Album Review: Taylor Swift's 'Reputation'

LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Taylor Swift "Reputation" (Big Machine)

There are a couple of immediate lyrical takeaways from "Reputation," Taylor Swift's first album in three years, and 2017's most anticipated. One is that our narrator is madly, deeply, moonily in love, which isn't atypical for a pop album but is uncharacteristic for Swift, better known as the contemporary queen of postmortems. The other is that she's not so smitten with the rest of the planet. However much we might imagine that celebrities let backlashes roll off their backs, it's clear the public reaction to the Kim-and-Kanye "Famous" feud flare-up of 2016 really, really, really did a number on her. She's not just playing the title for kicks: Unlike Joan Jett, Taylor Swift does give a damn about her bad reputation.

That amour-misanthropy divide may seem like a recipe for an album with a split personality, but plenty of fans in humbler circumstances will be able to relate to Swift's us-against-the-world attitude -- even if in her case, when she expresses "deep fears that the world would divide us," she means, you know, the world.

Defensiveness was a hallmark of the album's polarizing first single, "Look What You Made Me Do," which was as tense rhythmically as it was psychologically. The second single, ."..Ready for It?," while ostensibly a love song, was also rigid enough in its programming to feel more like a call to arms than to clinches. Fortunately, these are the only tracks here aggro enough to have long futures as bumper music on sports programs.

Although you might not guess it from the songs that have been released prior to the album's launch, "Reputation" is, in whole, a lot more sensual than it is peeved. Nearly all the tracks are as unapologetically electronic as those first teasers, but they get looser, sultrier, hookier and more about the R&B than EDM influences.

Which is to say, of course, not at all country. Last year's rumor about Swift returning to her Nashville roots couldn't feel more laughable now; "Reputation" is just urban enough to make the pure pop of "1989" sound like Flatt & Scruggs freestyling in the holler. She has made musical tour de force albums before -- most notably the cornucopia of styles that was "Speak Now" -- and this is not one of them. There's not even an organic-sounding cameo appearance this time from original producer Nathan Chapman, as Swift has narrowed her collaborators to Jack Antonoff (six tracks) and Max Martin and Shellback (who, along with a few Swedish proteges, are responsible for nine). For the first time in her six studio albums, Swift has made a record that sounds all of a piece -- and it's a piece that may break the camel's back for some old fans, but for the ones who love the most up-to-the-second pop music in 2017, it'll feel like a necessary, and completely charming, cohesion.

Speaking of the young old-timers in her fan base, the song most likely to stop Teen Tay partisans in their tracks is "Dress," in which Swift swoops up into a nearly Prince-like falsetto to confess: "Carve my name into your bedpost / 'Cause I don't want you like a best friend / Only bought this dress so you could take it off." Not that anyone should worry she's going harlot all at once on us -- the context makes it clear that her "hands are shaking from holding back from all of this... pining and desperately waiting." (It's definitely one of the best songs ever written about abstinence jitters.)

Most of the other songs deal more with commitment issues than physical congress, moving from the secret late-night first date of "Delicate" ("Is it cool that I said all that?" she asks, exchanging verbal intimacies for the first time in the back of an East Side bar) to the lipstick-smearing firebrand of "So It Goes ..." ("I'm not a bad girl / But I do bad things with you") to, finally, the dreamy teen romantic we remember from her fantasy "Love Story," now grown up and ready to declare that she's in it for life in real life, in "King of My Heart" ("Is this the end of all the endings?") and the lone acoustic number, "New Year's Day" ("Don't read the last page, but I stay").

These are what fans will understand to be the Joe Alwyn songs, to put it in baldly bloggerazzi terms, apparently written about real love in real time over the last year. It may come as a slight disappointment that these don't leave much room for the best breakup songwriter in the business to exercise her former stock-in-trade, but she does stretch those muscles in a couple instances. "I Did Something Bad" plays out like a less satirical version of "Blank Space," in which she owns up to having toyed around with narcissists, "'cause for every lie I tell them, they tell me three." There's less levity and more seasoning to the album's most immediately arresting song, "Getaway Car," a confession of serial indiscretions as a convenient exit tactic: "Should've known I'd be the first to leave / Think about the place where you first met me / In a getaway car." It's a metaphor worthy of, dare it be said, a great country song.

But if she's too much in love to bother writing much about former paramours, the same doesn't apply to Kanye West, who doesn't only come in for the tilted-stage disses of "Look What You Made Me Do" but is also the obvious target of "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things."

Swift sings of a champagne-strewn friendship that had her "feeling so Gatsby for that whole year," only to realize that "Friends don't try to trick you / Get you on the phone / And mind-twist you." The song has the cathartic sing-along quality of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," a lightness that seems at odds with the more serious and stricken tone she adopts in other moments on the album.

In "Call It What You Want," she sings, "My castle crumbled overnight / I brought a knife to a gunfight." In "Delicate," she's even worried -- as a result of the public pillorying she got after the back-and-forth with the Kardashians? -- that she's not even girlfriend material, "'cause my reputation's never been worse, so you must like me for me."

As lyrically intimate as most of the album is, Swift does come out of her inner sanctum for a party on "End Game," an old-school R&B sing-along that gets a little less retro when Future shows up to rap and Ed Sheeran to scat. It's probably the album's most obvious smash -- a "Good Blood" for 2018.

While most deluxe editions include bonus tracks, the Target version of "Reputation" features exclusive magazines with essays and poems that make it more abundantly clear that Swift, like a lot of us, hasn't licked her 2016 wounds clean. "If you're anything like me," she writes in a poem, "you couldn't recognize the face of love until they stripped you of your shiny paint, threw your victory flag away, and you saw the ones who wanted you anyway."

To her detractors, who are legion, this will seem like more self-aggrandizement. But if you imagine that bold-faced names have feelings, too, this text and all the songs that surround it make for a fascinating combination of audacity and vulnerability. And maybe that latter side of Swift will still provide a key point of connection for fans of the old, mid-2000s, dweeb-era Taylor, even if the teardrops now fall on digital-percussion programs instead of anything resembling guitars.

11/10/2017 14:42

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