Its three years since her last album, and Taylor Swift sounds different again. But is Reputation a stop-gap or a bridge to something better?
Taylor Swift made the full transition from American’s sweetest, hugely successful pop-country princess to knowing, global pop-star phenomenon somewhere between that dub-step wobble on 2012’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ to the synths and strut of 1989 from three years ago. She made it easily, too (or made it seem easy at least), and from that it was reasonable to determine that Taylor Swift understood her craft, incorporating up-to-the minute music trends and well as dictating them.
It seemed as though suddenly everyone was looking in Taylor Swift’s direction and her gaze consequently became ubiquitous. But Swift has proved a hard star to love and the main quality that seemed to initially be her very own, that she was genuinely nice and made catchy but relatable music for girls and some boys, has proved to be hard for her to maintain. Reputation, her sixth album, exploits the fact that although Swift still wants you to know she is nice, it’s just that, well, people can be so mean and how else was she meant to defend herself?
Unlike the mammoth roll-out campaign of 1989, Reputation had announced itself only by revealing the album’s ungainly artwork and then the release of four promo-singles. No interviews, no publicity and no performances only seemed to secure the artist’s audacious hold on contemporary culture and firm grasp of the zeitgeist. Reputation was going to be the very best Swift we had heard so far.
And it is good. Max Martin and Jack Antonoff are back and the production frequently sounds glorious – sharper, chillier and more nuanced, with Swift’s plushness vocals pushed to the fore. But there is also more filler than 1989 and often songs use dated sonic techniques and, particularly on the predominately Max Martin helmed first-half, this album could be by anyone.
First single ‘Look What Made You Made Me Do’, which doesn’t sound like anything else on the record, is a Jack Antonoff production. Their decision to make such a gimmicky but toothless introduction to a new and aggrieved Taylor – even telling us that the old one was dead, like a post-modern sledgehammer to the head – was sorely misguided, but thankfully there is much better here from them both.
‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ carries on the Kanye feud in similarly cartoon style but with a singalong chorus purpose made for arenas but ‘Getaway Car’ and ‘Dress’ explore overblown romance and sensuality respectively with an understated melancholy and charm. Even better is the penultimate track, ‘Call It What You Want’, which confirms that Swift is at her best when performing with a subtle wink. Sadly though, this could result in the album’s best tracks being overshadowed by its more grandstanding moments.
Reputation suffers when its more disparate elements end up sounding ham-fisted. ‘End Game’ features both Future and Ed Sheeran and aims for the type of R&B mood that Drake has come to personify. Swift is as out of her league as expected and Future and Sheeran are here purely for the pay check.
‘Don’t Blame Me’ and ‘I Did Something Bad’ try to fit the album’s ‘good girl gone bad’ narrative to the kind of EDM that Britney employed on her 2011 album Femme Fatale and it’s ordinary and forgetful. All of these tracks are Max Martin co-writes and productions, and the lack of at least one big tune is a shock. However, he also contributes the lovely mid-tempo, swooning electronica of’Delicate’and the more intriguing trap percussion and tempo-changes of the frantic and then airy ‘King of My Heart’.
‘New Year’s Day’ closes the album and is a throwback to an earlier incarnation of Taylor Swift. It’s a girl-loves-boy track, with no cynicism and lots of swooning fans who just want to be that perfect woman in her gleaming Instagram world. Jack Antonoff has done this kind of minor-key, piano ballad with Lorde and St. Vincent earlier in the year, but both these artists expressed a disharmony in their respective worlds which was at odds with the supporting simplicity of the melody and musical minimalism. The protagonist of ‘New Year’s Day’ still can’t help considering a catastrophe (‘please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I would recognise anywhere’) but also reassures that she will be there forever, through thick and thin. Whether this is autographical or not, it’s hard to tell.
The songs which are not about a distrust of famous friends and infamous exes are loved up and euphoric, and Taylor Swift will undoubtedly sound very different again when she returns in three years time. Reputation, then, feels more like a gleaming but uneven stop-gap; a curio with some great moments but few defining ones rather than the work of artist at the peak of their power.