Critic's Notebook: Taylor Swift's Sunny 'Lover' Plays it Safe

Her seventh studio album checks all the boxes but is short on inspiration, throwing a bland bachelorette party as she careens toward maturity.

As she explained to a room full of Swifties at yesterday's launch event, Taylor Swift's late-summer effort, Lover, is a sun-soaked mood board following 2017's "dark" and somewhat underwhelming Reputation, where she went "full swamp witch." For this latest album, she brought her Doris Day shiny aura and Lisa Frank dolphin crystals to the party, but it feels a little dry and leathery and at times like homework to get through.

Lover is the seventh record from the artist who began as a teen Nashville country singer. Like a well-oiled machine, she consistently puts out an album every two years, and this heavily marketed and merchandised campaign (anyone want an $80 hypercolor shirt?) feels heavy on aesthetic excess and light on anything breaking out of an anodyne, radio-friendly mold.

The record, while having its own sort of innate Swiftian charm, mirrors the artist's last year; it's all a bit uneven and tiring. Her love life seems relatively stable, following more publicly volatile relationships, and yet she doesn't seem particularly inspired, songwriting-wise. She's recently come out as being more politically explicit, and yet her politics seem fuzzy at best. Her Pride-pegged "You Need to Calm Down" in June felt forced and cynical. But resilient as ever, she rebounded as news of her ongoing battle with manager Scooter Braun broke and pitted her as a much more sympathetic foil to a man who among other unpleasantries was revealed to have ties to the Carlyle Group.

On paper, there's a lot purportedly going on here, but as seems increasingly common for artists of this echelon, editing of ideas doesn't appear to be on the agenda. Swift has never released an album with this many songs (18), following the trend of tentpole albums getting longer and looonger to maximize earning opportunities and juke streaming milestones. But like her last record, you can feel co-producer Jack Antonoff's fingerprints all over it, and for the most part, it pulls Swift to a blander, stiffer place. Shaking off that rigidity is a general, ongoing struggle for her, regardless of what style she's using on a given piece. You can hear that in her affinity for drumlines, which make an appearance here, but in her hands, they feel more militaristic and soulless.

The record's over-reliance on trap beats that don't quite swing also tends to hamper it, resulting in an overall vibe that feels like off-brand versions of Lana Del Rey songs from three years ago. Swift's voice and songwriting carry her signature layers, harmonies and attention to detail, but they suffer mostly for feeling mathematical, like the songwriting itself has been quantized — like every moment has been pre-cleared for a Target ad and pre-sold overseas like a Marvel movie. "Cruel Summer" is supposed to be the summer jam, but it doesn't quite pull it all together, even though it checks all the boxes.

Lyrically, Swift sticks to comfortable territory. She sings about PG-level partying and otherwise keeps to the tropes of earnest, slightly mischievous pop. In songs like "The Man," her metaphors get a little wonky. At moments she conflates feminist advancement with women becoming the face of entrenched power, which makes her feel like an accidental undercover cop. Her dad is a Blue Lives Matter guy, after all.

On the other hand, when the synthetic elements are stripped away and she drops the wooden woke act, it feels alive. On the Dixie Chicks collaboration, "Soon You'll Get Better," you can hear Swift hitting a groove. Some fans have clamored for a return to her straight-up country roots, and while this feature gives us a tease, it doesn't feel like enough.

Swift obviously has plenty of time to go full-country adult contempo, and she's still threatening to re-record her first six Scooter Braun-controlled records. So there's a lot to look forward to. While Lover feels like more quantity over quality and doesn't deliver any show-stopping moments, it should hopefully come at the right time to soundtrack back to school for the Swifties around the world.

Lover is her bachelorette-party album, as she finds herself careening toward maturity. Facing the impasse that all pop stars face when they graduate to their 30s, Swift is here to play the youthful thing for a little while longer.