It’s been a minute since we were accustomed to hearing Taylor Swift songs announce themselves with delicate acoustic-guitar figures.
Though her musical palette of choice throughout most of this millennium has encompassed various shades of rhythmic, electronic-based pop, she’s made room on her new album Lover for the fingerpicked throwback “Soon You’ll Get Better.” Her singing on that track — the breathiness, crisp enunciation, and telegraphed sincerity — is a powerful reminder of the days before she toyed with vocal effects, eye-rolling inflections, and hip-hop-schooled cadences. And the voices of the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Martie Maguire — a trio Swift admired from an early age — are there to help her get back in touch with, and extend, her earlier mode of intimate disclosure.
In pop music, securing the right guest features can often be how an artist flexes her cultural or professional capital and multiplies a song’s chances of becoming a smash. That definitely happens in the country world, too, but in that music community in which Swift got her start there can be added significance to the practice of highlighting guest performers — it’s a nod to forebears; a way of positioning oneself in an ongoing lineage. By inviting the Chicks to join her on the track, Swift is doing a little bit of all of the above.
As a preteen, she traipsed up and down Nashville’s Music Row hawking a demo that contained, among other things, a Chicks cover. The band was estranged from the country radio format by then, their hit-making status punitively revoked after Maines’s casual, anti-Bush stage banter was blown out of proportion, but their influence had hung around in various forms. From the late 1990s into the early 2000s, they reigned as country’s embodiment of female musicianship and solidarity, a string band affixed to an effervescent country-pop chassis. They were fiery, forward, and fun, but used high-quality singer-songwriter material — which they more often selected than composed themselves — to ground their music in the personal and particular. Over and over in their songs, they played the roles of young women kicking against the constrictions of middle-class propriety with dreams and desires too big to be contained.
Those things spoke to Swift, who included their tunes in her concert set lists, called on Maines to share the stage during her posse phase, and credited the Chicks with inspiring her to expand her artistic ambitions. “The Dixie Chicks were making such interesting music and doing it in such an unapologetically feminine, imaginative way,” she told Entertainment Weekly. She singled out their second major-label album, Fly, as one that taught her to give attention to all-encompassing presentation and packaging. “[I]t was very clear they had really put a lot into the artwork,” she explained. “And so it got my brain thinking bigger … that you can really make an album even more of an experience if you so choose.”
Swift had no doubt also studied how Maguire, Robison, and, most of all, Maines speaking their minds altered their image and reputation in the industry. After taking great care to stay politically agnostic during the first dozen years of her fame, the younger star finally began endorsing candidates and causes in 2018. It was a sign of how much distance she’d gotten from the country world that she received criticism not so much for speaking out as for doing it belatedly.
At this point, both Swift and the Chicks have fairly complicated relationships with country, she the canny pop prodigal who occasionally still tosses songs to the genre’s stars and they the principled provocateurs who chose to make their 2016 return to the CMA Awards a button-pushing appearance alongside Beyoncé rather than a nostalgic homecoming.
Swift brought all that baggage and meaning into play by inviting the Chicks to lend their harmonies and picking to “Soon You’ll Get Better.” Hopping on the track was no insignificant move on the Chicks’ part either. For the last dozen years, they’ve mostly focused on other projects — Maines’s solo stuff and Maguire and Robison’s Court Yard Hounds — only rarely showing up together on other artists’ recordings and only recently teasing a new album of their own, apparently produced by one of Swift’s fave collaborators, Jack Antonoff.
The song that Swift wanted the trio’s assistance on is deceptively simple (and another that Antonoff helped write and produce). The verse melody, sung by her alone, repeats a modest, wilting pattern with each line over a soft bed of acoustic guitar. The sound gets only slightly bigger at the first chorus, with the introduction of the Chicks’ brightening harmonies, gingerly picked banjo, and lyrical fiddle accents.
Swift has her familiar way of signaling that the emotional stakes are high right from the jump. Her delivery is hushed as she steers the perspective like a cinematographer — first the focus on a tiny detail (coat buttons tangled in her hair), then a zoomed-out shot of the settings where the trouble’s playing out (doctors’ offices and hospital rooms). She may well have drawn inspiration for the song from watching her mother, Andrea, undergo breast-cancer treatment, but all we really need to know to grasp the story line is that it’s about walking through a health crisis with a loved one.
The push and pull between Swift’s expressions of strong yearnings and wounding realities has changed from the neat binaries (trueheartedness versus romantic betrayal; earnestness versus bullying) that populated her first few albums and, for some, grew tiresome. This time, she’s conveying a desperate feeling of helplessness to make everything okay and a youthful need for her loved one to reassure her by matching her relentless optimism, but she’s also reflecting on the situation from a remove. “I know delusion when I see it in the mirror,” Swift sighs. “You like the nicer nurses / You make the best of a bad deal / I just pretend it isn’t real.”
Maines, Maguire, and Robison help deepen the melancholy awareness.
During the bridge, their harmonies crescendo around Swift in knowing denial. “I hate to make this all about me,” Swift begins. “But who am I supposed to talk to?” they all protest. “What am I supposed to do if there’s no you?”
Swift’s handling of these emotional contradictions brings to mind “Let Him Fly,” the Patty Griffin–penned title track of the Chicks album that she named as pivotal in her development. Maines, surging, conversational lead, made it seem both excruciating and empowering to see a lover’s faded devotion for what it is. Swift, we now know, still connects with the confessional approach that laid the foundation for her country career, and even sees possibilities in it.