Well, it’s no wonder she nixed that dopey lyric telling kids that spelling is fun: On “Lover,” Taylor Swift turns out not to be speaking to the children who made her one of pop’s biggest stars.
When she released “Me!,” her seventh studio album’s oppressively cheerful lead single, the song contained a much-maligned bit in which Swift and her duet partner, Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco, made like a pair of Nick Jr. hosts dispensing hollow after-school encouragement. Yet listen to “Me!” as the 16th of 18 tracks on “Lover,” which hit streaming services on Thursday night, and you’ll find that the line has quietly disappeared; now you hear a marching band doing its best to thump the memory out of your head.
The change does only a little to improve the still-saccharine “Me!” But at least it brings the song into closer alignment with the rest of the very impressive “Lover,” which wastes no opportunity for Swift, 29, to demonstrate that she’s, y’know, a grown-up.
“I’m drunk in the back of the car,” she sings in the pulsating “Cruel Summer,” one of many references to booze along with those in “Death by a Thousand Cuts” (“I get drunk, but it’s not enough / ’Cause the morning comes and you’re not my baby”) and “London Boy” (where a cute British guy is like a magnet pulling her away from “Springsteen, faded blue jeans and Tennessee whiskey”).
Other songs contemplate sex in the type of language that adults use — not showily explicit but with a casual knowledge of bodies in close spaces. “The old Taylor” may be dead, as Swift declared on 2017’s “Reputation,” but Old Taylor now clearly walks among us.
Yet it’s not just these totems of maturity that make “Lover” feel so attuned to an older mind-set (even as pop is in the midst of its youngest moment in years). Nor is it merely the sound of the album, which moves past the precision-geared synth-pop for which Swift has been known since 2012’s “Red” into choppy new wave (“Paper Rings”), Mazzy Star-like dream-folk (“Lover”), even humid ’80s-era R&B (“False God,” complete with saxophone).
“Reputation” did some of all that, too, albeit in the context of the singer’s various celebrity feuds, which generally do more to infantilize famous people than to convince anyone they should be taken seriously.
Rather, Swift demonstrates a kind of emotional wisdom on “Lover” — co-produced by her and studio wizards such as Jack Antonoff, Joel Little and Frank Dukes — that feels like the simple, if hard-won, result of nothing but experience. “False God” invokes religion to ponder how eager we are to fool ourselves with promises of perfection; “Soon You’ll Get Better,” inspired by Swift’s mother’s cancer diagnosis, offers the bitter taste of hope in a hospital room (and cuts only deeper for featuring the Dixie Chicks on pinprick backing vocals).
Then there’s “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince,” which appears to be … a full-on denunciation of the good ol’ U.S.A.? “My team is losing, battered and bruising,” she sings, finally picking a side in the culture war she once tried to float above.
Elsewhere the song layers on some pat high-school imagery, enough that anyone who might want to discount the allegory could reasonably do so. But little about the clear-eyed “Lover” leads you to believe that Taylor Swift is one of those people.