On the lead single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, Taylor Swift spun a tale of woe and vengeance, dismantling all the ignominy that followed her last year. A malleable entity befitting many narratives — an icon of white supremacy, monopolising her sizeable reach over the musical and socio-political realms? An innocent bystander or a monster orchestrating the downfall of her biggest adversaries? Essentially a denunciation, the song and accompanying video would set Swift up as an unhinged and solitary figure on the defensive. All was brewing, and as the appositely-titled ‘Reputation’ unfurls over fifteen tracks, the ‘New Taylor’ is flagrantly confrontational, the record fastidiously designed to bring her new ethos to life.
On ‘Reputation’, Swift is a nimble musical appropriator, absorbing her producers’ sounds with aplomb, much like Britney did with her state-of-the-art opus ‘Blackout’. It’s still very much her vision, this wanton need to be maximal and omnipotent, and for the first time in her career there is a breadth of versatility that Taylor hasn’t had to exhibit before. On opener ‘…Ready for it?’, Swift sounds as dynamic as ever, half-rapping and chanting over a flatulent industrial beat and a ridiculous bass drop, ushering in a new era of in-your-face defiance. Yet where ‘Blackout’ felt fresh, audacious and redemptive for the media-hounded Britney, ‘Reputation’ stumbles where the stadium verboseness and EDM gossamer from producers Max Martin, Shellback and Jack Antonoff, correlates with an obsessiveness that at times override’s Swift’s usually indelible song writing.
Subtlety is not on the cards. ‘End Game’ collapses under the weight of overwrought musical trends and friends (Ed Sheeran and Future) that bring nothing of note to the A-List party. Taylor comes out the strongest of the trio, as she leaves her signature ear for melody at the door, in favour of an abrasive rap-sung staccato. ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ serves as the album’s nadir, a wearisome display of vengeful villainy that doesn’t befit a woman approaching her thirties.
As ‘Reputation’ plays, Stockholm Syndrome kicks in. We’re reminded of the breathless nostalgia of ‘1989’, the type that essentially redefined the ‘80s synthpop soundscape, Taylor making the transition from girl next door who sang a mean country-lite ditty, to a credible pop juggernaut in her own right. ‘Reputation’ as a whole does not embody the sort of bold reinvention necessary to withstand the unforgiving pop cycle. On much of ‘Reputation’, style seems to have taken precedence over substance.
Still, shed away the high-octane melodrama and what remains is a budding romance seemingly unaffected by the noise outside. The quiet but stark simplicity of ballad ‘New Year’s Day’ borne out of navigating a not-so-secret relationship amidst the gluttony of celebrity life, a highlight. All the computer trickery is gone, the ‘Old Taylor’ effectively outshining her newer, shinier counterpart. Even on the atmospheric, R&B-trap crossover ‘Call It What You Want’, and the ‘1989’ outlier ‘Delicate’, she hits the mark because there is less pretence and less posturing. They’re some of the most potent on record, Taylor revisiting the intimate, diary-like invocation of her past work, treating her listeners as confidantes and not as a cult of her personality.
‘Reputation’ is, aside from the injudicious choice of singles, an exhilarating ride through the trials and tribulations of one of the most illustrious artists in the world. Aside from all the gossip-baiting lyricism, a thought-provoking examination of Swift’s life as a 27-year-old woman emerges. Swift’s unencumbered analysis of the tectonic shifts within her personal and public life are equal parts razor sharp and self-indulgent. But as a pop album, ‘Reputation’ is never revolutionary, the adrenalin rush heady but ultimately short-lived.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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