When Taylor Swift announced a new single back in April, with news of a new album shortly to follow, the reaction from around the Internet could roughly be summed up in one word: Already?
Not that she had just dropped a new album a couple months earlier, exactly. Swift’s sixth and most recent LP, Reputation, was released a good year and a half previously, back in November 2017 — which by Future or Ariana Grande standards, may as well have been an entire lifetime earlier.
But for Taylor, it did feel… soon. Though Reputation didn’t have as long an extended half-life as her 2014 blockbuster 1989, its presence was still felt well into 2018 — “Delicate” didn’t top Billboard‘s Pop Songs tally until late July, and she was still kicking off major award shows in mid-October — while her stadium-trotting Reputation Tour took her all the way into last November. It seemed like a break of some sort was in order, particularly given the three years separating the releases of 1989 and Reputation.
But no — Swift decided to move on quickly this time, and the result will be the shortest gap in between albums thus far in her 12-year career when seventh LP Lover is released this Friday (Aug. 23), about a year and nine months after Reputation. And while that might be in part the result of the pop megastar adjusting to the quicker pace of the late-’10s pop world, it’s not exactly Eminem following Revival with the out-of-the-skies surprise drop of Kamikaze: In fact, it’s been conspicuous how Swift has actually slowed down her rollout from last time around. While Reputation followed lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” two and a half months later, “ME!” kicked off the Lover era a good four months in advance, giving Swift essentially the entire summer to slowly trickle out new songs, music videos, interviews and Easter eggs. Pop pressures may have caused Taylor to reappear quicker this time, but she’s still moving at her own pace.
More likely though, the faster turnaround time on Lover doesn’t really have to do with Swift trying to keep up with her ’10s pop star peers, as much as it does with her own hunger to get back in the game as quickly as possible. Because for the first time in her career, she’ll be releasing an album without it needing to be either a step up from or a direct response to the album before it. For the first time, the new Taylor Swift album will just be a new Taylor Swift album.
Which isn’t to say there won’t be themes from Swift’s personal and professional lives to consider when listening to and discussing Lover. As always, there’s been plenty going on with Taylor in between albums — from her increasingly vocal political activism to her deepening romance with actor Joe Alwyn to, most recently, her bitter dispute with former label head Scott Borchetta and occasional music industry adversary Scooter Braun over ownership of her masters. All of these real-life involvements will likely weigh on the songs on Lover — and even if they didn’t, we’d still pore over the album’s lyrics, art and accompanying videos and live performances for any and all clues on how they did.
But will the album, at its essence, be about any of these things? Will the narrative surrounding them dominate coverage of the album, the way that the fallout from her ongoing feud with Kanye West and the public shaming she took following Snapchat-gate guided the dialogue around Reputation? Or the way that her much-hyped full move towards pop informed discussion of 1989?
Unlikely. And that improbability is borne out by the four songs we’ve heard from the album so far: the sunny first-person pomp-pop of “ME!,” the hatorade-quenching electro-pop strut of “You Need to Calm Down,” the lush synth-pop heartbreak balladry of “The Archer” and the hazy, seductive waltz of “Lover.” Search all you want for the over-arching sonic or narrative themes that bind those songs, but you won’t find much; no two of ’em have that much in common, let alone all four. And those tracks make up less than a quarter of the Lover tracklist anyway — her most crowded album yet — which has been announced to include collaborators as wide-ranging as St. Vincent to the Dixie Chicks. From all indications, this won’t be a Taylor Swift album we’ll be able to give a Friends episode title-style summary.
Plus, it’s not just narrative expectation that she’s been released from: This will also be the first Taylor Swift album in at least a decade to not be under pressure to be more commercially successful than the one that came before it. For five albums, Taylor Swift kept leveling up commercially, each time moving more first-week units than the release before it — even as those numbers got into the seven-figure range, starting with third album Speak Now in 2010, and peaking with 1.287 million for 1989 in its debut week a half-decade ago. Taylor and her team tried to exceed that number with Reputation in 2017 — with reports of the Big Machine family even aiming for a nearly unprecedented two-million first-week mark — but fell just short, instead landing with a 1.218 million first week, breaking Swift’s already-impossible streak.
And if you were looking for some kind of storyline to frame Lover around, it’d probably be that: Taylor Swift bouncing back from what was pegged by some as the first commercial and critical disappointment of her career, with Reputation. But how much did Reputation really underwhelm, even? The first-week numbers were worse than 1989‘s, but only by a small fraction — and still made it the best-selling album of 2017 in its first week alone. It didn’t generate the hits that 1989 did, but still managed to interrupt Billboard Hot 100 history with one No. 1 hit, and spawned five Hot 100 top 20 hits total, including the aforementioned Pop Songs airplay No. 1 in “Delicate.” It wasn’t as strongly reviewed as 1989, but still landed on a variety of critics’ year-end album lists, including Billboard‘s own top ten. Factor in an ensuing world tour that grossed nearly $350 million, and it’s not like a case for Reputation making Taylor the underdog again would be particularly convincing.
With a couple years’ clarity, removed from all the backlash against Swift for her perceived insincerity (and political neutrality), we can now look back on Reputation for what it actually was: a very good pop album that was very successful. That might not give Lover a particularly sexy comeback story to work with, but what it does give the album is much more valuable: the chance to hopefully be judged almost entirely on its own merits, without all the background noise that has cluttered evaluation of Swift’s older releases. And for an artist who’s spent her first 12 years dealing with expectations that have only ever gotten bigger and more consuming, it’s pretty understandable that she’d want to get to that next phase of her career as quickly as possible.