No one expected Taylor Swift's seventh album Lover to be as good as it is. The singles ME! and You Need To Calm Down prefaced the record as a desperate grab for a pop chalice that was slipping away. Tucked at the end of the album, they are the weakest points of Lover. There's nothing desperate about the album at all, actually. It's a glorious return to her most intimate songwriting, letting her inform us about her rather than the other way round as Reputation too often did.
Like many albums in the streaming era though, Lover is bloated. At 18-tracks long, it's her lengthiest album (if we're not including the deluxe edition of Red). While Drake and Post Malone have proved the sales benefits in drawing out the album, it rarely leads to a cohesive album and that's exactly what's happened here.
From the glorious highs of Cruel Summer to the embarrassing lows of London Boy or I Forgot You Existed, it's a frustrating listen at times. We're gifted Swift's most poignant, honest songwriting alongside corny one liners that threaten to derail the whole album. The best example of that is London Boy leading us into Soon You'll Get Better. The former is so cringe-worthy that it takes a verse of the latter to throw yourself into it. That shouldn't be the case for a song as vivid and crushing as Soon You'll Get Better. It's a devastating song about her Mum who is fighting cancer for the second time - easily an album highlight when considered out of context.
When we looked at what would need to be chopped from the record in order to reveal a classic - perhaps even her best album - it's clear that she shines best with Jack Antonoff. The Jersey producer has been working on Swift records since 1989 but it was Reputation where he really shone, working on album highlights Dress and Call It What You Want.
On Lover, he's upped his contribution even more, co-producing 12-tracks from the pounding, liberating Cruel Summer to the gorgeously down-played False God. Their work together here combines Red's intimacy with 1989's pop sensibility. Antonoff brings the '80s drums and Swift brings the candour. It's a winning duo - one that only fails with London Boy.
The other producers and writers here, notably Joel Little, allow Swift to embrace hyperbole and fairytale. That's when it falls apart. On the painfully light I Forgot You Existed she seemingly brings up the Kanye saga again saying she's forgotten all about it. It's strange then that it pops up on the first song of the album. Afterglow with Frank Dukes and Louis Bell plods along at a glacial place while It's Nice To Have A Friend is either going to haunt or delight.
Thankfully, the Antonoff and Swift moment aren't far between. It's easy to get swept up in the brilliance of the album when there's a three song hit like Paper Rings, Cornelia Street and Death By A Thousand Cuts. "I think that you are what you love," she says in the heart-rendering closer Daylight and Lover's highs embrace this. When the album feels tender, colourful and sincere, it shines.
It's obvious why Swift went for a long album. The narrative surrounding her for the past few years is that her golden period has passed. She's known for smashing records and even if she clocks number one, the numbers are scrutinised. She's in a league of her own and anything below a million US sales in the first week is frowned upon despite being miles ahead of the competition. 18-tracks gives her a leg up.
That aside, Lover really needs to be an 12-track album. If the entire project was made up of the Antonoff tracks (swap out London Boy for Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince though) it would be a stunning pop record. 1989 and Reputation were huge, arena-ready albums but there's a quiet to this one that feels like it would benefit from a smaller scale - just like Lorde's Melodrama.
Even in its bloated final form, Lover is very good. How they landed on the singles they did is a conversation for another time but its best moments are too good to be brought down by the stumbles. Cruel Summer has the legs to go down as one of her best moments yet. And that alone is extraordinary for a pop giant on her seventh album.