crucial, question about her career right now. Though in a way Swift has already answered it: The old Taylor really is dead, and this ought to be embraced, most of all by Swift herself.
The parts of Lover I keep coming back to feel like the start of the sort of the “post-fame” record that all pop superstars get around to making eventually. Because you can’t stay on top of the world forever, nor should you want to. After Purple Rain, Prince made weird curveballs like Around The World In A Day and Parade. After Born In The U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen ditched the E Street Band and made Tunnel Of Love. After ruling the pop charts in the ’80s, Madonna delved into full-on outsider erotica. Even Garth Brooks, Swift’s spiritual big brother in the annals of country crossovers, felt the need to become ersatz alt-rock god Chris Gaines.
For whatever reason, Taylor Swift isn’t wired that way. She can’t not let herself be the biggest thing in the world. But at times you sense that she wants to scale down. There’s “The Archer,” which builds and builds toward a classic 1989-style peak and then … doesn’t. There’s the title track, a noir-soul brooder that shows she can make a Jenny Lewis record anytime she wants. Best of all is “Cornelia Street,” which revisits the anguish of Reputation but with a more artful lyric about how “the street lights pointed in an arrow head, leading us home.”
After playing Lover on repeat for the past several days, it feels like a very good “small” Taylor Swift album that’s been padded with shlock in order to fit the requirements of another flawed “big” Taylor Swift album. The delineation between the songs that work (introspective, confessional, uninterested in easy payoffs) couldn’t be starker from the songs that don’t (high concept, shticky, playing off her tabloid image with extreme obviousness). The things that don’t work have already become memes: the corny “Mornin’ Guv’ner!” Cockneyisms of “London Boy,” that forced laugh in the Kanye-baiting “I Forgot That You Existed,” the sub-John Mellencamp Trump-era commentary of “Miss Americana And The Heartbreak Prince,” those pandering and desperate singles.
The pop charts that Swift once dominated are now populated by a diverse cast of upstarts who are native to the internet. Artists like Lil Nas X don’t fit the model of old-world pop superstardom that Swift, along with a dwindling number of peers, personifies. Swift has attempted to compete with this new generation with songs that court social media chatter, even if that chatter often devolves into ridicule. The problem is that she does such a bad job of hiding her distaste for this kind of relevance trolling. “Pop music can feel like it’s The Hunger Games, and like we’re gladiators,” she recently told the Guardian.
As weird as this is to say about a person who is only 29, Taylor Swift seems exhausted. As modern pop’s greatest dynasty, she’s put in LeBron-level minutes as a world-famous superstar, and the strain shows on Lover. In “Daylight,” she might as well be talking about how dehumanizing Hunger Games-style pop machinery can be.
I wish she would give herself permission to stop playing the game, to finally let the old Taylor rest in peace. She’s already achieved everything that all of the great pop stars have done, except for making the proactive decision to stop being a pop star, and truly become “what you love.” Taylor Swift doesn’t need to replicate Red or 1989. (Nor does she need to literally re-record those albums.) She should instead work instead of making her The Hissing Of Summer Lawns.
Lover is out now on Republic Records. Get it here.