Now I See Daylight: Lover is Taylor Swift’s Brightest Glow-Up

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The musical event of my year transpired last night when Taylor Swift released her hotly anticipated 7th studio album, Lover. It’s Taylor’s 13th year in the game, my 11th year as a Swiftie, and we’ve both never been better. After dancing/crying/listening to Lover since last night, I’m finally ready to write my review of this triumphant, exuberant pop masterpiece.

It’s been a whirlwind past few months, from five holes in the fence to the star-studded, not-without-controversy YNTCD to the gorgeous title track that is “Lover.” As always, Taylor and her team have orchestrated a business-savvy album roll-out, complete with an elaborate, year-long, Easter Egg hunt. There is always much speculation about a Taylor Swift album, and a marketing campaign structured around clues is a smart way of creating the speculation, shifting listeners’ attention somewhere productive; in this case, re-watching the “ME!” music video over and over to catch all the eggs and amp up the video’s views. But to hear Lover in its entirety at the end of an Easter Egg journey is ultimately rewarding and intimate. “I am an architect, I’m drawing up the plans,” sings Taylor in “I Think He Knows.” The Lover era confirms her skills as a powerful architect; she builds speculation, constructs masterful bridges (she really went to “bridge city” with many songs on this album), and shows no signs of stopping.

The opening track, “I Forgot You Existed,” is an understated earworm that essentially bids the reputation era (and the Kimye drama of 2016) adieu. It isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference,” Taylor shrugs. Vocally, the song has a colloquial quality; throughout, Taylor speaks, laughs, even trails off. It’s the equivalent of the throat-clearing that launched Track 1 of reputation, “Ready For It.” The first and essentially last song about “drama” on Lover, “I Forgot You Existed” clears the path for the 17 raw, emotional tracks to come.

The immediate next track, “Cruel Summer,” is an absolute pop-bop that immediately takes us to the higher register (Taylor in soprano-mode is sublime). It’s likely the next single (Tay teased the title in the YNTCD video and in a recent Amazon ad). This is the first song on the album that takes us to BRIDGE CITY—Tay practically screams “he looks up, grinning like a devil” in the bridge, and it’s amazing. We get to hear several New Taylor Sounds in this album, and it’s a lovely surprise each time. The saxophone that opens “False God” and the way Tay sings “lo-o-o-o-ve” in the chorus prove that it’s all in the details. Structurally, the song staggers the lyrics in the chorus, such that each bleeds into the next (“Religion’s in your lips / Even if it’s a false god.” The religious imagery in Taylor’s past two albums is fascinating). Something similar happens, with even more syncopation (and brass!), in “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” which is the grown-up, dreamier version of “Mary’s Song.” Speaking of the debut album, the way Taylor sings the bridge of “Cornelia Street” (“Barefoot in the kitchen…”) sounds just like the chorus of “Invisible.” Are these callbacks to her debut album coincidental? Knowing Taylor, likely not.

Indeed, many moments in Lover remind us that the old Taylor is far from dead, as she previously proclaimed in LWYMMD. “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” makes a direct reference to Tay’s song from the Hannah Montana movie (I looove “Crazier”), and in “Daylight” she sings that she used to think of love as being “burning red,” a lyric from “Red.” And Track 12 of Lover, “Soon You’ll Get Better,” is like Track 12 of Fearless, “The Best Day” (one of my all-time favs)—both are songs about Taylor’s mom, Andrea Swift, who is currently battling cancer. “Soon You’ll Get Better” is the album’s #1 tear-jerker, and features Andrea’s favorite band, The Dixie Chicks. It’s the closest thing to country on the album.  

