Tag Archives: Taylor swift

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 In its sleek modernity, and futuristic soundscapes it occasionally sounds xeroxed and, ironically, a couple of years out of date.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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Taylor Swift ‘1989’ – Review

29 Oct

‘Welcome to New York’ is the first song on the new Taylor Swift album, her self-stylised “pop” record (as if her other albums weren’t pop). But it’s less a pop song and more an idea of a pop song. A representation of a pop idea. The idea of pop as escapism or a dreamscape, as well as New York as an escapist location or dream of a city. The New York she describes has little to do with the city itself and more to do with the city of her imagination, and all the wonderful new things it represents. The track is dire; a bland Katy Perry rip off that pales in comparison to ‘Red’s two classic lead singles (‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’) but it lays out Taylor’s ambition. ‘Everybody here wanted something more’ she says, and later, ‘it’s a new soundtrack’, ‘the lights are so bright’ and most tellingly ‘everybody here was somebody else before.’ The song is the musical equivalent of this idea. Taylor has packed her bags and set up camp in a new dimension. Supposedly.

Actually ‘1989‘ isn‘t all that different. Sure the guitars have faded in to the back ground, and trendy production is occupying most of the space, but it still sounds like a distinctly Taylor Swift type of record. Ok, ‘Welcome to New York’ is different. It’s the first TS song I can remember that isn’t about an affair of the heart in any way. 80% of her songs are about heartbreak, 15% are about the heady, magical ‘in love’ stage, and then you get the anomalies like ‘Mean’ which are about other emotions. But ‘1989’ is still a Taylor Swift album and it’s still predominantly about heartbreak. ‘Welcome to New York’ is an unnecessary red herring, and a couple of other clangers aside (the Press-baiting ’I Know Places’ for example) she’s still singing in the first person about… feelings.

The difference is she sounds somewhat removed from the heartbreak this time around. ‘Red’ was raw, bloody, sad and at times angstyy and bitingly confident. On ‘1989’ she’s taken a step back, relaxed and considered things from a distance. She sounds mature and wry. That’s the album’s downfall in a way, because the main thing Taylor Swift has going for her is her youthful, emotional honesty. She gets so close to the listener you can almost feel her breath on your face. You get to know her through her songs, and through her lyrics which in the past have been funny, forthright and clever. On some of these songs you feel a disconnect between the Taylor you’ve come to know, and the character she presents. She plays an unconvincing femme fetale on ‘Blank Space’, a reckless diva on ‘Style’ and uses an alcoholic analogy on ‘Clean’. These songs are as expertly crafted as ever, and feature fine melodies and buzzing production, but they lack a certain familiarity and truth.

Equally lacking is first single ‘Shake it Off’ which is so damn catchy it tries to convince you it’s half decent, but don’t let it fool you. Think back to the first time you heard it, and the disappointment you felt. The cheap and clichéd chorus may get stuck in your brain but it won’t make you smile like ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ did. It’s also a little too self aware for my liking, which is completely the opposite of what I usually like about Taylor. She’s somebody who gets so caught up in a feeling that she can’t see straight, and certainly can’t tell when she’s being melodramatic, soppy, embarrassing or repetitive. ‘Shake It Off’ is addressed to the haters, and it draws you out of the moment, and forces you to reconcile with the uncomfortable truth of what pop music really involves in 2014; i.e, a whole lot of press battles, social networking, blogging, vlogging, you tube commenting and basically all the stuff I find vaguely repulsive about the modern industry.

For me the album works best when Taylor sticks to what she‘s done well in the past. ‘Out of the Woods’ is one of the more successful songs; its rooted in verses that have the familiar autobiographical details with the ring of truth before reverting to a simple and sticky refrain (for those of you who use Taylor Swift songs as a who who of her boyfriends, this one is supposedly about a certain Harry Styles). ‘Stay’ is excellent; it marries finely detailed lyrics with an acrobatic chorus, while ‘I Wish’ is classic Taylor Swift in a new sparkly 80s style outfit.

For the most part the change in sound works better than the sometimes shift of lyrical focus. I still don’t buy in to Taylor Swift as some kind of Katy Perry-alike, nor does anyone with a right-mind desire such a thing, but the change isn’t a drastic one and it’s pulled off with aplomb by musical wizards Max Martin and Shellback. But half the reason ‘We are Never Getting Back Together’, ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and ‘22’ stood out is that they were bright and modern electro-pop songs in a field of more traditional country-pop. Here they’ve tried to replicate those songs 13 times over and so nothing really stands out. In fact nothing comes close to matching either of those three songs.

The lack of a killer single aside, overall, ‘1989’ is a successful record.; it‘s easy to listen to, often great fun, and it‘s commendably ambitious. Ultimately the obvious flaws are easy to look past because Taylor Swift is the most human superstar we have and humans make mistakes in the quest for better things. What’s important is that she’s a determined pop-star, and an enthusiastic musical explorer. Her vision of New York may be clichéd, two-dimensional and unrealistic but the things it represents to her are righteous goals – freedom, opportunity and adventure. ‘1989’ is an important stop on that journey.

7/10