Premature Evaluation: Taylor Swift Reputation
We should take a moment to eulogize the old Taylor. The old Taylor, the Taylor Swift we knew, was a generational talent, a precocious pop genius who was already cranking out twinkling arena-sized heartbreak anthems when she dropped out of high school at 16. Before she was old enough to get into R-rated movies by herself, Swift had mastered the conversational, narrative-based form of gleaming assembly-line pop-country, a style that other writers take decades to get right. After that, she kept switching things up from album to album, reinventing herself and adding new tricks and shades and ideas while getting bigger and bigger and bigger — unsustainably so. Taylor Swift albums didn’t have deep cuts; they only had singles and potential singles. Every album was a readymade greatest-hits LP, and every album was also a cohesive statement, one that offered a vast leap in both aesthetic and persona. The first time I heard the dubstep bass-drop on 2012’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” I cackled with delight; it was so outsized and ridiculous and ambitious and perfect. Swift made the leap from pop-country star to straight-up pop star in ways that nobody, not even her spiritual foremother Shania Twain, has ever pulled off. The old Taylor was something truly special, and we will never see anything like her again. But as the old Taylor once tried to tell us, things break and burn and end.
Reputation, Swift’s new album, follows the bracing synthpop makeover of 1989, her biggest album, and it also follows a three-year break between albums, the longest of Swift’s career. In the months before the album’s announcement, Swift was uncharacteristically absent, still reeling from a public feud with Kanye West that had gone through so many different stages over the years. Swift didn’t start that feud, but she stoked it, and she ended up losing it in spectacular fashion when Kim Kardashian West Snapchatted a phone conversation between Taylor and Kanye in which she appeared to give her blessing to lines from his song “Famous” that she would later decry from the Grammys stage. After that, Swift couldn’t convincingly play the victim or the underdog, and Reputation captures her spinning off into uncertainty in a lot of different ways.
That reflects itself in the album’s sound, which is all over the place. The Swift of Reputation sounds rudderless. The dubstep bass-drops remain, even though those are no longer a current pop-music thing. Trap hi-hats, which are a current pop-music thing, are all over the album. Sometimes, Taylor sounds like she’s trying on a Rihanna accent. Others, she does something that veers perilously close to rapping. Almost every song sounds like three or four songs stapled together. For the first time ever, Swift cusses on record: “If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing / I don’t regret it one bit cuz he had it coming.” On “End Game,” she attempts to throw down with Future and a quasi-rapping Ed Sheeran, and the nicest thing I can say about it is that she doesn’t sound as awkward as a quasi-rapping Ed Sheeran. She comes back to Kanye West again and again, and she comes back to her own damaged reputation even more often. She can’t let it go. Lyrically, Reputation is an album about uncertainty that sounds like the actual product of uncertainty. And musically, Reputation is a glaringly unpleasant album.
I really like it.
Swift recorded about half of Reputation with Jack Antonoff and the other half with the team of Max Martin and Shellback, and those two production units are so similar that you can’t always tell which is which without checking the album’s credits. With both sets of producers, Swift goes on dizzy cannibalistic sprees, chewing up and spitting out almost anything from the pop landscape of the past few years. She gurgles through Auto-Tune and hits high-steppingly dramatic emo show-tune archness and blithely navigates post-EDM synthpop plunges. The bass sound is a scraping, ugly discordance that reminds me, more than anything else, of Kanye West’s Yeezus. (How perfect would it be if the main influential legacy of Yeezus was on a Taylor Swift album that repeatedly bashes Kanye West?) Whereas 1989 took much of its sound from the synthpop that dominated the airwaves in the years before Swift’s birth, Reputation audaciously attempts to seize the sound of right now. And while it’s not always successful, it does always come out sounding like Taylor Swift, which is its own kind of achievement.
The album’s unpleasantness is a tactic, and it’s a tactic that probably works more often than it should. There are moments where Swift throws herself into the deep end and comes up gasping and sputtering. “End Game,” the aforementioned Swift/Future/Sheeran posse cut, is a total godawful mess that threatens to derail the album before it even really has a chance to start. The bass-wobbles and gospel-choir howls of “Don’t Blame Me” mostly serve to make Swift sound like an X-Ambassador. But Swift’s willingness and ability to engage with harsh, inhospitable current sounds often leads to some of the album’s most magical moments, as well.
