In which a hard-core Taylor Swift fan listens to Taylor Swift’s new album for the first time, divulges her feelings and indulges in her Taylor Swift obsession, hoping to the gods above that she will do herself justice and not release a mediocre pop album that everyone hates and that even said fan will not be able to defend.
“Oh my god, Taylor Swift’s new song is BAD.”
I blink. I give my fourteen-year-old sister a feebly-constructed explanation as to why she is sorely mistaken about “Gorgeous.” She doesn’t buy it.
“Like, it’s so bad. She literally just says ‘LOOK AT YOUR FACE.’”
“Yes, but I think that’s the point- it’s not meant to be lyrically complex, because she’s meant to be, like, drunk and madly in love and just blurting all her thoughts in an unfiltered, infatuated way-”
My dear sister, I proceeded to say, we must wait for the album. Promotional singles are always more concerned with being catchy than anything else, like “Shake It Off,” for example, the cute but admittedly annoying lead single of the country-pop-princess-turned all-around-superstar’s last album, 2014’s 1989. The real gems are tucked away in the albums, and not immediately released for the radio.
It was with the teensiest twinge of apprehension, however, that I began listening to Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album, reputation for the first time. It was not because I don’t have faith in her ability as a songwriter but because I really do, and I hoped she would put it to use on this album that seemed like it was going to veer even further towards pop than 1989 did. I mean, this album cycle opened up with the (iconic, wonderfully over-dramatic) line “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh- ‘cause she’s dead!” The thing is, a good amount of people quite like the old Taylor and her music, so her death seemed kind of unfortunate.
reputation’s first track “…Ready For It?” opens with a menacing, thudding bassline, an aggressiveness pretty much alien to her previous work. We hear Taylor clear her throat, and then all of a sudden, out here in 2017, Taylor Swift is rapping. Taylor used to post funny videos of herself mouthing the words to Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle,” and in 2009 made a parody of her song “Love Story,” called “Thug Story” with T-Pain. Taylor’s own verses, despite being perhaps unconvincing in putting forward a vicious, biting version of the popstar, are playful and amusing. Then the bass drops out with an abrupt switch to angelic vocals floating over airy, dreamy pop. While clunky, the sheer inventiveness of the track makes it a strong opener, as Swift chants “let the games begin.”
Taylor brings Ed Sheeran and Future onto the somewhat bland, somewhat confused “End Game.” The latter artist’s verse feels unnecessary, and is surprisingly outshined by Taylor’s awkward but charming, booming “big reputation, big reputation, ooh you and me we got big reputations.” The song would likely have worked better as a Swift/Sheeran power collaboration (sorry, Future). Taylor’s wit is evident in lines like “I bury hatchets, but I keep maps of where I put them.” reputation at points feels like an extension of the fame-hungry, man-eating character Taylor cleverly painted herself as in the satirical “Blank Space,” when lines like “they told you I’m crazy, I swear I don’t love the drama, it loves me” creep in.
“I Did Something Bad,” full of thunder and lightning and gunshot sound effects, sees Taylor relishing ruining the life of a man who messed with her. This is displayed by her mastery of the melody, as it leaps and twists all over the place violently in the chorus, with a growling threat that she would do it “over and over and over again”. Not only does she not regret it, but it was the “most fun [she’s] ever had.” In what is one of the most breathtaking set of lines on the album, she murmurs “They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one… so light me up.” They (likely referring to the media and those who criticise her) are burning her at the stake, tearing her apart, but here she transforms it into a kind of empowerment, as she repeats “light me up,” and the words build up and up into an explosive, stunning moment.
Taylor has always said her vocals were secondary to and merely a vehicle for her lyrics, but on reputation her voice is more powerful than ever, as she now seems to recognise all the ways she can use it. At times sultry, and on songs like “Dress” breathy, fluttery and feverish, it wavers manically in the “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” The gospel-influenced “Don’t Blame Me” sounds a bit too much like Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” and rests a bit too heavily on the tired metaphor “my drug is my baby” for it to be a standout on the album, but her vocals are insanely good and she demonstrates a control over them that is unlike anything from her previous albums as the final chorus kicks in.
