music / Reviews

Taylor Swift – Reputation Review

November 14, 2017 | Posted by David Hayter
Taylor Swift Look What You Made Me Do 3
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
Taylor Swift – Reputation Review  

1. …Ready For It?
2. End Game (featuring Ed Sheeran and Future)
3. I Did Something Bad
4. Dont Blame Me
5. Delicate
6. Look What You Made Me Do
7. So It Goes…
8. Gorgeous
9. Getaway Car
10. King of My Heart
11. Dancing With Our Hands Tied
12. Dress
13. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
14. Call It What You Want
15. New Year’s Day

Taylor Swift implores listeners to take her latest album, Reputation, on its musical merits and not as a salacious gossip column. This is certainly fair, as Swift articulates in the liner notes, her lyrics don’t necessarily correspond to her litany of famous love affairs. She, like her male counterparts, is more than capable of writing in the abstract. There is of course plenty of reason to raise an eyebrow at this request – Reputation surpasses its predecessors in being loaded with enough coded references and sly digs to keep the troglodytes at TMZ in business for a decade or more – and while Swift no doubt profits commercially from the scuttlebutt, she has more than earned the right to be judged musically, rather than discussed anecdotally.

Reputation, for its part, is an incredibly interesting listen and a pivotal moment in Swift’s career. Personally, as an avowed cheerleader of Taylor’s conversion to brash pop and the development of her avenging angel persona, her sixth studio album represents something of a crisis point: the moment when a songsmith so infallible teeters on the verge of falling flat on her face, only to flourish on bloody-minded brilliance of her fundamentals. The lesson is unmistakable: Taylor Swift has a unimpeachable understanding of melody, she knows how to write verses, bridges and choruses so devastatingly effective (and diverse) that she can salvage even the most tedious of sounds…

…And, make no mistake, Reputation is full of tiresome sonics. Strip away Swift’s pithy, detail rich lyricism and incestuous hooks and focus on the underlying music and what you’ll hear is, at best, anodyne in its predictability and, at worst, a pale imitation of overplayed tropes that haven’t been cutting edge in years. This collection of EDM and trap inspired electro-pop proves so removed from its innovative origin point that it’s near impossible to unwind the thread and remember when these tub-thumping sounds actually inspired.

Take “I Did Something Bad” for example: a plunging, bolshy onslaught of synthetic sonics that plays with classic quiet-loud dynamics, but ends up sounding eerily like an imitation of Imagine Dragons or AWOLNATION. Yes, the exact bands who were criticised for being sound-stealing-imitators back in 2012. In this light, Reputation is a facsimile of a facsimile of a facsimile, an echo of when dubstep morphed into post-dubstep, merged with house and spawned American EDM and was, belatedly, absorbed into pop and rock. It already feels like ancient history.

Now hold your horses, this is no hatchet job, the reason it’s worth dissecting these dated and unadventurous arrangements is simple: Taylor Swift effortlessly transcends her surroundings. She comes soaring out of quagmire with pristine pre-choruses, deliciously ironic ad-libs and an onslaught of carefully disguised hooks that prove utterly irresistible. In truth, after listening to “I Did Something Bad” and “Don’t Blame Me” I started thinking: “Man, Imagine Dragons might be the biggest band on planet earth if they ditched their frontman and handed the reigns over to Taylor”. At times it feels like Swift has set herself a fiendish challenge. She appears determined to take the most anonymous arrangements imaginable and turn them into multi-platinum hits. Collaborator Max Martin does have previous in this regard. He was roundly criticised for taking the edge of Lily Allen’s punchy lyricism by setting her songs to watered down electronica that was unlikely to either offend or inspire.

That’s not to say Swift’s songwriting bears no cutting edge influence. Reputation might be instantly dated, but she has clearly been listening to Grimes (“Delicate” deploys the Canadian star’s warped pixie cries sparingly, but with devastating effect to punctuate the word “delicate” itself). On the Right Said Fred aping tour-de-force “Look What You Made Me Do”, Swift’s BFF Lorde looms large over the pre-chorus and the minimal boom-tick production (her influence will resurface on “Call It What You Want”). Elsewhere, on the demented “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, the composition bears the unmistakable influence of Sleigh Bells debut album. Finally, in a masterful twist, Swift ups the level of emasculating irony inherent on both Red and 1989 by disfiguring Charli XCX’s bratty bublicious adlibs with a dose of corrosive acid. Her producers might have passé taste in electronica, but Taylor has clearly been listening to the most critically acclaimed female artists around, whether that’s those listed above or her attempts to mirror Rihanna (unsuccessfully on “So It Goes…”) or Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion (wonderfully on “Dancing…” and “Dress”), albeit with added fucking.

