Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for iHeartMedia (Getty Images)

Taylor Swift has spent much of her career defending her musical bona fides and creative decisions. On her country-geared early albums, she tirelessly established over and over again that the hopes, daydreams, and romantic travails of a teenage girl merited respect. With 2012’s versatile Red, Swift successfully made her mark on genres beyond country, while 2014’s 1989 was a full-fledged, triumphant push onto pop stardom’s A-list. Of course, along with that greater fame came even more scrutiny into her love life, friendship squad, supposed frenemies, and stance on current events. Swift took this criticism to heart on 2017’s pop patchwork Reputation, which veered between sweet romantic snapshots and biting lyrics directed toward the actions of various Haters™.

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Reputation didn’t quite hit the mark, as both its music and lyrics felt like exhausting hyperbole. But in interviews around Lover’s release, Swift’s emotional clarity has been impossible to miss. She’s put up a tall fence around her private life and long-term relationship with boyfriend Joe Alwyn; been forthright about her stance on LGBTQ rights and politics for the first time; and frequently stressed the importance of artists owning their work. It’s perhaps no surprise that Lover—the first album with music she owns outright, thanks to a new major-label deal—finds Swift in a confident headspace, secure in the knowledge she has no need to prove herself to anybody.

This freedom also means Lover is one of her strongest, most relatable albums to date. In fact, from song one, Swift’s narrators speak from a position of power. “I Forgot That You Existed” captures the exact moment a switch flips and someone no longer lets a toxic person (an ex? a former friend? a bad co-worker?) take up brain space. Swift is deliciously flippant as she half-speaks lines such as, “I forgot that you existed / It isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference.”

A delightfully pointed track called “The Man” is equally straightforward, as Swift outlines in no uncertain terms the double standards to which strong women such as herself are subjected. “If I was out flashing my dollars, I’d be a bitch, not a baller,” she sings in a crisp, no-nonsense tone. And the Knife-like electro-pop single “You Need To Calm Down” is highlighted by the savage snark she directs toward homophobes: “You would rather be in the dark ages / Making that sign / Must’ve taken all night.”

As the latter song implies, Lover’s protagonists are also encouraged to share hard-fought, real-talk wisdom. Source material naturally includes heartbreak; the melancholy “Cruel Summer” details an ill-fated fling with a “bad, bad boy,” while the Someone Great-inspired “Death By A Thousand Cuts” is an agonizing look at the experience of trying to get over someone. Attempting to extrapolate intel on Swift’s real-life relationships is futile, however: Lover’s lyrics are aspirational glimpses into love’s day-to-day joys that (mostly) don’t explicitly reference Alwyn or other boyfriends. Instead, her lyrics drop just enough breadcrumb hints into reality to make songs more believable.

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But it’s certainly no coincidence that Lover’s most resonant songs involve narrators bold enough to get into romances with actual stakes, just like she has in recent years. “I Think He Knows” is a sassy song about the giddy first blush of a reciprocated crush, a Swift lyrical sweet spot: “He got that boyish look that I like in a man / I am an architect, I’m drawing up the plans.” “Afterglow,” meanwhile, stars a contrite protagonist taking the blame for screwing up and hurting their partner, and the protagonist of “Cornelia Street” realizes the thought of a breakup means a place with shared memories would be too painful to revisit. Only “London Boy,” between its too-convenient name-checking of both current fashion collaborator Stella McCartney and London landmarks, falls on the wrong side of cheesy. (Those who noted parallels to Ed Sheeran’s equally syrupy “Galway Girl” aren’t far off.)

Music-wise, Lover matches this forward-thinking perspective, as it’s more focused than Reputation and boasts smart sonic detailing throughout. Faint church bells peal occasionally in the background of “Death By A Thousand Cuts,” quite a wounding sound when you’re nursing a broken heart, and a chorus of background harmonies adds subtle warmth and verve to multiple songs.

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In even better news, Lover boasts the kind of uniform sonic mood board last heard on 1989. The album mixes contemporary touchstones—think pastel-tinted, Carly Rae Jepsen-style indie-electro-pop—with plenty of piano and modernized spins on retro flourishes. The horn-accented “I Forgot That You Existed” is soulful girl-group bubblegum, for example, while an exuberant “Paper Rings” is glammy new-wave surf-pop. The title track, which Swift wrote herself, is even better: With its pizzicato strings and waltzing tempo, it’s hazy indie folk that conjures both Mazzy Star’s violet sighs and a vintage country torch song.

Swift wisely sticks to a smaller core group of writing and production collaborators on Lover, which also helps the album’s cohesion. Annie Clark co-writes and adds guitar to “Cruel Summer,” while a partnership with Joel Little yields both shimmering pop rainbows (the Brendon Urie-featuring rom-com romp “ME!”) and cinematic gloom (the synth-pop horror show “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince”). Long-time foil Jack Antonoff turns in his best, most effortless work yet with Swift, as the pair dabble in snappy funk-pop (“I Think He Knows”) and sparse, James Blake-reminiscent R&B (the sax-seared “False God”).

However, Lover’s sleeper stunner is “Soon You’ll Get Better,” Swift’s collaboration with Antonoff and her long-time faves Dixie Chicks. The heart-wrecking song alludes to Swift’s mother’s real-life cancer bouts (“What am I supposed to do? / If there’s no you”) as the country superstars contribute fiddle, banjo, and soothing harmonies. It’s no accident that “Soon You’ll Get Better” is both brutally honest and the most country-leaning tune she’s made in years: With the subject matter, the song feels like Swift’s version of a warm blanket or comfort food—a throwback to a time when her mom’s health was better, and she was an ambitious young country hopeful finding solace while listening to the Dixie Chicks.

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“I once believed love would be burning red / But it’s golden, like daylight,” Swift sings on Lover’s swooning ballad closer, “Daylight.” Although the line is a callback to Red’s title track, it’s also Swift rather insightfully pointing out her own personal growth. For all of its rich production and lyrical complications, Lover has a simple premise: embrace gratitude and listen to the insights that emerge after a perspective recalibration. As always, Lover is an album Swift made for her fans. But it also feels like a record she made for herself, unburdened by external expectations and her own past.