Taylor Swift just dropped her latest (and possibly last) single from her impending album, Lover, and I wouldn’t be writing this in such a timely manner if I wasn’t so intensely serious about how this song made me feel.
The single is titled, “The Archer,” and I feel the need to plant my flag in the ground right now that this song is one of Taylor’s most vulnerable, brutally honest, personally resonant things that she—or anyone else—has ever delivered to my ears.
As critics of the song have been quick to point out, the music of “The Archer” is full of wonderfully empty space. It is a synthy keyboard dreamscape that buries a driving rhythm to keep the song moving, but is so perfectly soft that it never once attempts to step over the pure poetry that Taylor has injected into the lyrics.
Other than the breathy keys and the muffled beat, the only other musical production element in here is a mixed bag of 1989-era Taylor-backing-Taylor echoey vocals that surround the repetitive (not a bad thing) chorus and bridge. It’s obvious that this song is pretty stripped down because the lyrical tightness and value of Taylor’s words are arguably the best of her career.
Right there with “All Too Well.”
I know what I said.
I’m going to look at this song for what it is—a poem. To do that, I’ll be removing Taylor from it completely and referring only to the “Speaker” within the words.
I also don’t want to come across as “explaining” art to anyone. If it’s not for you, then it’s not for you. But this is an exercise in articulating exactly why these words had an immediate impact on me, and why I believe its message is so valuable.
We start with our speaker’s guard completely up.
Combat, I'm ready for combat
Side note: remember this first line.
I say I don't want that, but what if I do?
'Cause cruelty wins in the movies
They’ve clearly been through a fair bit of turmoil, but they also recognize that there are pieces of our culture that have identified that love and real connection—in any form—often come with some kind of combative, dramatic, cinematic-level conflict.
I've got a hundred thrown-out speeches I almost said to you
This line is one of the MANY personally resonant lines in this song for me.
The speaker has not only modeled the structure of their relationships after the stories and movies they know, but by suggesting that they’ve pre-written (actively, or otherwise) the types of redemptive/romantic words they say is something I recognize so heavily.
This is an admission that the speaker might individually choreograph interactions with a real-life person that they care about, and care about being real with real with, but it also comes with the broader understanding of how that might be wrong, or that one should throw those “speeches” out.
They clearly haven’t had much luck in this approach, so they believe they’ve failed to truly connect with anyone at all:
Easy they come, easy they go
I jump from the train, I ride off alone
I never grew up, it's getting so old
Their human relationships have been a revolving door because of their misguided attempts to grow anything by seeking out conflict. Maybe they even try going it completely alone for a while, but they know that won’t actually address their problem.
The speaker sees their own flaws very clearly, and they recognize an opportunity in the subject, but they can’t seize that opportunity alone:
Help me hold on to you
There’s a chance here. For all of the mistakes of the past, and for all of the room there still is to grow, the speaker is desperately reaching out to connect in a real, meaningful way.
I've been the archer, I've been the prey
The words are honest and written from the perspective of a person who has hurt, and who has been hurt. They are clearly recognizing that there’s a disconnect between this violent imagery and deeply caring for somebody.
They’ve played all the roles before, but none of this awareness reassures them of what’s next:
Who could ever leave me, darling
But who could stay?
Self-awareness morphs into full-on self-doubt here as the speaker admits that it might be too much to ask the subject—or anyone else, for that matter—to stick around for them and all their flaws.
So they look for something wrong with the subject in order to kick-off their classic trend of self-sabatoge:
Dark side, I search for your dark side
But they catch themself:
But what if I'm alright, right, right, right here?
First they were simply interested in growing, and now they’re putting that growth into real practice. It’s small, but it’s a step forward.
But then they take a step back:
And I cut off my nose just to spite my face
Then I hate my reflection for years and years
More self-sabatoge. Anyone who has tried to actively improve knows that it is brutally imperfect. These are the growing pains.
I wake in the night, I pace like a ghost
The room is on fire, invisible smoke
They feel as if they’re just going through the motions. Floating. Even so, they feel this pressure building up around them. This is when they usually run. They usually scare themselves so thoroughly that no amount of desire could possibly stop them from getting the hell out of dodge.
This is how all of the stories go. Their own included. But maybe all this epic drama isn’t so glamorous and romantic after all:
And all of my heroes die all alone
Holy shit. Here’s where it all turns. They are letting go of all the romanticized bullshit. All of the so-called “life lessons” they took from their favorite stories, and the long-held belief that human connection is only worth anything if it is actively tested and pushed.
Help me hold on to you
This line is back. Before, it meant, “I CAN’T DO IT ALONE,” and here it means, “I NEED YOU.”
The plea get’s desperate. But not sad-desperate. It’s the kind of desperate that knows exactly the kind of effort it will take to overcome that desperation.
The bridge gets repetitive, but it explores the different perspectives on just how obvious it might be that the speaker is—as John Mayer would say—in repair:
'Cause they see right through me
Can you see right through me?
I see right through me
And then they start to bring it on home:
All the king's horses, all the king's men
Couldn't put me together again
'Cause all of my enemies started out friends
Maybe they’re beyond fixing. They’ve spent plenty of time considering their flaws, and they’re still in the same place. They hurt everyone around them, so who are they to believe they’re able to avoid hurting someone again?
Help me hold on to you
And there it is again. Now with a refreshing sense of ME & YOU. They haven’t been saying, “hold on to me,” they’ve been asking for help. They could really do all of this together.
As the echoey 1989 backing vocals intensify, the lyrics make two incredible statements that mark just how mature these words are together.
Who could stay?
You could stay
This suggestion is finally an answer to all of the doubt. They could stay.
When I told you to remember the first line of the song, that was because the piece ends with the very same line—
Combat, I'm ready for combat
—But this isn’t the same, guarded speaker we began with. This speaker is ready, and open, and willing to work for everything they know they want. They will fight against their own doubt and their own history in order to hold on to the real human connection that is right in front of them.
“The Archer” is unwavering in its honesty and self-criticism. Far too many times I’ve had to dig through Taylor’s songs for little flashes of concessions of her own flaws as a human being who is flawed, but no searching was necessary here.
Even if I did decide to search anyway.
The poem is clear from start to finish, and to top off all the harsh personal reflection, it ends with a desire and firm belief that things will get better.
This is 30.
This is Lover-era Taylor.