The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taylor Swift’s ‘Lover’: A track-by-track breakdown, from coded lyrics to Leonardo DiCaprio and Drake references

Taylor Swift’s music video for "You Need to Calm Down" features a range of LGBTQ stars. We've made it easy to spot them all. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

The last time Taylor Swift released an album (“Reputation” in 2017) she was recovering from the biggest backlash of her career. She refused to do interviews. She wiped her social media accounts and uploaded videos of hissing snakes. The album cover was black and white, hinting at dark songs that ruminated on her reputation; which, as she put it, had “never been worse.”

Then the record sold a million copies in its first week. She embarked on a record-breaking stadium tour. Her redemption victory lap concluded. And now, as of Friday, there is “Lover.”

In stark contrast, this album rollout arrived with a dreamy, sparkling, pastel palette that Swift splashed across Instagram. The cover art features Swift against a pink and yellow sky, glitter dotted around her eye in the shape of a heart. In an interview with Vogue, she called her seventh studio album “a new beginning … a love letter to love, in all of its maddening, passionate, exciting, enchanting, horrific, tragic, wonderful glory.”

So, what does this love letter from Swift — one of the top-selling artists on the planet — have to say? Here’s a brief rundown of each song:

1) “I Forgot That You Existed” (written by Swift, Louis Bell, Adam Feeney)

Swift is known for writing about real-life friends, foes and everyone in between, but who expected a Drake shout-out on the very first song? “In my feelings more than Drake,” Swift sings in this upbeat track, centered around the classic saying that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference. Here, Swift insists that she no longer cares about various entanglements; that’s quite an accomplishment for a grudge-holder. She alludes to her “rep” plummeting, an apparent reference to the aftermath of the 2016 Kanye West-Kim Kardashian incident — which could be another reason she mentions Drake, a West nemesis.

REVIEW | Taylor Swift keeps getting older without growing up

2) “Cruel Summer” (written by Swift, Jack Antonoff, Annie Clark)

Finally, an explanation for those mysterious dice on Swift’s Instagram. “Devils roll the dice, angels roll their eyes,” Swift proclaims on her first Annie Clark (also known as St. Vincent) collaboration, which describes a doomed summer romance that involves secrecy, getting drunk, crying and shouting “I love you!” into the void. In other words, extremely relatable.

3) “Lover” (written by Swift)

During a YouTube live stream with fans on Thursday, Swift said she originally wanted to name her album “Daylight.” However, after she wrote “Lover,” the entire record fell into place. This waltz starts with a classic Swift-ism as the opening line mentions Christmas lights (and leaving them up until January, of course) and is packed with specific details and wedding imagery: “Ladies and gentleman, will you please stand … my heart’s been borrowed and yours has been blue.” Expect this to be chosen as the first dance at wedding receptions starting immediately.

4) “The Man” (written by Swift, Joel Little)

Swift, who frequently slams media coverage around her as sexist, told Vogue that she thinks about how her career would have played out if she was a male artist: “If I had made all the same choices, all the same mistakes, all the same accomplishments, how would it read?” She imagines this world in “The Man” and gets in a dig at Leonardo DiCaprio and his many girlfriends: “They would toast to me, oh, let the players play’/I’d be just like Leo in St. Tropez.” (Swift, you may be recall, is often mocked for her series of famous boyfriends.) The rest of the lyrics tear down similar double standards: “They’d say I hustled, put in the work/They wouldn’t shake their heads and question how much of this I deserve.”

5) “The Archer” (written by Swift, Antonoff)

In an Instagram Live stream last month, Swift admitted that, for whatever reason, her “very vulnerable, personal, honest, emotional songs” always end up being Track 5. This melancholy cut is a meditation on a difficult relationship, partially in the context of her own fame; Swift has always talked about the challenges of attempting to date when you’re a celebrity. As she sings here, “Who could ever leave me, darling, but who could stay?”

6) “I Think He Knows” (written by Swift, Antonoff)

Will Swift ever return to Nashville? Who knows! But she does mention “16th Avenue” in this flirtatious track, which is one of the main streets of Music Row. The up-tempo beat almost swerves into spoken word at Swift ticks off everything she likes about this guy, who is boyish looking with “indigo eyes.” Yet she offers a warning: “He knows he better lock it down or I won’t stick around.”

7) “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” (written by Swift, Little)

All of the high school phrases (homecoming queen, marching band, scoreboard, prom dress, “voted most likely to”) initially make this sound as if it’s going to reminisce about Swift’s high school days that she sang about so often as a country artist. Then the lyrics appear to take a turn to the political in the second chorus: “American stories burning before me, I’m feeling helpless, the damsels are depressed / Boys will be boys then, where are the wise men? Darling, I’m scared.”

8) “Paper Rings” (written by Swift, Antonoff)

This frenetically paced tune matches the thrilling energy of a new relationship — one that works out after months of cat-and-mouse games and Internet stalking and wondering whether the other person likes you. “I like shiny things, but I’d marry you with paper rings,” Swift announces. In “New Year’s Day,” the last track on “Reputation,” Swift sang “I want your midnights.” This time around, she wants “dreary Mondays” and “complications.”

