According to Aristotle, if we know about the greatest good, then we will have a target at which to aim. And if we miss the mark, at least we will know where to aim in the future. But not everyone knows about the greatest good, so some people will aim at a lesser good and hit a lower target, which is what Taylor Swift has done on her latest album, Lover. Musically speaking, and in terms of its production, Lover is a great success, as Swift and her favorite collaborator Jack Antonoff seem to have absolutely no trouble making an iconic pop record; but in terms of lyrical content, her aim is off.
Swift’s favorite number is 13, so let’s start there, on the thirteenth track of the album with a song entitled, “False God.” Swift’s false god is romantic love, which in itself is a good, but it is not the highest good or the greatest good, since it is not God. Reminiscent of Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” from a few years back, Swift combines religious imagery and romance (“Religion’s in your lips . . . The altar is my hips”) over a dreamy and hypnotic groove. This isn’t the first time that Swift has made romantic love the object of her worship, but it is the first time she’s been so explicit about it. The good news is that the young Augustine of Hippo went down a similar path of false worship in his youth, as he notes in his Confessions: “I sought for something to love, for I was in love with love.” Yet eventually, Augustine became Saint Augustine, so hope abounds. It’s also worth noting that since Swift recognizes the reality of a false god, she is also offering evidence for the existence of a true God, even if her act of worship is directed to its shadow.
Ever since she was fifteen years old, Swift has been in the spotlight, and although fame can make one grow up quickly, it also has a way of keeping one from maturing if one is not careful. Swift is beyond-her-years-brilliant as a businesswoman, and she has set the standard for making great pop records and sold-out stadium tours, and it’s hard to find an artist that is kinder to her fans, but went it comes finding a guide for navigating one’s young adult years, its best to look elsewhere. In fact, as I was preparing to write this review, I started to think about the young women I know (former youth group teens) who are all around Swift’s age (twenty-nine)—some are single, some are married, and some are married with children—and they all seem more settled, more satisfied, and more mature than Swift does on most of this album. For example, on three of the first ten tracks of Lover, Swift sings about being drunk (“Cruel Summer,” “Cornelia Street,” and “Death By A Thousand Cuts”), which may or may not be a cause for concern, but it does make one wonder.
Despite its bright sounds, catchy hooks, and some very clever songwriting (especially on “London Boy”), there is a shallowness and a palpable emptiness to much of Lover, which is ironic, but it goes back to the fact that romantic love can only take one so far. Swift has made a living writing about falling in love, and breaking up, and then finding love again. The details of the narrative change from album to album, but it’s pretty much the same story, and it gets tiring. Like all of us, Taylor Swift longs for a love that will last, and on the title track she sings: “Can I go where you go? / Can we always be this close? / Forever and ever.” Interestingly, it’s the same way that we conclude most of our prayers in Catholic liturgy: “forever and ever.” At the end of that day, that is what Swift longs for: a perfect love, an eternal love, a love that will last forever and ever. Whether or not she knows it, Swift longs for God. We all do.
The most serious track on the album is “Soon You’ll Get Better,” featuring the Dixie Chicks, which Rolling Stone reports is a song Swift wrote about her mother who recently battled cancer. It is not the best songwriting on the record, but it does deal with some of the best, most adult content, which is encouraging. This sort of adult-themed songwriting may be an indication of where Swift will take her music in the future, as her lived experience is changing, and that change is often painful, especially as parents grow older and we are forced to deal with the inescapable realities of sickness and death, topics that have not been and the forefront of Swift’s narratives thus far. Interestingly, Swift mentions Bruce Springsteen by name in a lyric on the preceding track, an artist who is a master of addressing adult themes musically. Perhaps we’ll see more of Springsteen’s influence on Swift’s songwriting down the road.
As much as Taylor Swift often gets lost in the throes human love without addressing the source of love itself, she does get it right from time to time. On the upbeat “Paper Rings,” Swift chooses the greater good (married love) over a lesser good (material possessions) as she sings, “I like shiny things / But I’d marry you with paper rings.” And on “It’s Nice to Have A Friend,” the most encouraging track on Lover, Swift calmly sings a simple little love song over sparse strings about a relationship that begins with friendship in the first verse and culminates in marriage (in a church!) in the final verse. Rather than a designating a man to either belonging in the “friend zone” or being a “lover,” Swift wisely acknowledges that if you’re going to get married, you ought not marry someone who is simply “hot” or “fun,” but that you ought to marry your best friend.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the last words on Lover are not sung, but spoken. Swift closes the record stating, “I want to be defined by the things that I love. Not the things I hate, not the things I am afraid of, the things that haunt me in the middle of the night. I just think that . . . you are what you love.” And here she hits the bull’s eye.