If anyone could write the manual on reputation, it’s Taylor Swift. Famous since the age of 15, the star has been both anointed as America’s Sweetheart and vilified as a man-hungry, psychotic snake. Her focus on the personal has seen her dismissed as a trivial pop puppet, despite her lyrical flair and song-writing nous. So it’s probably no astonishment that her closely-guarded sixth album, which has broken records on pre-sales alone, is totally obsessed with the concept. We’ll never really know what went down between Swift and Kanye West, or Katy Perry, or the truth in many of the other stories that swirl and circulate around her. Regardless, public image makes neat fodder for some stellar pop songs on her new record. But above all, perhaps, it’s a heartfelt and feverishly passionate album about a love that clearly feels redemptive.
There are no surprises when it comes to Swift’s co-writers here; she’s back working with Scandi super producers Max Martin and Shellback, as well as Fun’s Jack Antonoff. Sonically, however, Reputation marks a diverse evolution in the glossy 1980s power pop of 1989, giving it a bass-heavy and frequently more experimental edge. Most of the time, it really works. The only guests to appear pop up on End Game, which features verses from both trap star Future and Swift’s old pal and collaborator Ed Sheeran. It’s a big, slinky RnB hooked earworm of a song, which manages to be in part both a sweet love song and a gleeful self-send up. ‘Reputation precedes me, they told you I’m crazy,’ drawls Taylor.
She playfully vamps up the same femme fatale vibes on I Did Something Bad – ‘I play ‘em like a violin/And I make it look oh so easy’ – which builds with dramatic orchestral sweeps towards a dark, storming punch of a chorus. But there’s an unsettlingly icy slice of social observation in the song’s wind-out: ‘They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one.’ The Antonoff co-write Getaway Car, which has all the bittersweet frantic emotions and John Hughes movie feel of their previous collaboration Out Of The Woods, uses Bonnie and Clyde style motifs to seemingly decode a relationship sprung from infidelity and thus doomed to fail. ‘Should’ve known I’d be the first to leave/think about the place where you first met me.’
Meanwhile the arch, vengeful sing-song of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things sounds almost like a showtune from Broadway, while the acid monotone stab of Look What You Made Me Do (which borrows, in perhaps the most unexpected pop moment of 2017, from Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy) delights in its aggressive cartoon score settling. Yet for all the fun theatrics – which see Swift owning her most controversial attributes in a way which is smart, but can sometimes start to turn sour – there is plenty of genuine, raw emotion on Reputation. ‘My reputation’s never been worse/So you must like me for me,’ she sings in a key line – and there’s a strand of redemptive, higher love (presumably for new beau Joe Alwyn, though let’s not play the decoding game too much) which runs throughout the whole record.
So It Goes uses woozy, spacey future RnB style production, while Delicate starts with Imogen Heap-esque lilting vocoded vocals. Don’t Blame Me lopes powerfully with a subtly-done touch of soul and gospel heft – which could have gone oh-so-wrong, but the effect is vivid and meaningful: ‘Lord save me, my drug is my baby, I’ll be using for the rest of my life.’ Ultimately, some of the simplest and lightly-produced tracks here are the most affecting. Call It What You Want is as gossamer light, but sweetly addictive as spun sugar, posing love as the antidote to a fall from public grace. That thing we thought we might never hear, a Taylor Swift album with absolutely zero songs from a heartbroken perspective, Reputation takes some production risks – with the result that there’s not so many instantly huge, crowd-gathering radio hits.
Red and 1989 were, for sure, far more instantly likeable. And while some will find the endless exploration of her own notoriety a cutting slice of social commentary – in the age of social media, we are all (on a smaller scale) the controlling curators of our own image, but vulnerable to attack – others will find it perhaps solipsistic and galling. Either way, Reputation proves once again that Swift is still – at her peaks – one of the best pop lyricists and melodists of a generation. Let’s see where she goes next…
Read the review online here.