‘The Archer’ is Taylor Swift at her intimate, brilliant best

Thursday, July 25, 2019 - 9:50am

Time

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Taylor Swift’s latest song, “The Archer,” wasn’t intended to make waves. It’s an album cut off her forthcoming LP Lover, due out Aug. 23. It’s a slow burning, deeply introspective track, and a marked sonic departure from her previous two singles. This isn’t all too surprising for those familiar with Swift’s musical elasticity — her albums are sprawling, many-headed monsters that span genres and writing styles. She’s dipped her toes in everything from the alt-rock arena stomping of “State of Grace” to the swirling dance-pop synths of “New Romantics.” No two albums (or even songs) are quite alike, but they’re always unmistakably Taylor. 

Something she hasn’t done yet, though, is produce a song quite as inward-facing as “The Archer,” whose lyrics pull no punches and offer little resolution. Its closest precedent is 1989’s dreamy deep cut “This Love,” but “The Archer” is ultimately unlike anything in her discography. 

On its surface, it’s not a particularly shocking song. Everything from the pulsing kick drums, to the sweetly lilting synths, to her voice, is soft and light. It doesn’t offer much catharsis, doesn’t build to any grand conclusion, and yet, it’s a quietly subversive song for Swift. 

She’s never been quite this direct with her emotional reveals. Though Taylor Swift, actual human being, has always been the primary subject of both Taylor SwiftTM’s work and of the world’s fascination with her, she has never made her introspections so explicitly the subject of a song. Her older work is filled with revelations about what it means to grow up and be a person, but they were almost always filtered through the lens of a relationship. In “The Archer,” Taylor is well and truly alone, maybe for the first time since she stepped onto the public stage in 2006. 

The kind of sharply worded daggers that in the past she’s reserved for exes Swift now directs at herself. The lyrics to “Archer” examine not any one person in particular, but a generalized anxiety about how to move forward after years of arrested development and failed relationships. It’s a song about those deep-seated flaws that you first learn about as a teenager and gnaw at you for the rest of your life.

“I never grew up / It’s getting so old,” she sings, firm and urgent, and I’m reminded that Taylor Swift isn’t even 30 yet. I’m reminded that Taylor Swift became one of the biggest stars in the world before she was old enough to vote, her whole life amplified ever since on a scale far too big for any of us to ever fully wrap our heads around. Her voice, sounding delicate and beautiful here in a vocal style she rarely uses, twists and curves around the melody, rising in feverish intensity throughout the song. Jack Antonoff’s signature kick drums propel it, and I swear she’s singing over a heartbeat.

The song is full of question marks that never yield catharsis, only half-finished revelations. The question of “They see right through me / Can you see right through me?” never finds an answer. Instead, it turns ever so slightly on its axis to become, “I see right through me,” shouted like a desperate confession. There are no epiphanies here; just the awful, inevitable acceptance that sometimes there’s no redemption for our worst tendencies. All we can do, Taylor suggests, is hope that someone will love us anyway. “Help me hold on to you,” she pleas. Over and over, she repeats the refrain: “Who could ever leave me darling? Who could stay?” as if the question is haunting her. “You could stay,” she offers at the last chorus, and the song ends mid-beat, as tentative, terrified and vulnerable as the suggestion is. 

There’s this moment in Lady Gaga’s documentary when she’s standing outside a studio, smoking a cigarette and muses, “They say it’s like open heart surgery, making music.” I’ve never made music, but I think the same sentiment can be true for a listener. Taylor Swift has written a lot of songs that feel like open heart surgery, exacting and devastating in the way they wield emotional clarity like a scalpel, slicing straight past all defenses and revealing vulnerabilities that seem far too intimate for a stranger as distant as Taylor to recognize in a listener.  But this song doesn’t hurt to listen to in the same hyper-specific way something like “All Too Well” does. “The Archer” aches. It swells. It ebbs and flows the way regret waves in and out of your head. It taxes, yes, but it yields just as much. It’s the kind of song that can wash over you like water on the first listen, but attacks at something deeply, intimately true on the fiftieth. I can’t stop listening to it. You see right through me, Taylor. You see right through all of us.