The secret to Reputation’s considerable success lies in this acerbic blend of Swift’s sardonic, sneering, spite on the lyric sheet and the sugary purity of her pop nous. It’s hard not to smile as Swift simultaneously cuts her doubters and lovers down to size with such incredible insouciance. This fusion of enticing detail (“you should take it as a compliment that I got drunk and made fun of the way you talk”) and wonderfully patronizing putdowns (“I can’t say anything to your face, because, look at your face”) is impossible to deny. Swift is a mesmerizing amalgam, the indulgent glimpses into her A-list private life (“toying with them older guys, just play things, for me, to use”) are counter-balanced by universal moments of self-doubt (“Guess I’ll just stumble on home to my cats, alone”) before finishing it all of with the kind of perfect one-liner no mere mortal could ever hope to conjure in the moment (“I’ll be the actress staring in your bad dreams”).

Swift isn’t immune to misjudgement (though those moments are rare). She’s clearly spent too long on the road playing to sprawling fields of fans and has fallen in love with the kind of endless bombastic chorus that feels unifying and life-affirming in person, but is utterly tedious on record (see the final minute of “I Did Something Bad” among others). Nevertheless, for every misstep there are three or four remarkably well crafted works of pop genius, whether that’s the album closing weepie “New Year’s Day”, the tongue twistingly delightful humanity of “Delicate” or the wild detours of “Don’t Blame Me”. More often than not, she alights on an uneasy middle ground. Album opener, “…Ready For It?”, is the perfect example: a song that is simultaneously awful and irresistible. The only way to describe it is tantalizingly terrible as Swift’s majestic virtuosity sits atop a brain dead ejaculation of insipid bombast.

So what do we make of Reputation? Well, despite myriad warning signs that she was set to go off the boil (the self-serious music videos, those somewhat oblivious liner notes and a tepid choice of sonics), Swift hasn’t even come close to failure. This is a highly accomplished pop record. It’s a little too streamlined and controlled to rival the bonkers insanity of Britney’s Blackout or George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice, but it is of that ilk. The sound of an artist flirting with indulgent implosion and coming out the other side with something that both surpasses and side-steps expectation in a way that isn’t wholly satisfying, but is wildly enjoyable.

It is perhaps in bad taste to mention Taylor Swift’s name in the same breath as Kanye West’s, but truth be told, Reputation is eerily reminiscent of The Life Of Pablo. It’s not as cutting edge or daring as the best modern music (or, in Kanye’s case, his previous highlights), but nor is it the disaster so many predicted. It’s different, not quite what we wanted, nor as good as we hoped, but far better than it has any right to be. Reputation, like TLOP, is the work of one of pop’s master craftsmen, wrongheaded in many ways, but too damn good to be second guessed.

Now, it might be churlish to suggest that the biggest pop star on the planet has to do anything differently, but if Taylor Swift is to take that next step and release a timeless album of the year contender, she needs to follow in the footsteps of Beyonce and Rihanna. Embrace modernity, take structural and sonic risks, strive for the avant garde, knowing that her impeccable song writing will more than mitigate the risk. After all, if her raw ability salvaged these tired sounds, then she’s more than capable of holding her audience’s hand as she guides them towards the cutting edge.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Taylor Swift summons all her songwriting expertise on Reputation to salvage a collection of tired and disappointingly dated arrangements. Her lyricism is as sharp as her elbows as she bloodies her exes and keeps the listener guessing with abundant charisma and acerbic glee. Reputation proves a little too controlled to rival the classic crazy pop albums of year's past, but Swift's ability to stack hook atop hook and structure a song to reach a series of devastatingly effective climaxes signals her out as this generation's great hitmaker. It's to Swift's immense credit that by the record's end you'll find yourself falling in love with some of the worst and most anodyne pop productions going. In short, Reputation is neither the unabashed success nor the flaming failure many predicted, instead it's an accomplished and devastatingly effective pop record - and that's it. Certainly no mean feat, but it's time Swift took her world class songwriting and married it to some daring and possibly divisive instrumentals.

article topics :

Taylor Swift, David Hayter