The album’s most vulnerable moment comes in the form of “Delicate,” as the out-for-blood Taylor and her scathing quips vanish. She uses a vocoder to split up and fracture her voice to the point where it sounds broken and robotic, as she sings, incredulous, “my reputation’s never been worse so he must like me for me.” She worries about falling too hard too quickly and acknowledges how “delicate” the relationship is in its beginnings, as the lyrics crumble into a repetition of the words “isn’t it, isn’t it, isn’t it,” hushed and almost instrumental. The theme of ‘reputation’ is an omnipresent shadow throughout the album, and “Delicate” is an exploration into just one facet of her fame.
Should we talk about “Look What You Made Me Do?” or has the subject been exhausted? Maybe briefly? Maybe for two seconds? For just long enough to say that the line “You asked me for a place to sleep, locked me out and threw a feast” is a perfect example of Swiftian fairy-tale lyrical genius, and that I adore the creepy The Nightmare Before Christmas-esque chirping background vocals as she sings “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me?” Moving swiftly on.
The buzzword of Taylor’s promotion of 1989 was “sonically cohesive.” In comparison to Red’s (2012) mixture of country guitar strumming and the dubstep-influenced “I Knew You Were Trouble,” 1989 was considered to be more sophisticated in its establishment of a distinct sound. reputation is perhaps even more sonically cohesive than 1989. About half of the tracks are produced by Max Martin and Shellback, the duo behind songs like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Blank Space”. On this album, Martin and Shellback give us the spacey, dazed “So It Goes…” and the splintering, frantic, dance-y “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” a pure, perfect pop song. The more sensitive, muted, unconventional and thoughtful half, including songs like “Call It What You Want,” “Dress” and “New Year’s Day,” is masterminded by Jack Antonoff (of Fun. and Bleachers fame). There is a snatch of a delicious punchy electropop beat at the end of “Getaway Car,” more of which would have been welcome on the album.
A notable difference between reputation and her previous albums? Taylor isn’t heartbroken on this one. In place of devastating ballads are love-struck odes. “Call It What You Want” is full of trademark Taylor Swift lyrical motifs, spinning a sweeping tale of castles and kings and queens, and the images are painted with that kind of emotional accuracy characteristic of her best songs. reputation does have its fair share of lyrical clichés, but Taylor’s poetic sensibilities are on full display throughout the album, from Dress’s pre-chorus, as she rhythmically layers up the words “All of this silence and patience, pining and anticipation, my hands are shaking from holding back from you,” to the opening lines of “Getaway Car” (“The ties were black/ the lies were white/ in shades of grey/ and candlelight”).
There are instances when it feels like Taylor is completely rewriting 1989’s whole ethos of finding happiness on her own terms without needing to be in a relationship. In “King of My Heart,” Taylor sings “I’m perfectly fine, I live on my own, I made up my mind, I’m better off being alone,” before being swept off her feet. Its soaring chorus is positively euphoric, and with the words “all at once, I’ve been waiting,” her voice gives way to heart-thudding drums. But Taylor states that no one needs to “save her” twice on the album. reputation marks her finding the balance between putting all of herself into relationships and feeling like she needs to step back from them completely. She cackles about the idea that “forgiveness is a nice thing to do” on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” as she realises that there are some things you just can’t shake off.
This clear evolution and maturity is cemented by reputation’s final track, “New Year’s Day,” which is perhaps not only the most stripped-down song of the album but one of the most stripped-down songs of her entire discography. Over soft, almost festive piano chords, she elevates a quiet moment between two people, cleaning up bottles after a party, to something representative of an invincible, forever kind of love, the kind of love she could only fantasize about and write about from the perspective of someone who had never truly experienced it on earlier albums. “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognise anywhere” is one of those treasures of lyrics that Taylor dreams up. reputation is Taylor Swift’s glossiest, grittiest project to date, but even working within the parameters of pop, a genre she has mastered ten times over, her songs haven’t lost their heart.