One day, it had to happen: Taylor Swift has grown up. Not that the American sweetheart has eschewed her love affair with confectionary pop. As the pastel fashion and palette cues have suggested, the 10-time Grammy winner—including Albums of the Year for 2010’s Fearless and 2016’s 1989—is still invested in the euphoric feel-good music that defined her life after Country radio.

With Lover, her seventh album, Swift moves beyond the he-said, she-said connect-the-dots saga that often overshadows her music. In relinquishing the “Poor Taylor can’t find a boyfriend” trope, she’s able to embrace social consciousness (the effervescent, LBGTQ-embracing “You Need to Calm Down," the allegorical “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince”) and just, well, have some fun (the “Style”-echoing “I Think He Knows,” the cultural juxtaposition “London Boy,” the pep-club rallying “ME!” with Brendan Urie).

Yet embarking with Republic, where Swift can have anything and everything, she opts for a less-is-more approach. She leans largely on pal Jack Antonoff, as well as Joel Little, Louis Bell and Adam King Feeney on an album in which there’s sparser instrumentation, more room on the tracks and greater focus on what’s needed to deliver the emotional texture of these 18 songs, eschewing the layers upon layers that’ve often provided sparkle, thrust and a sense of “Wow.”

“Soon You’ll Get Better,” an almost lullaby, exists as a hushed moment of convincing herself, as much as the person she’s singing to (obviously her mother Andrea, who’s battling cancer). Reckoning with true powerlessness in the face of a disease lends genuine vulnerability to her vocal performance. Buoyed by the Dixie Chicks, who also provide fiddle and banjo filigrees, she is fragile, stoic and daunted, as fear and myopia anchor her perspective; it reminds us all that there are some things even this level of fame, success and money can’t resolve.

This gravitas—on a far less critical level—is present in the shattered love-affair claustrophobia of the pretty, emo-leaning “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” Stunned, she grapples with the chill, asking, “You said it was a great love, one for the ages/If the story’s over, why am I still writing the pages?”

Where Lover is different is the awakening and self-awareness. “False God” and “Afterglow” suggest the traps, band-aids and bridging insurmountable fights of coital connection. Yet, the Antonoff/St. Vincent collab “Cruel Summer” offers what may be the turning point in Swift’s saga as she sees what isn’t good for her through a lens that’s not melodrama or grand spite. In a feathery, filmy glaze, she real-time sings the hurt of knowingly putting one’s heart in the hands of someone unworthy.

“I’m drunk in the back of the car/And I cry like a baby, coming home from the bar/Said ‘I’m fine,’ but it isn’t true/I don’t wanna keep secret, just to keep you,” she sings, revealing the breathy truth. Lover’s second song, “Cruel Summer” encapsulates that moment in all 12-step programs of hitting bottom. Suddenly, the booze or the pills or the sex—whatever has held you—is seen for the trap that it is.

The title track, which follows, is an elegant post-Romantic punk stroll with a dash of Dusty in Memphis elegance. Its density swelling and fading, “Lover” unfolds with the euphoria of almost-wedding vows and stacked vocals. Exulting in the mundanities of conjugal existence—shared quarters, saved seats at tables, the intimacy of jokes shared, Christmas lights—those three summers shared are (theoretically) the gateway to the rest of her life with British actor Joe Alwyn.

Which gives the string-steeped “The Archer” a contextual poignancy and self-knowledge that transcends self-pity. The first pre-chorus on the Spandau Ballet-evoking ballad defines her means of survival and its traps: “Easy they come, easy they go/I jump from the train, I ride off alone/I never grew up, it’s getting so old/ Help me hold onto you” before positing the damned if I do/damned if I don’t reality of growing up on the cover of every magazine, TV show and tabloid, “I’ve been the archer, I’ve been the prey/ Who could ever leave me, darling?/But who could stay?”

There it is. The pretty princess’ reality and curse: Blessed with the things everyone desires, what lover would put up with all that comes with her? Lover rises with Swift’s ability to not churn a fairy tale, but work through the snags, own the stumbles and try to sort out an actual world of compromise. If “Paper Rings” works a post-Toni Basil “Mickey” or Belinda Carlile “Mad About You” brokered innocence, she’s making a point about shifting values on the Casio-centric track that feels as much Rogers & Hart musical as Rocky Horror Picture Show camp.

What sets the sincerity is the lovely “Cornelia Street,” a 21st Century Carly Simon-esque chronicle of first-night brio, fleeing from the inevitable blow-ups and not succumbing to ego in the name of intimacy. In this major-key confessional, which again lays out doubt and want, the listener gets the sense that fear and digging in will be turned back in the name of something unknown.

The relationship has its tempestuous points, but like all the listeners who found Swift’s truth to represent their own world, there comes a point where maturity settles and recognizing one’s inner self provides a freedom from the knee-jerk. As the gamine girl truly comes of age, she moves from the awestruck twentysomething who launched a million mouth-covering memes into a person seeking more, believing in the power of her work and standing up for the things she believes in: a home, a relationship, people-affirming values.

No doubt the story of this record will told in marketing breakdowns, hidden meanings, the palm reading of her relationships to others. But where she in the past has often created albums based on the drama, here it’s her willingness to embrace life on its terms that stands out.

She remains highly “Go, Girl.” Skewering the male/female double standard, she packs some Madonna swagger on “The Man,” laying out the reality of her much-discussed dating life with a razor-like clarity: “Every conquest I had made/Would make me more of a boss to you,” over a track where a march could almost be a swelling, sweeping dance track. By the time she hits the bridge, she turns the tables, asking, “What’s it like to brag about raking in dollars/And getting bitches and models?/And it’s all good if you’re bad, so it’s okay that I’m mad.”

More than even her rainbow coalition-validating “Calm Down,” Swift’s lust to call out the patriarchy slams the feminist ideals with a dance beat—making activist pop culture kind of fun. Without stridency, she somehow tosses acid and calls out hypocritical marginalizing with a simple, “If I was out flashing my dollars, I’d be a bitch, not a baller.”

BOOM! And there it is: The emancipation of TayTay. Still a bit of high-impact young woman, she’s willing to let go of the fairy tale in the name of an attainable and meaningful happily ever after. As all the little girls raised on impossible promises realize the world is often stacked against them, perhaps the very listenable Lover’s best aspect is its willingness to get real without rejecting the sweetness—the cat videos, the pulse-rushing notion of connecting and the thrill of hot sex, better conversation and speaking up for the marginalized with cold truth. It may not always be creamy unicorn goodness, but it can be pretty damn awesome. Even when it’s not Instagrammably perfect.

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Allow us to apologize in advance.

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