Yet Lover is also not a full return to the major-key, technicolor pop of 1989; whereas that Grammy-winning 2014 album represented a forceful and confident change in sound, Swift’s latest is her most ambitious project in terms of scope, pulling in disparate styles and ideas while decisively weaving them into a contained whole. There are songs about music industry sexism, LGBTQ representation and American anxiety intermingling with sun-stroked accounts of romance, rebels sprinting away with unkempt feelings and heartaches that cannot be drowned away. “London Boy,” a cheeky ode to a transatlantic romance -- “You can find me in the pub, we are watching rugby,” Swift asserts with a wink -- is immediately followed by “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a quietly devastating account of her mother’s health scares, with the Dixie Chicks recruited to harmonize over Wurlitzer, banjo and fiddle.
As a pop record of varying tempo, the pieces don’t always fit seamlessly, but Swift’s steadiness as a writer is enough connective tissue to prevent any jarring transitions or notable swoons across the track list. Free of expectation or any real narrative outside of her own making, she basically spends Lover doing what she wants, when she wants, dialing up the intensity in places and offering some of the most straightforward song structures of her career in others.
“Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” is as bombastic as its title suggests, with cheerleader shouts punctuating Swift’s helpless account of “American stories, burning before me.” Later, in the waning moments of the album, Swift is aided by the young voices of the Regent Park School of Music on “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” a lullaby that’s all clipped lyrics, steel drums and simple tenderness. The latter would sound at home in an episode of Big Little Lies; it sounds like no other Taylor Swift song before it, and is gorgeously startling as a result. Jack Antonoff remains omnipresent as a co-writer and co-producer, and new collaborators like Joel Little, Louis Bell and St. Vincent (who co-wrote and plays guitar on the dreamy, delicious “Cruel Summer”) make their marks, but Lover is driven by its lyrics more than any Swift album since Red, and Swift’s voice -- strong in its unabashed vulnerability, bleary-eyed at times but always clear-headed -- never wavers as the engine of this locomotive.
In essence, Lover is designed as a distillation of everything that Swift has already accomplished, different components condensed to reflect her current interests and longtime strengths as a singer-songwriter. It is a towering work that’s worth both close analysis on headphones and scream-alongs on stadium speakers. As a reflection of what Taylor Swift loves, Lover is whimsical, moving, imperfect, exhilarating. It’s a detailed snapshot that will endure.