Consider, if you will “Delicate,” a classic Taylor Swift ballad that immediately jumps out, at least from where I’m sitting, as the album’s best song. (I’m frankly baffled that she didn’t release it as an early single. Maybe she’s saving it for that late-cycle “Wildest Dreams” spot.) “Delicate” has breathy robotic coos and an elegantly lush dancehall beat and the sort of love-dazed forward-hurtling rush of many of 1989’s best songs. Lyrically, the song walks a perfect line between the romantic fantasias of the old, dead Taylor and the TMZ-addled self-obsession of her current guise. It’s a song that’s presumably about Joe Alwyn, her current British-actor boyfriend, but it’s really about life in the glare, of finding ways to connect to another human being when the entire universe is staring at you. That’s not a relatable sentiment, but Swift makes it relatable through sheer force of charisma and will. “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me,” she half-mutters — a sadly blown-out version of the old maxim about knowing, in tough times, who your real friends are. “Is it cool that I said all that? Is it chill that you’re in my head?” she sings, almost haltingly, almost as if she knows how awkwardly she’s using “chill” as an adjective.
There are other moments, too, where the album takes absolute flight. “King Of My Heart” is a headlong rager, full of robotic whirs and barely there acoustic guitars and monstrous, vast, canyon-spanning drums. It’s a woozy, lost, head-over-heels love song, and some of its lyrics are among the most ungainly that Swift has ever written: “Prove to me I’m your American queen / And you move to me like I’m a Motown beat.” But she sells it, all of it, and the song ends up feeling like flying down a mountain road with your head out the sunroof. And “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” delights in the way it mocks Kanye, with Swift’s voice taking on a mocking, needling Lesley Gore tone: “It was nice being friends again / There I was, giving you a second chance / But then you stabbed me in the back while shaking my hand.” She savors it, grinning huge while she goes for the jugular: “I’m not the only friend you’ve lost lately / If only you weren’t so shaaaaaaady!” (I’m almost as delighted at a Taylor Swift song making subliminal reference to a Jay-Z/Kanye rift as I was to hear that first bass-drop.) And the music, with its plinking pianos and its headrush drums and its big and stormy layered-voices climax, takes all that delight and makes it tangible.
Again and again on Reputation, Swift returns to the idea that we don’t and can’t know her, even writing a whole liner-notes essay about that concept. “They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one,” she sings. “They got their pitchforks and proof, their receipts and reasons.” And later, as if to reinforce all those multitudes she contains: “All the liars are calling me one / Nobody’s heard from me for months / I’m doing better than I ever was.” Again and again, she makes reference to sex and alcohol. (She could’ve called the album Songs About Drinking And Fucking; it’s almost as much about those things as it is about reputations.) “I bought this dress just so you could take it off,” she howls, before theatrically gasping. “I’m spilling wine in the bathtub / You kiss my face and we’re both drunk,” she exalts. It’s the messiest she’s ever allowed herself to sound, and it might also be the most relatable she’s been since she was a teenager.
That messiness, both lyrical and musical, is what really makes Reputation. When Swift made 1989, she was a tremendous star, but she wasn’t yet one of the most famous people on the planet, and she’d never been cast as a pop-culture villain. So Reputation is the great reckoning, the incoherent response to an incoherent situation. It’s probably the worst of Swift’s albums, but given that her previous five albums are all bulletproof gold-plated motherfucking classics, that’s barely a complaint. It’s also probably the best album that I can imagine a human being making in those heightened, dehumanized conditions. Even a relatively charmless single like “Look What You Made Me Do” works in the context of the album. And even the most gallingly lame moments — hi, “End Game” — have a weirdly endearing try-hard quality.
Still, the moment from the album that might linger the longest is the last song, the one where the old Taylor rises from the grave. “New Year’s Day” is a soft, vulnerable piano ballad about spending the morning after a huge party cleaning up with someone you love, mopping up spilled champagne and throwing out half-empty bottles. “I want your midnights, but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day,” she sings, and it’s a small, perfectly absorbed, beautifully rendered moment. This is the sort of song that Swift hasn’t written in many years, and it’s wonderful to hear that she still knows how to do it. Oddly enough, this is another Yeezus trick. After he’d spent a whole album blowing out our brainpans, West resurrected his old sound with “Bound 2″ just to prove he still could. If this is Swift doing the same thing, I love it.
But part of me also hopes that “New Year’s Day” represents Swift’s future and not just her past. With each successive album, Swift has overwhelmingly and almost brutally reshaped her old sound. Every time, I’ve caught myself wishing, at least temporarily, that she could’ve stuck with the previous album’s sound a little while longer. Things are still early for Reputation; it’s been in my iTunes for less than 24 hours. Each repeated listen brings out a couple of new things that I like, and I imagine that’ll keep happening for a while. But eventually, hopefully, Swift will come out the other end of her years-long, discombobulating spotlight moment. Maybe she’ll eventually be able to get back to writing concrete, plainspoken songs about small, stolen moments like “New Year’s Day.” Until then, this giddy and baffling Frankenstein’s monster of an album is still better than anyone could’ve anticipated. It’s almost worthy of the old Taylor.
Reputation is out now on Big Machine.