'reputation' by Taylor Swift - album review

Roisin O'Connor
The artwork for Taylor Swift's new album has been unveiled by the artist on her Instagram page

“...Ready For It?”

There’s a clear challenge in the opening track on Taylor Swift’s sixth album reputation.

Literally clearing her throat (“let the games begin”) beneath that stomp-stomp-stomp electronic beat, she flips an old romantic theme on its head and emulates a more (unapologetically) lustful tone than anything from the days where her narrator leaned wistfully out of castle windows, waiting for the prince to rock up. Swift’s old palette of virginal white and pale blue is gone, replaced with bold reds and shimmering gold.

Swift doesn’t need her lover to save her, as she notes on album standout “Call It What You Want”, which is, arguably, the best song she has ever made. Its lyrics are more open and willingly vulnerable than anything she’s done before; that line on the chorus where she sings: “My baby’s fly like a jet stream/high above the whole scene/loves me like I’m brand new” hits you, hard. You think of the weight of that list of ex-boyfriends the media insists Swift carry around wherever she goes.

Positioned as the penultimate track on reputation, “Call It What You Want” sees producer and co-writer Jack Antonoff (Lorde, St Vincent) sample Swift’s voice and loops it for the intro to continue through the song as a separate instrument to the lead vocals. Simple, shimmering beats from an MPC and that “clack” at the top of the beat drive the rhythm, while that wavering on her voice – unmasked and full of love – as she repeats “I did one thing right” stays with you after the final notes of the song.

Antonoff’s work on this record is essential. His love of Eighties synth-pop is the perfect counterbalance to Max Martin and Shellback’s dance and electronic touch; the album’s structure alternates between the two. On “Getaway Car” Swift emulates one of Antonoff’s favourites – Kate Bush – as she yells “go, go, go!”, while the song in its entirety recalls Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – cellos and violins enhancing the drama. “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” brings to mind both Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” and Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own”. Martin and Shellback’s contribution is just as important, however. On “Don’t Blame Me” the instrumentation is big and brash with hints of gospel – Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” or Rag’n’Bone Man on Human.

Future’s feature on “End Game” achieves the edge Swift is clearly seeking with her new material. Whether or not that is undone by having her friend and collaborator Ed Sheeran appear on the same track is uncertain, but his performance is surprisingly slick given how much he trades on homely, down-to-earth acoustic. “I’ve made mistakes,” he admits after Swift’s insistence that “I don’t love the drama/It loves me” and the listener draws the immediate parallel, not of his friendship with Swift, but of how he’s arguably the only one who could understand her position in the industry.

“Gorgeous”, which sees Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively’s young daughter James utter the first word of the track, is full of the self-deprecating humour that Swift has injected into her music since her debut. You can hear the eye-roll as she sings the word “alone” and considers the prospect of returning home to her cats, the comical suggestiveness of the following: “...unless you wanna come along?” is just glorious.

“Look What You Made Me Do”, meanwhile, still feels like an anomaly on the record. It was a heralding call to arms for her fans and a warning to the subject in the song – whether you want to interpret that as the media, as Kim and Kanye West, an ex-boyfriend, or all three. But for this writer it’s the idea that the press, who spent years lavishing hyperbolic praise and magnifying-glass attention on a developing artist who started her career aged 15, pushed her towards a moment where, at the height of her fame, she would become the villain. That Right Said Fred interpolation still jars, though, and don’t Antonoff and Swift know it.

One of Swift’s greatest talents as a songwriter is to encapsulate those small moments, often in a new relationship, that you as a listener cannot. Her skittishness on “Delicate”, about the danger of rushing into something, of sharing too much of yourself too soon with someone you’re still getting to know, is all too palpable as the beat switches up like a nervous heart. She can be fragile (“Dancing With Our Hands Tied”, or she can be bold (“only bought this dress/so you could take it off”). There are very few faults in her songwriting, the most noticeable is the clumsy delivery in “They’re burning all the witches/Even if you aren’t one” on “I Did Something Bad”.

And Swift can be vengeful, heard most clearly – not on “LWYMMD”, but on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”. If the anger on “LWYMMD” sounds brittle, then “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is rage undiluted. Another Antonoff collaboration; those theatrical, creeping piano notes recall a stage version of Oliver!. That cackle before she exclaims “I can’t even say it with a straight face” is utterly brutal. As for the line: “Friends don’t try to trick you/Get you on the phone/And mind-twist you,” she sings, venom dripping from every word. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian are the obvious targets. Perhaps the bravest move on the whole record is to close on the intimate piano ballad “New Year’s Day”; Swift’s low murmur over a gentle rhythm you’d more often hear on an album by Rufus Wainwright, or on “Avril 14th” by Aphex Twin.

Each of the 15 songs on reputation tackles how she is perceived by the people who know her and the people who don’t. She acknowledges that even those closest to her will have differing ideas. A lover, a friend, a parent who has to see another Taylor Swift takedown online. When she explored those different “versions” of herself in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video it was less about “eras” of Swift than how, over the years, she has been portrayed by the outside world: as the girl next door, the geek, the romantic, the marketing genius, the victim, the snake. Add them together and you might just get a complete person. Swift isn’t denying any of those facets of herself. She’s not excusing them. She’s just saying there’s more than one.

‘reputation’ by Taylor Swift is out now on Big Machine Records

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