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As the pop music landscape has shifted over and over again this decade, major artists have repeatedly attempted to reinvent the album release for a digital time: There have been surprise albums, visual albums, albums edited after-the-fact, albums with little notice and no advance singles, streaming-only albums, video-only albums and so on.
And then there is Taylor Swift, steady in her traditional pop playbook, with radio singles, music videos, magazine covers, television appearances and a stream of things for sale, all on schedule.
Just before the clock struck midnight on Friday, the singer, 29, released “Lover,” her seventh album and first for Universal Music Group/Republic Records after more than a decade on the Nashville-based label Big Machine. Swift, in the liner notes, called the 18 tracks “a love letter to love itself — all the captivating, spellbinding, maddening, devastating, red, blue, gray, golden aspects of it (that’s why there are so many songs).”
From the album’s earliest marketing last winter — cryptic hints on Instagram, a new wardrobe — she signaled a brighter palette, with floral, rainbow and pastel imagery, a clear shift from the relative darkness of her previous release, “Reputation,” from 2017, which centered on her long-running feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, and the resulting dings to her public persona.
“Lover” seems to start there, before indicating that Swift is ready to move on. The first track, “I Forgot That You Existed,” was written with Louis Bell and Frank Dukes, the production and songwriting team behind hits for Post Malone and Lorde, and appears to allude to West with lyrics like, “Free rent living in my mind/but then something happened one magical night/I forgot that you existed.”
Bell and Dukes are credited writers on two other tracks (“Afterglow,” “It’s Nice to Have a Friend”), while the bulk of the additional writing and production comes from Swift’s frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff. Other guests include Annie Clark, also known as St. Vincent (guitars and a songwriting credit on “Cruel Summer”), and the Kendrick Lamar-affiliated producer Sounwave (“London Boy”), both of whom have worked with Antonoff in the past.
The album was recorded largely in New York, at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan, and features numerous geographic shout-outs to the area, as well as to London, the home of Swift’s boyfriend, the actor Joe Alwyn.
Songs written solely by Swift include “Lover,” “Cornelia Street,” and the album-closer, “Daylight”; she is also credited as a co-producer on every track, and as the executive producer of the album. Notably absent are the Swedish hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback, who have appeared on Swift’s three previous albums dating back to “Red” in 2012.
The lead-up to “Lover” lasted longer than most promotional cycles in the streaming age. The first single, “Me!,” featuring Brendon Urie and co-produced by Joel Little, was released in April and reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 before gradually falling out of the Top 40.
The second single “You Need to Calm Down,” another Little production, followed in June, complete with a cameo-heavy, L.G.B.T.Q.-themed video. That song also reached No. 2 — during the record-breaking run of “Old Town Road” — and currently sits at No. 18 on the Hot 100, while steadily increasing radio play has sent it to a peak position of No. 9 on the pop songs chart.
The advance tracks Swift has released since are more muted. The title track “Lover” is built around acoustic guitar — an instrument more prevalent on this album than on Swift’s previous two — while “The Archer,” made with Antonoff, is a synth-based build that never breaks.
In a typical Swift dichotomy, the album and its path to release have mixed moments of intimacy and introspection with bombast and headline-grabbing controversies.
There was an array of corporate partnerships — Capital One, Amazon, Target — a limited-edition merchandise collection with Stella McCartney and a slew of promotional appearances that will continue into next week, including “Good Morning America” on Thursday, “CBS Sunday Morning” this weekend and an opening performance slot at the MTV Video Music Awards on Monday.
After eschewing interviews for “Reputation,” Swift also appeared on the cover of the September issue of Vogue, where she teased “The Man,” a playful song about sexism and double standards, and revealed that her mother was battling cancer for the second time. (On the “Lover” ballad “Soon You’ll Get Better,” which features banjo, fiddle and vocal harmonies from the Dixie Chicks, Swift sings, “Who am I supposed to talk to?/What am I supposed to do?/if there’s no you.”)
Less carefully calibrated was Swift’s industry-shaking war of words, beginning in June, with her former label, Big Machine, and its new owner, the manager Scooter Braun. When Braun announced that he had acquired the company, along with the rights to Swift’s first six albums, she responded with a fiery open letter that accused Braun of bullying her with Kanye West, and called out Scott Borchetta, the Big Machine founder, for his leveraging of her master recordings. (As part of Swift’s new deal with Universal, she will own her work in the future, beginning with “Lover.”)
During her promotional tour this week, Swift nimbly returned to that conversation and steered the narrative, announcing plans to rerecord new versions of her old material that she would control beginning in November 2020, when she said her past contracts would allow it.
“I think that artists deserve to own their work,” Swift said on “Good Morning America.” “I just feel very passionately about that.”
Now, with the arrival of “Lover,” the fan and industry conversation will once again return to business as Swift attempts to become the first-ever artist to sell one million copies in an album’s first week for the fifth time. (Swift is already the only musician to do so four times.) While downloads and physical sales have continued to fall industrywide since “Reputation” two years ago, Swift has doubled down on pairing albums with merchandise, an increasingly prevalent sales tactic. “Lover” will make its first appearance on the Billboard album chart on Monday, Sept. 2.
Swift’s late-summer release comes right on time in another sense: The deadline to qualify for next year’s Grammy Awards is Aug. 31, a month earlier than usual.
Joe Coscarelli is a culture reporter with a focus on pop music. His work seeks to pull back the curtain on how hit songs and emerging artists are discovered, made and marketed. He previously worked at New York magazine and The Village Voice. @joecoscarelli