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Taylor Swift - Reputation Music Album Reviews

Taylor Swift - Reputation Music Album Reviews
Taylor Swift’s sixth album is an aggressive, lascivious display of craftsmanship, but her full embrace of modern pop feels sadly conventional.

For a decade, almost everyone agreed on Taylor Swift. She wrote exquisite love songs and scorching, funny takedowns at an age when most people struggle to put together a cogent email. She scattered breadcrumbs and winking clues through her lyrics and liner notes, inviting diehard fans and pop rubberneckers alike to agonize over what was fact and what was fiction. She won so many awards she was ridiculed for the shocked face she made every time her name was called. She was observant and savvy, and if those qualities were spun into a kind of Machiavellian cunning by her critics, it seemed like a good problem to have.

How things have changed. The Swift that stands before us in 2017 is beleaguered and defensive, a figure fighting back from public relations problems she largely could’ve avoided. She stepped into back-and-forths with Nicki Minaj and her eternal nemesis Kanye West, when silence would have seemed optimal. She induced the Streisand effect by taking legal action over a barely-read blog post that drew connections between her work and neo-Nazism, a decision that shone a new spotlight on her steadfast apoliticism in an overheated political climate. And to top it all off, she released “Look What You Made Me Do,” a petty snarl of a lead single that jumped to No. 1 thanks largely to sheer anticipation. Chart watchers rejoiced when an ascendant Cardi B bumped her from the top slot; Taylor sent flowers.

It turns out “Look What You Made Me Do” was closer to a red herring than a sign of things to come, a relief given how it neglected most of Swift’s generational gifts. Reputation, her sixth album, isn’t a tuneless vengeance tour—it’s an aggressive, lascivious display of craftsmanship, one that makes 1989 sound like a pit stop on the way to Swift’s full embrace of modern pop. (This is a trip that began the second the bass dropped on her 2012 song “I Knew You Were Trouble.”) She’s largely abandoned effervescence, wonderment, and narrative. Say goodbye to maple lattes and hello to whiskey on ice, to wine spilling in the bathtub, to Old Fashioneds mixed with a heavy hand.

Her vision of pop, one she realizes with the help of Max Martin and Shellback, and man-of-the-moment Jack Antonoff, is surprisingly maximal: hair-raising bass drops, vacuum-cleaner synths right out of a Flume single, stuttering trap percussion, cyborg backing choirs. Songs like opener “...Ready for It?” and “Don’t Blame Me” are glittering monsters held together by Swift’s presence at their center. Her interest in hip-hop and R&B is most apparent in her voice, an instrument that’s been stripped of its signature expressiveness. Her best performances throughout Reputation are defined by cadence and rhythm, not melody: she’s cool, conversational, detached.

These particular skills may have been hiding in plain sight—listen to the decade-old “Our Song” and focus on the way she places syllables while rattling off “Our song is a slammin’ screen door!”—but they’ve never been highlighted the way they are here. “Delicate” is built around a muted pulse and a murmured question: “Is it cool that I said all that? Is it chill that you’re in my head? ’Cause I know that it’s delicate.” She stretches out the titular compliment on “Gorgeous,” making it a fluttering prayer and letting the rest of the line tumble out in its wake. She even manages to hang with Future on the bizarre, compelling “End Game,” leaving poor Ed Sheeran in the dust: “I don’t wanna hurt you, I just wanna be/Drinking on the beach with you all over me.” The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now—she’s posted up at a Cozumel cabana with her out-of-office reply: “I bury hatchets, but I keep maps of where I put ’em.”

Her writing has never been less diaristic or more dependent on dramatic performance. For Swift, plunging head-first into pop has meant leaving behind the short stories on 2008’s Fearless or 2010’s Speak Now and relying more on snippets of vivid imagery and detail. (“Getaway Car,” a sparkling Antonoff production that sounds like an “Out of the Woods” retread, is a dramatic and enjoyable outlier.) She leans on characters, some old and some new: the unrepentant brat, the swooning dreamer, and the determined, seductive adult. The “Look What You Made Me Do” video was prescient in at least one respect: Reputation collects a half-dozen different aspects of Swift and lines them up in a row. You leave the album with a new appreciation for her versatility, for the way the tough-talking schemer of “I Did Something Bad” and the infatuated android of “King of My Heart” can share the same tracklist.

The woman who built a career on family-friendly romances like “Love Story” and “Mine” now turns her gaze to the darker side of passion: obsession, jealousy, lust, the loss of control. A lover turns her bed “into a sacred oasis” on the featherlight “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” and she begs her partner to carve their name into her bedpost on “Dress,” a panting, shuddering highlight. Swift hasn’t played the romantic naïf since Red, and she delivers all of these lines with palpable confidence and ease. Even lesser material benefits: “So It Goes...” is replacement-level trap-pop, but it’s hard to shake the thought of her smeared lipstick, of fingernails dug into someone’s back.

In any case, these songs are more successful than the tracks that invite the listener to revisit Swift’s public spats. “Look What You Made Me Do” is the album’s nadir, and “I Did Something Bad” violates what you could call Katy’s Law: the mention of “receipts” in your quasi-diss track renders it an embarrassment. Things somehow get less subtle: “Here’s a toast to my reeeeeal friends,” she sneers on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” just before faking a weepy apology and breaking into cackling laughter. She’s shooting for over-the-top, campy villainy, but it scans as stubborn petulance. Every listener is over this.

Reputation isn’t the failure that seemed possible a month or two ago; it’s full of bulletproof hooks and sticky turns of phrase. But in committing to a more conventional form of superstardom, Swift has deemphasized the skill at the core of her genius. The album ends with “New Year’s Day,” a spare, acoustic epilogue for an album made using a lot of synths and computers. It’s equal parts Lisa Loeb and Dashboard Confessional, and she conjures rich scenes with just a handful of lines: a hotel lobby strewn with party detritus, the silent back seat of a cab.

She lands the album’s first true knockout punch in the bridge: “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere.” It’s a tiny universe in a dozen words, an economic marvel right up there with old classics like “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter,” and, “You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest.” This song is Swift at her best—not settling scores long past their expiration date but writing the kind of lines reputations are made of.


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