Taylor Swift album releases regularly cause frenzies: Image after image of the album cover appears on many an Instagram story, accompanied by a crying emoji and caption about how her new work is relatable or emotional. People with accounts on genius.com set to work decoding (abundant and childish) Easter eggs in the lyrics, providing a blueprint to plebeians who only manage to listen to the new release at 10 a.m. after having had their first cup of coffee. (Necessary, for an optimal listening experience.) And, on the morning of August 23, after the midnight release of “Lover” but before the universal 9-5 work day, Buzzfeed published an article at 8:38 a.m., unpacking how Swift feels about Calvin Harris on the first track, titled “I Forgot That You Existed.” Clearly, her memory lapse has disappeared, because she does not hold back.
At this point, the frenzy will happen even if the quality of Swift’s music took a sudden noise-dive, but mania at this scale, for this album, is largely unwarranted. The individual moments that are worth hearing, lasting a few lines in a smattering of songs, do not have the power, unfortunately, to life up the entire album. This becomes more noticeable as the album progresses and the songs start to blend into each other almost indistinguishably.
It’s unfortunately telling that many of the 18 songs on Swift’s newest album are immediately forgettable. “I Forgot That You Existed” glides smoothly into “Cruel Summer” in a way that is pleasant at first, then bland. Their tempo is similar enough to make the transition effective and logical, but both songs lack the spark that could make them memorable. “Cruel Summer” contains the line “‘I love you,’ ain't that the worst thing you ever heard?” which accurately sums up fraught tentativeness of dating in 2019, but it’s otherwise buried deep in the song itself.
Stand-outs include “The Man,” in which she — like many women no doubt have done once in their lives — imagines what life would be like if she were a man who acted in the exact same way as her female self does (spoiler: she would face less backlash in the media); “I Think He Knows,” a bop whose energy intensifies to the point of catchiness on the line “skipping down 16th avenue”; “Cornelia Street”, which anchors love to a place in a way that feels remarkably relatable and familiar; and “London Boy,” a song that is a parody of itself and is thus successful at providing absurd entertainment.
One honorable mention is “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” if not only for the title. Swift sounds a tad more mature on this track, having realized that when “you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes,” but the self-reflection does not go deep enough, and makes for a frustratingly unsatisfying listen thanks to its tepid vagueness. There’s a lingering sense on this track, and on the vast majority of the others on the album, that there has to be something more — that Swift hasn’t quite tugged at all the heartstrings like she has in the past, in songs like “Red” or “Holy Ground.”
The most glaring aspect of the album is its lingering blandness: It’s very easy for the mind to wander halfway through one track, only to wind up at the end of the album wondering whether all that time really passed. (Weren’t we just on the second song?) Perhaps this is intentional, however. Swift certainly loves dropping Easter eggs almost as much as her fans love parsing her words, magazine interviews, and awkward dance moves on stage — and maybe, three years into a closely-guarded relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn, things are boring because there’s simply less fodder to write about. Not that reflections on their relationship don’t appear on “Lover”: the title track, “Paper Rings,” “Cornelia Street,” and “London Boy” all seemingly refer to him. Yet even these four songs might be condensed or considered interchangeable.
Lyrically, the album falls flat. Short verses, even shorter bridges, and breathy choruses keep each song running close to three minutes most of the time, but the substance simply isn’t there. Amid this summer’s earlier controversy surrounding “You Need to Calm Down” — Taylor, dealing with haters is not the same thing as dealing with rabid homophobia — the poor quality of her metaphors and lyrics went unnoticed. It’s a little harder to mask these issues when they appear on much of the 18-song tracklist. It would also be nice if “throwing shade,” which appears at least twice on this album, was excised from the lyrics on any forthcoming albums.
At some point, Swift decided that talk-singing would be an interesting path to explore: admirable, certainly, since artists don’t have to be loyal to past work simply to appease current fans’ nostalgia. But it appears on multiple tracks, including “I Forgot That You Existed,” and it does not do her music any justice, and quickly becomes childish. Indeed, much of the album sounds as though Swift were far younger, and though there’s no specific way an artist should sound at the age of 30, the listener is left wondering when, if ever, Swift’s work will mature into something more complex and nuanced than this latest release. One way to do that? Get rid of the Easter eggs. Let the musical quality (or lack thereof) speak for itself.
—Staff writer Cassandra Luca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.