Ms Taylor Swift must be the most galling, frustrating creature for those who find her at best tolerable, and more often, insufferable. And I don’t mean because she seems unable to be anything but successful; though that is more than enough reason.
A pop politician of a rare kind, Swift usually reads her audience so well that she’s telling them what they want to hear before they know it’s what they wanted to hear. It’s what the best have always done of course, from The Beatles and Joni Mitchell to Madonna and Radiohead, and almost everyone aspires to it. But only the best can pull it off consistently.
It’s what has made Swift’s many transitions from teen country storyteller to modern pop maven so striking, and, in retrospect - where as any press gallery journalist knows, all analysis gets to look great - so obvious or necessary.
We can carp at the (assumed, sometimes quite rightly) cynicism of a career built in-part on claimed sisterhood and representative solidarity, that in fact is as much about me-me-me as any K. Rudd or D. Trump. She doesn’t have a posse; she has an entourage.
However, it’s stupid to ignore that (a) the songs have connected to a need/gap there; (b) some or many in the audience are capable of seeing the self-burnishing, and can live with that; and (c) the songs have, mostly, made the decision on ego vs genuine irrelevant because they’re so good.
And on Lover, she has recaptured the art of the very good song. From the aching electro of the outstanding The Archer, rich R&B balladry of False God, and the girl group-via Lana Del Ray feel of the impressive title track, to the grand ‘90s tone of Daylight and the offhand sparkle of I Forgot That You Existed, Swift and her co-writers have fashioned quality.
However, that’s not the most telling move here from this tactician. Like a government given a bit of a scare at the polls – in this case the reduced success of 2017’s paranoia-and-revenge -soaked Reputation, and some surprising new fronts of criticism on social and regular media - this is an album less concerned with trying out the new, and all about reclaiming lost ground by being as many T Swifts to as many people as necessary.
Included in that group are those who began as fans of the teen country star and have felt neglected for years as she moved into what they sometimes derided as unnecessary Katy Perryisms. Soon You’ll Get Better doesn’t just have a banjo and fiddle, gentle pace and a sweet tune, but intimate vocals and, yes indeed, The Dixie Chicks. Almost as a bonus, it’s really pretty.
On the flip, the shiny-floor-pop version of Swift is in mid-tempo mode for I Think He Knows and a rather formulaic Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince, gets a little marching band rocky on the fairly ordinary ME!, and offers full bounce for the superior Paper Rings.
For those who have enjoyed the sharp retorts of someone who isn’t playing victim to anyone – or who you might say prefers to get her retaliation in first - the album’s opening I Forgot That You Existed is a reminder not to get on her wrong side, while You Need To Calm Down is snarky patronising couched in sugary sounds and questionable associations.
By-the-by, You Need To Calm Down is also dull.
But outnumbering the snark are songs from this weird creature, a gushingly happy Swift, who is happy to be “over-dramatic and true to my lover” and fair skips through the album. It’s a little startling to be honest and I’m probably not the only one to wonder, midway through any one of these tracks, if two songs from now this new (English) chap will be getting it in the neck for being a little shit.
Not that I begrudge her that happiness. I’m not sure being happy for Swift is enough though to allow full acceptance of London Boy. Here she mixes in British patois and London landmarks with the shame-free abandon of someone just discovering a language, while a mechanical rhythm track and pedestrian chorus serve more to emphasise the flaws than the flow. The far less busy It’s Nice To Have A Friend does a similar job better.
If the 18-track Lover chooses safety over adventure, and length over focus, it does bring a higher rate of satisfaction than Reputation. Treading water? Maybe, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to consolidate your base, remind them that you are there for them, before triggering another wave of reform.
It’s smart politics, and smart pop.