Taylor Swift celebrated her 3oth birthday in the most Taylor Swift way, and I fancy it. Lover is Taylor’s most personal recording yet, thus it makes purrrfect since that this real-life cat lover indulged in not one but two cat cakes. In the middle of Taylor’s set at the annual “Jingle Ball,” in which she performed “Christmas Tree Farm” live for the first time, Z100 host Elivis Duran surprised the Grammy Award winner with a three-tier cake featuring all three of her feline kiddos: Olivia (named for Benson), Meredith (named for Grey), and Oliver. “You have to eat the whole thing,” the radio host joked before the 20,000-plus audience sang happy birthday to Taylor. T-Swift later posted photos from a much more intimate private party, where her guests included Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski and supermodel Gigi Hadid. Taylor posted with her star-studded “squad” in front of two Christmas trees and rows and rows of festive red tinsel. Swift captioned the photos. Ladies and lads, that second party “fur real” featured a second cat cake. Topped with mounds of red and white roses, the single-tier stunner appeared to also feature her three feline friends. Food has played a central role in Taylor’s “Lover” era. After “Drunk Taylor” went viral, the singer-songwriter celebrated the release of her new album with a pretty pink ombre cake and champagne. Taylor also ended her years-long feud with Katy Perry, breaking through the noise with gifts of cookies and literal olive branches. They later appeared together at the close of Taylor’s “You Need To Calm Down,” where they hugged in hamburger and french fry costumes.
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Taylor Swift is more of a lover than a fighter. The singer-songwriter doesn’t say it out loud on her seventh album – the successor to 2017’s Reputation, an aggressive record in which she came out swinging – but it’s hard to escape the conclusion on a record that Swift is calling “a love letter to love”. “I’m in my feelings more than Drake, so, yeah,” she winks at one point. Reputation’s murky mood board went big on snakes, bling and shade thrown and received, the aftermath of a highly public feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West. By contrast, Lover is a kitsch-leaning festival of humour, pastels, butterflies and the desire not to be defined by negatives. It is, in large parts, a hoot. For a songwriter of such control and emotional intelligence, Swift is rather over-partial to obvious juxtapositions – her lyrics often hinge sharply on roses and thorns, sunshine and rain.
Daylight, the 18th and final track on this long album, finds Swift waking from “20 years of sleep”. But her binaries aren’t always absolute. You get the feeling that if the “old Taylor” was “dead” at the start of the Reputation era, she was only ever in suspended animation, in a kind of R&B-adjacent fever dream. Lover returns to business as usual, the dramatic pop of 1989 via the confessionals of Red. Swift is back in her happy place, writing finger-snapping pop songs about falling in and out of love, abetted by a variety of producers, two of whom now ping-pong regularly between her and Lorde: Jack Antonoff, producer of Lorde’s 2017 album Melodrama and lots of Swift’s last two albums; and Joel Little, the midwife to Lorde’s early work. Trailers such as ME! Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie that verges on a cheerleader chant – and You Need to Calm Down, a fabulously pitched takedown of haters, bigots and internet trolls, have exuded playfulness, tunefulness and wit in equal measure.
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An album so long is bound to be a mixed bag. Strong opener I Forgot That You Existed is a breezy kiss-off to an old flame or, perhaps the whole Kimye era: “Lived in the shade you were throwing till all of my sunshine was gone,” Swift recounts. By track 11, though, Swift is hymning her current flame, the British actor Joe Alwyn, who “took her back to Highgate” to “meet all of his best mates” on a cringe-inducing song called London Boy. This sort of thing might pass on one side of the Atlantic but, on the other side, it is redolent of Guy Ritchie-era Madonna in her tweeds drinking bitter. For every reasonable assumption of a return to form, however, there’s the suspicion that Lover might be at least a partial retrenchment until Swift decides what to do next. If it sounds as if we’ve been here before, it’s because we have.
Many of Lover’s songs are recognisable in structure and content from albums past, with Swift’s signature shouty endings, her key changes that keep things moving along and her carefully deployed lyrical detail all to the fore. Anticipatory tunes such as I Think He Knows and Paper Rings flirt hard, but perhaps not quite as hard as 1989’s magisterial Blank Space did. “Who could ever leave me darling,” sings Swift on The Archer, a moodier, more elliptical track, “but who could stay? ” – revisiting the idea of Swift being a romantic handful, present on Blank Space and other songs passim. Lover, the title track itself, is a perfectly good ballad, light on detail but with a fantastic pregnant gap in its dynamic and a husk to Swift’s voice that could grow to become more interesting. The heart, not unreasonably, takes up a fair amount of airtime on Lover, but Swift has other concerns. There’s fight left in her, too, in the form of The Man, a bouncy Joel Little production where Swift decries the double standards by which high-profile females are judged.