Taylor Swift ‘Reputation’ – Review

20 Nov

Taylor Swift has always stuck it to the haters. As early as ‘Picture to Burn’ she was calling out a scornful ex (‘if you come around saying sorry to me, my daddy’s going to show you how sorry you’ll be’ is my favourite of many delicious threats and put downs). On ‘Mean’ she was digging at high school bullies, on ‘Fifteen’ she trained her sights on the first boy to break her heart, and ‘Bad Blood’ took pointed aim at Katy Perry. Now ‘Reputation’, her sixth(!) studio album, is a full length album manifesto on the subject. The album tries hard to be a serious, thematically unified ‘statement’ album but it lacks the particular nuances needed to succeed on those terms. Nonetheless, it’s the most ambitious, divisive, eclectic, inventive, daring album Taylor Swift has ever made. Compared to the accessible pop of ‘1989’, an album most people could agree on, ‘Reputation’ feels like a risk.

But perhaps, a calculated risk. She tries very hard (and no doubt spent a lot of money) on trying to sound like her less interesting rivals in the pop charts. If ‘1989’ was a pop album in Taylor Swift’s own image – cute, quirky, retro, rated PG – then ‘Reputation’ is a pop album in the image of Ariana Grande, Rihanna and, dare I say it, Katy Perry. It’s dark, seductive, edgy and expensive sounding. In its sleek modernity, and futuristic soundscapes it occasionally sounds xeroxed and, ironically, a couple of years out of date. In 2014 she sounded innovative – to such an extent that a wave of imitators followed in her wake – now she is at the back of the queue, hoping there is somethings still worth queuing for.

Despite this, Taylor still writes the sharpest melodies and smartest lyrics in the game. And in its best moments ‘Reputation’ is weirder and more captivating than anything she has ever produced before. On ‘I Did Something Bad’ she inhabits the role of Femme Fetale, telling us that she plays narcissists ‘like a violin’. Here attack becomes the best form of defence – this is an embrace of bad behaviour as a means of survival. The song has a cutting production that revolves around a chewed up and spat out voice memo that recreates a sound Taylor heard in a nightmare. It sounds dynamic and vital. ‘Don’t Blame Me’ is bluesy, discomforting and unguarded. Like ‘Clean’ from 1989, it centres around a somewhat tired drug analogy but where ‘Clean’ compared heartbreak to addiction recovery, here Taylor seems to be enjoying the sense of dislocation and dizziness that comes from a high. As in ‘I Did Something Bad’, she’s breaking hearts and taking names – ‘Just playthings for me to use’, as she coldly puts it. This is a new way for the listener to think about someone who until now has cultivated a sweet, girl next door image.

After a first listen, ‘Reputation’ felt like a crushing and claustrophobic album to endure. There is very little of the brightness and wide eyed optimism that used to be so prevalent. But while it’s true that a hardened exterior makes emotional connection more difficult, the older Taylor isn’t dead (no matter what she says on ‘Look What You Made Me Do’) she’s just less easy to find. ‘Gorgeous’ is a very familiar love narrative. Taylor (single) meets a handsome guy (taken) in a dark club, falls in love instantly. There are some classic Swiftian metaphors at play (‘Ocean blue eyes looking in mine / I feel i am sink and drown and die’). ‘King of My Heart’ is ridiculously stately and classy for what is essentially a pretty cutting edge dance pop song. Following on from ‘Gorgeous’, and the brilliantly old school ‘Getaway Car’, we remain in classic Taylor Swift territory of Kingdoms, Kings, fast cars, Queens, lips, daydreams and a school girl crush. It’s pleasingly recognisable but sonically sounds brand new.

