Every few years, a new Taylor Swift album comes blazing over the kingdom of popular song like some celestial event, perfectly punctual and blindingly bright. But this time around, Swift is sprinkling her comet dust on a very different topography. A black, gay, make-believe cowboy named Lil Nas X just spent his summer at the top of the charts with a song about horsies, until only recently, when a teenage ASMR freak named Billie Eilish took his place. Our most popular pop has become delightfully outlandish and impossible to predict — two things Taylor Swift has never been.
It really brings her entire proposal into focus. Swift is dependable. She’s composed. She’s precise. She’s prolific. And she’s determined to keep giving us what (she thinks) we want, forever and always — which makes her stardom feel so antithetical to the wild-minded pop rebels of yesteryear and right now. Instead of widening the boundaries of her vision, Swift keeps drilling deeper into the center of it.
What happens once you reach the middle of the middle? Does everything just stop?
The middle of the middle is exactly where Swift’s latest album, “Lover,” stands. It’s as satisfying or as bland a listening experience as you’re inclined to have. Spontaneity and ambiguity remain her mortal enemies, and across 18 tracks, she vanquishes them 18 different ways. Every melody sounds expertly prim, every lyric feels completely literal. You know what you’re in for, which seems to be the entire point.
Above all, “Lover” follows the trajectory of her only big career pivot — something that happened back in 2014, when Swift formally announced that she was expatriating from country music for the greener valleys of pop (where she went on to sell 10 million copies of her fifth album, “1989”). Before that, she was beyond her years, singing about her teenage dreams with adult wisdom. But with “1989,” a switch seemed to flip: Swift has been describing her adulthood in the language of teen drama ever since.
Lesley Gore — the teen pop sage whom Swift most resembled back in 2008 — once said something extraordinary about how we grow up and venture out into the world: “You gotta make your 16-year-old self proud.” What excellent advice. Go forth into this cruel existence and conquer your childhood fears by living up to your adolescent idealism!
And yeah, Swift’s new songs continue to do this kind of work, but only by squeezing pictures of a complicated adulthood into a 16-year-old’s frame of reference. Throughout “Lover,” it can feel as if Swift is singing entirely to her former self: Your romances will be torrid and cathartic (“Cruel Summer” and “I Forgot That You Existed”); others will be just like in the rom-coms (“Paper Rings” and “London Boy”); and sometimes you’ll even drink wine like a real grown-up (“Paper Rings” and “False God”); but no matter how hard things get, don’t freak out because happily-ever-after is your birthright (the album’s title track).
Even Swift’s recently unveiled political views get played out in the context of a high school hallway. During “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince,” she dims her voice into a softer timbre, signaling her disenchantment with the state of our union. “Waving homecoming queens, marching band playing, I’m lost in the lights,” she sings. “American glory faded before me.”
It feels weird to hear our country’s current dysfunction played out on the set of a teen movie, but more than that, it feels sad. Instead of serenading her kid-self, Swift sounds more like a former child star trying to relive the teenage years she never got to have.
The saddest moment on “Lover” goes fathoms deeper, though. It’s a gripping ballad about her mother’s cancer treatment called “Soon You’ll Get Better.” Surrounded by supporting vocal harmonies from the reunited Dixie Chicks, Swift sounds as if she’s holding her acoustic guitar more tightly than ever before. She sets the scene: “The buttons of my coat were tangled in my hair/In doctor’s office lighting, I didn’t tell you I was scared.” By the time she reaches the refrain, she’s trying to bend fate with hope: “You’ll get better soon . . . because you have to.”
Swift is at her very best here, stepping outside of time, using a clean melody to consecrate a universal human truth: No matter how this world changes, at no point in life do we ever stop being our parents’ children.