After more than a decade in the spotlight, Taylor Swift has had her share of peaks and valleys: she's released seven albums, pulled off a nearly unprecedented genre-shift from country to pop, won 10 Grammy awards, adopted three cats, feuded with celebrities like Kanye West and Katy Perry, had several romantic relationships in the public eye, won one sexual assault trial, and reached the conclusion of her six-album deal with Big Machine Records that she signed as a teenager.
Now, at nearly 30 years old, the release of her seventh studio album, Lover, marks a new era for Swift, both professionally and personally. After signing with Republic Records, this album is the first she'll own outright. (Plus, after finding out that her nemesis Scott "Scooter" Braun bought the rights to her previous master recordings in a $300 million deal, the singer confirmed that she plans to re-record her old albums so she can own those, too.) Lover also finds Swift in a happy, approximately three-year romantic relationship—which she's kept exceedingly private—with the British actor Joe Alwyn.
Anyone who's listened to Swift knows that she constructs her art to imitate a version of her life. And indeed, much of Lover's massive, 18-song track list is devoted to what happens when you finally find the love you've been looking for. Several songs are entirely candy-coated. "London Boy" veers into the territory of her pal Ed Sheeran's "Galway Girl." On "Paper Rings," she declares she'd give up "shiny things" to marry her true love. There's also the album's waltzing title track—essentially Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You," but make it wedding first dance fodder. In short, Swift is no longer "rudely barging in on a white-veil occasion" to interrupt a wedding, like she dreams about in the title track from her 2010 album Speak Now—far from it. In the bridge of "Lover," she asks "ladies and gentlemen" to stand as she recites her own vows: "My heart's been borrowed and yours has been blue," she sings. "All's well that ends well to end up with you." (In response to these lyrics, rumors have swirled that Swift is engaged to Alwyn.)
Listening only to the effusive, romantic songs on Lover, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that Swift believes in some version of a fairytale. In her early albums, she often used the language of enchantment ("Enchanted"), Romeo and Juliet ("Love Story"), and schoolyard romances ("You Belong With Me") to tell her love stories. On other parts of Lover, she returns to this language but subverts it. In the Lana Del Rey-esque "Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Price," Swift alludes to her dismay at the state of American politics but chooses to set the song at a metaphorical high school: "American stories, burning before me," she sings in the second verse, "I'm feeling helpless / The damsels are depressed / Boys will be boys, then / Where are the wise men? / Darling, I'm scared." In the bridge, she performs a cheerleader chant, a perceived nod to the cheer captain she once envied in "You Belong With Me." In other words, now that she's the cheer captain, all she wants is to escape the world that created cheerleaders in the first place.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Swift tells the music critic Laura Snapes that she needs metaphors "to understand anything that happens" to her. In cases like "Miss Americana," when Swift does get political, her use of metaphor is clever but feels somewhat like she's skirting the reality of what she's alluding to, namely the 2016 election and the #MeToo movement. This is especially apparent when the song is compared with Del Rey's recent anti-gun protest anthem, "Looking for America." Set in modern-day America, Del Rey's spare, powerful song doesn't need a metaphor to make its point. Neither would Swift, who's certainly a deft enough songwriter to pull off a similar feat.
Swift also uses a different type of hypothetical—a counterfactual—to confront sexism. On the electro-bop "The Man," she posits how her career and her achievements would be received if she were a man. In the song's bridge, she makes a rare reference to her own anger: "If I was out flashing my dollars / I'd be a bitch, not a baller / They'd paint me out to be bad / So, it's okay that I'm mad." Her tone in the song overall is both fiercer and less clueless than her LGBTQ allyship anthem "You Need to Calm Down," and her point is well-taken, but her delivery of these lines feels dashed off—one beat and she's back to bopping through the slickly-produced chorus.
Before Lover came out, one place it looked like Swift might directly confront her anger—or her newfound (and important) political activism—was in her collaboration with the Dixie Chicks. In that same interview with Laura Snapes, Swift says that while she was singing country music, she was warned not to emulate the Dixie Chicks because they took a strong political stance. It's notable that when Swift finally did feature the group—they sing backing vocals on "Soon You'll Get Better," about her mother's cancer diagnosis—it's on a completely apolitical song. Though the song is heart-wrenching, it's tough not to fantasize about the rallying cry that could have been—a "Not Ready to Make Nice" updated for 2019.
It's difficult to reconcile the different versions of Swift that exist on Lover: the hopeless romantic and the pragmatist; the believer in her own fairytale and the grown woman who believes the whole construct is a sham. But there are places where both Swifts are present—where she negotiates the tension between them—and it's in these spots where she shines. "Cruel Summer," written with St. Vincent and Jack Antonoff (with whom she wrote the majority of the record), is without a doubt the best track on Lover. Over a pulsing synth beat, Swift details a doomed summer romance. Nowhere does she sound more urgent than in the song's bridge, when she nearly screams: "I don't want to keep secrets just to keep you." It's an absolute catharsis as well as the most genuine emotional nod to her LGBTQ fans, or anyone who knows the pain of keeping love a secret. The self-aware "Afterglow" is another highlight, in which Swift takes responsibility for her role in a fight, as is "The Archer," a minimal, Antonoff-produced track in which Swift admits, "I never grew up / It's getting so old."
Swift concludes Lover by asserting that her happy ending marks a new beginning. On the last song, "Daylight"—which was slated to be the album's title before she wrote "Lover"—she describes the wakeup call that came with meeting her true love: "I don't want to think of anything else now that I thought of you," she sings. "I've been sleeping so long in a 20-year dark night / And now I see daylight." One wishes that Swift didn't need to meet a man to wake up; that she could be the sole heroine of her own story. But the fact remains: now that she's seen the light—and her recording future is wholly hers—her next chapter begins now.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.