9) “Cornelia Street” (written by Swift)

Everyone knows Taylor Swift has an obsession with New York City (she’s a tourism ambassador!) and apparently, she once rented a $24 million home on Cornelia Street in the West Village. That makes the line “I rent a place on Cornelia Street” an easy solve. Who is she talking about when she says “I hope I never lose you, I hope it never ends, I’d never walk Cornelia Street again”? Well, around the same time she lived there, she met British actor Joe Alwyn, whom she has reportedly been dating for three years … so draw your own conclusions.

10) “Death by a Thousand Cuts” (written by Swift, Antonoff)

As you might assume by the cringeworthy title, this is not one of the “happy” songs. In fact, it’s about a very devastating breakup. “I get drunk, but it’s not enough, 'cause the morning comes and you’re not my baby,” Swift sings mournfully. Also, “Paper cut stains from my paper-thin plans” … great wordplay, and definitely not for the squeamish listeners.

11) “London Boy” (written by Swift, Antonoff, Cautious Clay, Mark Anthony Spears)

“They say home is where the heart is, but God, I love the English,” Swift sighs, making Anglophiles everywhere very happy. It’s hard to imagine this being about anyone other than Alwyn (she even mentions his accent) as Swift explains what she adores across the pond: high tea, watching rugby in pubs, strolls through Camden Market. She gives America some obligatory shout-outs, including SoCal and “Tennessee Whiskey.”

12) “Soon You’ll Get Better” feat. Dixie Chicks (written by Swift, Antonoff)

During the YouTube live stream on Thursday, Swift admitted this was the most emotionally difficult song to write — she almost didn’t include it on the album. Indeed, it’s a devastating ballad about her mother’s cancer diagnosis, along with Swift’s own guilt: “I hate to make this all about me, but who am I supposed to talk to? What am I supposed to do if there’s no you?” Eventually she concludes, with a note of desperation, “Soon you’ll get better … cause you have to.”

13) “False God” (written by Swift, Antonoff)

A relationship seems to be crumbling in this slow jam, mixed with all sorts of religion metaphors about false gods and worship. “I know heaven’s a thing, I go there when you touch me,” she sings. “Hell is when I fight with you.” Plus, there’s another West Village/New York City reference to decode.

14) “You Need to Calm Down” (written by Swift, Little)

After years of being silent about politics, Swift made an abrupt pivot last year; she has been particularly outspoken about LGBTQ rights. The music video for “You Need to Calm Down” stars a long list of gay cultural icons (Ellen DeGeneres, RuPaul, the cast of “Queer Eye,” etc.) celebrating life while they ignore protesters carrying signs that say “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.” (“Shade never made anybody less gay!” Swift happily cries out in one verse, a line that has drawn some criticism.) The lyrics encourage everyone to ignore the haters and maybe even to resolve feuds, as Swift and her former frenemy Katy Perry hug it out in the video.

15) “Afterglow” (written by Swift, Bell, Feeney)

Almost 10 years ago, Swift released “Back to December,” the first time she apologized in a song for the way she treated someone. “Afterglow” has similar echoes, as she admits that she’s at fault for a relationship falling apart. “Why’d I have to break what I love so much? … I’m the one who burned us down,” she confesses, then still asks if the scorned party will “meet me in the afterglow.”

16) “ME!” feat. Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco (written by Swift, Little, Urie)

As the album’s first single, Swift set the tone for her new era with this candy-coated duet and fever dream of a music video. “‘ME!’ is a song about embracing your individuality and really celebrating it and owning it,” Swift explained at the time. The lyrics are pretty elementary, literally; one line goes, “Hey, kids! Spelling is fun!” The choruses double down on Swift’s common themes of fretting over insecurities in relationships (“I know that I went psycho on the phone”) and quarrels during extreme weather (“When we had that fight out in the rain, you ran after me and called my name.”)

Singer Taylor Swift debuted a music video for her new song, "ME!," at midnight on April 26. Here are some of the highlights. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

17) “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” (written by Swift, Bell Feeney)

This ballad is strangely haunting, considering the straightforward title — maybe it’s the constant repetition of “it’s nice to have a friend” while a chorus chants “oooohhhh oohhhh” in the background. Although the line “something gave you the nerve to touch my hand” makes it seem as if the subject of the song is more than just a friend.

18) “Daylight” (written by Swift)

Again, “Daylight” was almost the name of the album, and it makes sense when you hear the song: After years of mistakes and wrong turns and self-doubt, Swift is in a much happier place. “It’s brighter now,” she sings. “I don’t wanna look at anything else now that I saw you.” She also calls out a song (“Red”) that she wrote when she was much younger: “I once believed love would be burning red.” Now, she’s older, wiser and knows better: “But it’s golden … like daylight.”

Read more:

Taylor and Kanye: How two superstars, four words and 15 seconds of TV influenced a decade of pop culture

Can Taylor Swift really rerecord her entire music catalogue?

What led to Taylor Swift posting her political Instagram message?