But on Lover, we are undeniably listening to a new Taylor who brings the storytelling traditions of country into the energetic world of pop. This Taylor writes about love from a stronger place of growth and self-confidence. You know that meme that goes, “I’m you but stronger”? That’s Lover to Taylor’s early discography. Tay’s confidence jumps out clearly in ME!, which was the first single Taylor released on 4.26 and honestly still one of my favorite tracks from the album (catch me yelling “HEY, KIDS! SPELLING IS FUN! on tour). I truly love Brendon Urie’s part in that song. Although “ME!”might have a reputation for being a “kids’ bop,” it channels a form of self-awareness that we also get on “Afterglow,” which is about a lover who understands her own flaws: “It’s all me, in my head.” Both “Afterglow” and “ME!” speak to the beauty and possibility of experiencing a storm with someone and recovering together afterwards, be it in the rain or in the light. It’s not just self-awareness that Taylor demonstrates on Lover, but also social awareness—this is the year she finally became vocally political, after all. “YNTCD” was her first LGBTQ anthem, and while some have accused her of “queerbaiting,” the song is her love letter as an ally to the LGBTQ community. Then there’s “The Man,” which slams the patriarchy by imagining a world in which Taylor is not a woman, but a man. “If I was out flashing my dollars I’d be a bitch, not a baller,” she sings. She also gives Leo Dicaprio a well-deserved roast; while Taylor’s dating life has received extensive scrutiny, tabloids don’t hate on “Leo in Saint-Tropez” the way they lambast Taylor for ‘serial-dating.’ “The Man” also sounds very much like HAIM’s “Forever” (“Dress” on reputation gave me HAIM vibes too). And I’ll forever stan Taylor x HAIM.

In Red, Taylor sings “Stay Stay Stay” to someone who later likely breaks her heart. Interestingly, the song on Lover that sounds like a musical echo to that track is “Paper Rings,” an adrenaline rush of a song about getting married. The song is another perfect 60s bop, and I love all the counting that happens in the song; it lyrically and spiritually channels the “you’re the only one I want” energy from Grease. “I like shiny things,” sings Taylor (we know) “but I’d marry you with paper rings.” And the other elephant-in-the-room song about marriage is of course “Lover,” which has literal wedding vows in its beautiful bridge. Of the three marriage-related songs on this album, “Lover” wins my heart (and it’s Taylor’s favorite song that she’s ever written, I hear). It’s a beautiful ballad that comes straight from the heart. Like the best Taylor Swift songs, it’s personal. We get straight to the time and place, like in “Cornelia Street,” the street on which Taylor used to live. In fact, the song’s melody seems to share the same musical pattern as “Delicate,” and some fans even speculate that the “third floor on the West side” from “Delicate” is on Cornelia Street. Another song is that is very location-specific is “London Boy,” which is a personal favorite for its allusion-heavy lyrics and catchy beat. I know that some Londoners are shaking their heads at the lyrics, but oh well—it’s a cute nod to Taylor’s current boyfriend of three years, Joe Alwyn, who (if you haven’t figured it out by now) is the inspiration behind many of the songs on this album.

Another standout, should-be-a-single track is the aforementioned “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” which demonstrates Tay’s exquisite, imaginative storytelling style and mastery of metaphor (“Getaway Car” was the masterful-metaphor song on reputation). I could really write a paper on these lyrics. The Guardian seems to think it’s about living in Trump’s America? It’s a song that, along with “The Archer,” is reminiscent of Lana Del Rey’s dreamy pop (although the latter, while lyrically lovely, has yet to totally grow on me). Taylor has long been outspoken about her love for Lana’s music (they also share a producer: the amazing Jack Antonoff). If this means that Taylor’s music is beginning to take on a slightly indie-rock quality, I’m not complaining. For instance, “Death by a Thousand Cuts” has a slightly Vampire Weekend-quality to it, especially with the freestyle piano tinkling that emerges towards the chorus. But it would be remiss for me to compare Taylor to other artists (although maybe this at least proves that I listen to other music hahahahahah). As she sings in “ME!”, she’s the only one of her(!), and Lover proves this to a T (see what I did there?). From the records it broke even before release day to the pop perfection we’re getting on every track, Lover is bold and brassy, and Taylor knows it.

