Not too long ago, Taylor Swift was the girl you didn’t want to write a song about you. Her albums are filled with easily decipherable references to the men she’s dated, and the most obvious were always on break-up songs. No one wants to be on the receiving end of a Taylor Swift break-up song: They sound like healing wounds, re-opened by tear-stained guitar strings, then bound in a lost scarf.
Her love songs, by comparison, were never as tangible. They were built upon fantasies and metaphors, always viewed through rose-tinted glasses. While her heartbreak tales were helplessly grounded in harsh, recognizable realities, her love songs were at their best when they were telling someone else’s story, like the Romeo & Juliet-inspired “Love Story” or Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy on “Starlight.” If it wasn’t someone else’s story, the love Swift wrote about was always a precursor to a fall; cursed, dangerous, and doomed from the start, like “Treacherous,” “Out of the Woods” or “Getaway Car.”
“There’s something to be learned from waiting all day for a train that’s never coming. And there’s something to be proud of about moving on and realizing that real love shines golden like starlight, and doesn’t fade or spontaneously combust,” she wrote in the liner notes for her 2012 album Red, warning of the relationship misses she would delve into on the LP. “Maybe I’ll write a whole album about that kind of love if I ever find it.”
On Lover, Swift writes as if she’s found the love she dreamt about. She teased her deepening feelings on Reputation, but the truly stellar moments of new love (“New Year’s Day,” “Call It What You Want”) were overshadowed by ongoing feuds (“Look What You Made Me Do”) and the same looming romantic danger from her earlier years (“Gorgeous,” “I Did Something Bad”). Lover is Swift’s first album about falling in love, rather than falling out of or longing for it.
Though the album begins with some of the pessimism that defined Reputation, it’s shed quickly: on “Lover” and “Paper Rings” she is practically reciting marriage vows, a far cry from the let-down dreamer of “White Horse.” Elsewhere, she gives the type of pointed, searing detail she reserved for the ballads of her broken heart on happier, hopeful tunes. “Cornelia Street” takes us to a literal location, the place in New York City where Swift rents a home. “Windows swung right open, autumn air/Jacket ‘round my shoulders is yours/We bless the rains on Cornelia Street/Memorize the creaks in the floor,” she sings, taking back the tragedy-tinged fall recounted in “All Too Well.”
“London Boy” takes Swift and her love affair across the Atlantic, where she walks Camden Market, watches rugby in pubs and now enjoys high tea. It’s as wide-eyed as “Welcome to New York,” but now there’s someone next to her. On “False God,” she returns to the East Coast: “And I can’t talk to you when you’re like this/Staring out the window like I’m not your favorite town/I’m New York City,” she sings alongside a mellifluous jazz solo.
Swift’s writing on Lover is more nuanced than ever, but she never loses her towering affinity for a dramatic metaphor. She has always been obsessed with primary colors, long night drives, sparks of romantic fantasies; she’s just experiencing them in real time now. Those sparks, though, can burn, the colors blind, and the cars crash. Pop’s leading heartache historian peppers Lover with fear over what she could now lose. “Death by a Thousand Cuts” compares the loss of her relationship to a slow, painful death. There are arguments and mistakes made on both ends. Even on the idyllic “Cornelia Street,” she recalls when she tried to leave — before realizing that there was no need to protect herself anymore.
For Swift, singing about love — real love — was a rite of passage. She needed to earn it, and after years of break-ups, make-ups, and countless classic ballads in between, she’s finally grasping what she’s long been reaching towards. Lover is the sound of a songwriter writing the album she has always wanted to write. Like falling in love, it feels better than you imagined.