Not all the songs are as warm though. The album’s opening smattering of songs convey a previously unexplored, and not particularly flattering, mean spirited attitude. it’s there in the tight pop of the trap hi hats, the chilly deflections in the lyrics, and the acidic put downs that prick out from the melodies. Taylor seems hellbent on keeping listeners at arms length (which is to serve the album’s narrative; initially reserved, bruised and with her reputation in taters, Taylor puts up walls around her. Then she slowly falls in love and learns to accept people back in to her life). ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and ‘Ready for it’ may just be the most distasteful one-two gut punch in the history of album roll outs. The nicest thing that can be said about ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is that it was a brave choice of lead single. It’s awful, I think most people agree, but it’s awful in a conversation starting way. Anyway, it’s kind of hidden away in the middle of the album, and in this context feels like a lightweight, almost comical interlude. There is no hiding from the blaring ‘Ready For It’ though, which opens the album. The song contains a terrible Nicki Minaj impression and awful post-Yezus production from the usually reliable Max Martin, which unfortunately steamrolls over Taylor’s clever lyrical conceits. Track two isn’t a whole lot better. ‘End Game’ features Future and Ed Sheeran battling it out for the lamest guest verse in the already overcrowded playing field of 2017.

Luckily the album gets better the deeper you get in to it. ‘Delicate’ is a trippy little ballad that sounds like a demented Imogen Heep song. ‘Dress’ is a pretty steamy Rihanna homage that seems to have divided opinion. I’m not a big fan myself, but the dress motif is an iconic one in Country music as a whole and Taylor Swift’s songwriting particularly. Here it’s removal is a symbol of emancipation from expectation, politeness and restraint and so you sense its importance in the Taylor Swift story. ‘Dancing With Our Hands Tied’ is a pretty unimaginative club song until the bridge kicks in when the song becomes the soundtrack for an imagined, nostalgic slow dance: ‘I’d kiss you as the lights went out / Swaying as the room burned down / I’d hold you as the water rushes in / If I could dance with you again.’ This is heady stuff.

I was tempted at first blush to hear ‘Reputation’ as Taylor’s very own ‘History’, Michael Jackson’s mammoth and initially misunderstood masterpiece that followed several years on from Jackson’s own ‘1989’ (the fluorescent pop classic ‘Bad’, of course). ‘History’ was at times unnervingly, unflinchingly personal. Jackson openly confronted his detractors, unafraid to literally name names and expose his anger. While that resulted in classics like ‘Scream’ and ‘They Don’t Care About Us, occasionally that anger frothed in to a rather ugly and misguided petulance, as on the track ‘D.S’, which fired shots at the judge who attempted to prosecute Jackson in the early 90s. The parallel with ‘Reputation’ is clear. Sometimes Taylor’s mean face reveals nothing more than a childish snarl. ‘This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Thing’ is syrupy and petty, giving ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ a run for its money as the most cringe worthy song on the album. Swift describes a Gatsby-esque decadence and extravagance in the first verse before asking an unnamed antagonist ‘why’d you have to rain on my parade.’ In the chorus she breaks the fourth wall when she giggles ‘forgiveness is a nice thing to do…haha I can’t even say that with a straight face.’ Yikes…

Ironically ‘Reputation’ is not at all dissimilar to Kanye’s ‘Life of Pablo’ – both are overreaching, ambitious, eclectic collections of gems and coals that play to both the artists greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. Like ‘Pabo’, ‘Reputation’ doesn’t just settle for mildly bad – in its worst moments it’s downright ugly. But even in said moments, it is a fascinating examination of human folly and ego from one of the most famous stars on the planet. It’s therefore captivating in ways that few other artists are capable of. You can summarise both albums as near masterpieces soured by an intrinsic, unjustified resentment and bitterness.

All that said, the anger that blights’ some of the early songs, and the self pity that wrinkles much of the middle, has dissolved by the time we reach the album’s beautiful final couplet of ‘Call It What You Want’ and ‘New Year’s Day’. Love, optimism, wins out. ‘New Year’s day’ is the most sparse and interesting song on here. The imagery is precise and evocative – glitter and candle wax on the hardwood floor – a sense of something special being tainted as a result of last night’s celebrations. Really though, this is a love song to the man who stays to help clean up the wine bottles the morning after. And that’s the revelation of this song. Taylor has always used the traditional fairy tale structure as a plot device – ‘Love Story’, ‘Enchanted’, ‘The Story of Us’ – but here she puts fantasy in the past, as she embraces the realism of true, hard fought love. A love that sticks around. ‘Don’t read the last page’ she pleads; the sincere hope that this is the start of something real, not the end of yet another make believe romance. And it’s this real, relatable hope that trumps all the self pity and resentment.

8/10

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