A few months ago, Taylor wrote in an Elle listicle that she has learned to “step into the daylight and let it go.” That line has indeed revealed itself to be a lyric from the final track of Lover, “Daylight,” a 5-minute long song that beautifully closes the album. “I don’t wanna look at anything else now that I saw you,” sings Taylor to her lover. But she also ends with a monologue: “You are what you love.” For Taylor, to love someone is to also love yourself. And that message of self-love radiates throughout Lover.

Earlier this year, I read an article with the headline, “Sad Taylor Swift is the Best Taylor Swift.” While it’s true that artistic production does often come from places of suffering and heartbreak, Lover steps into the daylight and delivers songs on an album that is wonderfully bright. The album cover, shot by the talented Valheria Rocha, captures the softness and loveliness of this glow. In Lover, Taylor is not our heartbreak princess. And we don’t want her to be, either. She’s braver than “Fearless,” and she’s more than simply “Clean.” I’d like to argue that Taylor is at her best at her brightest, which is to say at her clearest and cleverest. She’s someone who shines, inside and out, in her music and in her life. The illuminating, skin-clearing grace that she delivers on Lover lights up my room. This review is glowing, and so is Lover.

My August Preoccupations: Summer 2019 Edition

From my full-time job to to Taylor Swift to my new fitbit to Hong Kong

Hello from Chicago! It’s a rainy day in August and I’m reading Catherine Barnett’s poem “The August Preoccupations,” which begins:

So this morning I made a list
of obsessions and you were on it.
And waiting, and forgiveness, and five-dollar bills,
and despots, telescopes, anonymity, beauty,
silent comedy, and waiting.

It’s a beautiful poem, and you can read it in full here. Like the speaker in the poem, I make lists (and tend to obsess over things). I’m writing today to share some of my recent obsessions (in bold), which run the gamut of being productive, time-wasting, devastating, and wonderful.

Since I graduated in June, I have been the *freest* I have ever been in years. I did first have to continue enduring my soul-crushing (I might be exaggerating, but it was stressful) job search, which concluded happily when I was hired by the Creative Writing and Poetics Department! I’ve been attending Creative Writing events and taking classes through the department since I was a first year, so am very fond of the community here. Last Monday, I officially started working as a Student Affairs Administrator for the department, and that’s what I’ll be doing for the next year. It’s exciting to transition from a student-role into a full-time student-supporting role, and I’m thankful that my postgrad job enables me to work with people I already know and love. It’s been a productive week and I’m so excited about having an office (I feel so grown-up).

Before I could officially get “hired,” however, I had to first wait for my EAD card to arrive in the mail. My EAD card, a work permit for fresh-out-of-college-non-US-citizens like me, finally arrived on August 2, almost four months after I had applied for the OPT (“Optional Practical Training”). It’s weird and demoralizing to watch some of the important documents in your life expire the second you graduate from college; my F-1 visa, which had allowed me to enter and exit the US for the past 4 years, did just that on June 15, the day I received my diploma. On the day I was freed from my academic obligations, I was also “trapped” in a state of waiting for my employment authorization card to arrive. Without it, I couldn’t work/get hired/get paid. It was challenging for me to apply for jobs back in March/April and tell potential employers that I wasn’t sure when I could start working, and that I could not stay in the US for longer than one year. In the first stanza of Barnett’s poem above, she says that she was obsessed with “waiting,” and so was I. I would log onto the USCIS tracking page daily to see if there were any new updates on my visa application, and my friends and I would look at real-time graphs of OPT processing times. I’m incredibly thankful that I had a place to live and saved-up money to spend during my period of unemployment. I’m also very grateful that my employers were willing to vouch for me and hire me despite my not-so-ideal visa status. Due to delayed processing times caused by the Trump administration, international students who wish to stay in the US for one more year have been having a particularly rough time. I’m sending speedy processing vibes to anyone who is still waiting for their authorization to clear.

Because I’ve been in a waiting limbo state for the past month or so, I’ve had some time to develop a healthy list of obsessions. After my mom returned to Hong Kong in mid-July, I moved into my new apartment (right across the street from where I used to live), where I’ll be living for the next year with my boyfriend Kevin and his three roommates (who are also my friends, and now also my roommates). I spent a good chunk of time cleaning and Marie Kondo-ing my life, which felt very productive. I did a lot of cooking, and made my own lasagna and curry for the first time. Kevin, Albert (our roommate) and I have also started watching Kim’s Convenience religiously, around two episodes a day (13 episodes per season, 3 seasons). We’ve just started season 3. It’s a wonderfully funny show that also masters the art of Hitting You In The Feels.

Every summer I decide to “get fit,” and this summer I invested in a short gym subscription so that I could take yoga/pilates/zumba classes, go swimming (the zennest thing), and occasionally run. What’s more, I am officially the proud owner of a fitbit!

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I’ve low-key wanted one for a while, because I find the slim ones super Aesthetic and also because Kevin has one. Now that I have one, I’m properly obsessed with meeting my step count, keeping tabs on my heart rate, and so on. I’m very much a watch-wearing person, and I guess I’m now also a tracker-wearing person.

My life as a Taylor Swift stan is also flourishing; her new album Lover drops on August 23, and I am sooooo excited and already obsessed! The title track “Lover,” which was released a few days ago, is the most beautiful song I’ve heard in a while. It takes me right back to her early discography, which have been with me for the past 11 years. She truly went to Bridge City with that song (see the meme I made). I’m teary-eyed and happy that Taylor has found her magnetic muse. So, yes, it’s a wonderful time for Taylor Swift fans everywhere! Expect a long review of the album to appear on this blog next week…

I’ve also been trying to get some writing done, and have been working on translations, book reviews, and old pieces of writing that I might want to get published. I just finished writing a review of Hai-Dang Phan’s Reenactments, which is a stunning collection of poems and translations. Truthfully, I imagined that I’d be doing a lot more writing in my spare time. But I haven’t actually been as productive in my writing life as I’d like to be. What I have been doing unfailingly every single day, however, is working as a Social Media Manager for Asymptote. I’ve been volunteering with the literary journal since May/June to share the latest literary translation news on its social media channels. It’s demanding but rewarding work, and I’ve enjoyed learning about what’s going on in the translation/literary world. I post on Twitter daily, and have therefore become obsessed with Twitter. I learn so much from it every day, and am beginning to think that 140 characters is all you need to convey a cleverly constructed, cogent claim.

Twitter has also been my go-to-place for learning about the Hong Kong protests, which is the last obsession I’ll be writing about today. Hong Kong has been plunged into police v.s. protesters chaos for the past month-ish, and it’s devastating. It’s devastating to see police fire tear gas on civilians who have no means of protecting themselves. Recently, police released gas into an underground railway station, effectively turning it into a gas chamber. Videos surface of little kids crying because of the gas that’s in their eyes. Mobs and triads have been doing the government’s dirty work, entering protest zones to beat and attack protesters (in at least one case, a pro-Beijing lawmaker was directly responsible or the triad involvement). I saw photos of triads attacking protesters in North Point, which is just down the hill from where I live. A woman lost her eye. A man’s face was brutally bloodied by police officers who were caught on camera being relentlessly violent. Chinese media outlets have been crafting fake news articles that distort the reality behind the protests. The government is saying and doing next to nothing. It’s a dark, dark time for Hong Kong, but the protesters’ resilience is testament to the unquenchable democratic energy of Hongkongers. As a city, we will not go gently into that good night, even if our means are gentle. And here’s the proof:

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So that’s all for now… what are your August Preoccupations?