Will the real Taylor Swift please stand up? Because she seems lost in the overproduced club fodder that comprises half of her sixth studio album, Reputation. And frankly, I am getting a little concerned.
Swift’s latest is a drastic shift from the sweet synth-pop that defined her 2014 opus, 1989. After racking up an impressive string of hits, the singer battled overexposure thanks in part to Hollywood feuds with the likes of Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry. As things reached fever pitch, she decided to disappear before returning to reclaim her damaged reputation.
“I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead,” The 27-year-old brazenly proclaims on lead single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” Guess that is one way to pull off an image overhaul. Reuniting with Jack Antonoff, the pair pushed boundaries on the experimental offering. The polarizing track presents a more jaded version of pop’s doe-eyed ingenue and delivered a statement of frustration with the industry.
Armed with what is potentially the pettiest music videos of all time, it became a streaming giant and dutifully bowed at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. However, it lacked the staying power of earlier hits like “We Are Never Getting Back Together” or “Shake It Off.” Instead of introducing the album with a perfectly-crafted pop song, she opted for an abrasive oddity. It was a sacrifice she was only too ready to make, but it raised questions about what to expect moving forward.
Fans presumed “Look What You Made Me Do” was more of a statement than a testament to the project’s sound. However, the trend continued with the release of “…Ready For It.” Another bone-jarring production courtesy of Ali Payami, Max Martin and Shellback sets the scene as the hitmaker lusts after a dangerous boy. Things build up to a dreamy chorus, but the effort was too heavy-handed again.
“Gorgeous” was more familiar. Another feisty anthem, the song seemed to be aimed at her ex Calvin Harris as she flirts with another man. However earworm-worthy the production, the lyrics are not very tactful. “Guess I’ll just stumble home to my cats; alone. Unless you want to come along,” she quips in what is potentially the most Taylor Swift statement of all time. Not exactly the suavest way to arrange a hookup.
Thankfully, Taylor saved the best for last with “Call It What You Want.” The ethereal offering did away with the ridiculous overproduction and livid messaging in favor of sweet synths and romance. “All my flowers grew back as thorns, windows boarded back up after the storm. He built a fire just to keep me warm,” she coos about a lover who brought purpose back to her shattered life.
As a whole, Reputation descends further into electronica than any of her previous albums. Sonically and conceptually, it could draw comparisons to Britney Spears’ Blackout. Both came at paramount times in the pop stars’ lives and provided an opportunity for them to discuss personal qualms over some of their most barbed productions. However, whereas Brit was able to convincingly ride the dark beats into the depths of the club, Taylor struggles to sound quite as believable.
This becomes increasingly evident on tracks like “I Did Something Bad,” which boasts another fierce production of Shellback and Martin’s. They build tension with growling bass and sharply crashing beats, but Taylor’s delivery feels a little too sophomoric as she sings about how she has dealt with insufficient lovers.
“I never trust a narcissist, but they love me. So I play ’em like a violin, and I make it look oh-so-easy,” she brags in the opening lines. Taylor’s lyrics and delivery are too agitated to appear unbothered. She doesn’t seem capable of being as icy as Spears on “Piece of Me,” but that is almost required for a track with this level of attitude.
The aptly titled “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is another example of how things can get sloppy. Aside from the ridiculous title, the song is the sort of melodrama that speaks to Taylor’s unending pettiness as she calls it quits with a friend. “No I’m not the only friend you’ve lost lately. If only you weren’t so shady,” she bitterly declares. Coupled with the fact that it builds to a grating, almost Broadway-inspired chorus, and this is definitely more of a miss.
Electronic production distorts the vocals on “Delicate.” The tender track takes on a note of irony considering her vocals are anything but fragile under the layers of frosty autotune. However, as robotic as her voice sounds there is something particularly compelling about her hesitancy as she sings about flirting with a potential lover. Even though she sounds as relatable as the cyborg Taylor of the “…Ready For It” music video, there is something entirely human about her delivery.
In comparison, “Don’t Blame Me” plods on to infinity as the hitmaker sings about being addicted to her lover. “I get so high, oh, every time, yeah, every time you’re loving me. You’re loving me, trip of my life,” she sings before flaunting her vocals on a Gospel-inspsired bridge. It is a high point in an otherwise bland offering.
With inexplicable features from Future and Ed Sheeran, “End Game” is unspeakable. Taylor has proven herself capable of incorporating hip-hop into her soundscape with tracks like “Bad Blood,” but a buoyant R&B production takes everyone involved out of their respective comfort zones. The end result is clumsy, and the chemistry between the trio, who are supposed to be involved in a love triangle of sorts, is laughable. As the album’s sole collaboration, it seems a wasted opportunity.
Reputation is at its strongest when the hitmaker veers closer to the more comfortable brand of synth-pop. And when the LP gets things right, the result is magical. That is the case with “So It Goes…,” which has the distinction of being one of Taylor’s most sensual releases. “And all our pieces fall right into place. Get caught up in the moment, lipstick on your face. So it goes,” she muses over atmospheric synths. Likely inspired by her current boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, the release is a sexy outpouring of emotion that ends with the promise of scratches down her lover’s back.
Things gets even more intimate on the breathy “Dress.” “Our secret moments in your crowded room; they’ve got no idea about me and you,” she purrs before promising a lover that she’d “only bought this dress so you could take it off.” Twinkling and anthemic, it is the sort of mature pop that Taylor should explore more of in the future.
“Getaway Car” races over dazzling synths as the hitmaker sings about how a relationship was doomed from the very beginning. It swells with kinetic energy and is defined by some of the project’s most metaphoric writing.
The besotted “King Of My Heart” is another example of the sort of electro-pop that Taylor excels at. Singing about a perfect romance, her voice soars over a production lush with finger snaps and fizzing beats. “And all at once you are the one I have been waiting for. King of my heart, body and soul,” she proclaims on the infectious chorus. After a break, the track builds to a stuttering chorus that is practically perfection. The only complaint here is an unnecessary vocal production, which plagues a good portion of the LP.
“Dancing With Our Hands Tied” is another winner. Although the title alludes to a John Mayer-esque slow burner, the effervescent track disguises darker messaging behind a frenetic production. The end result is another relative success with captivating lyrics.
After the frenzied energy of the majority of Reputation, the LP ends with an acoustic love song on “New Year’s Day.” In it, Taylor and a lover begin a new year together after a night of celebrations. As the sun rises on the symbolic beginning it is met with a quiet sense of purpose and adoration.
Unsurprisingly, amidst a sea of vocal distortions, this still moment is an absolute high point and a reminder that less is more with Taylor. There’s a refined sense of beauty as she sings about the mundane life with a loved one.
The album introduces a new iteration of the pop heavy-hitter to the world. It serves as a rebirth of sorts, but too much of it is defined by her battles. Taylor’s ability to write about moments with picture-perfect clarity is both a blessing and a curse. In comes in handy on songs like the evocative closer, but on the majority of the LP it takes the focus away from the music itself as fans dive into the hidden dramas. While it makes for obsessive listening, it can also take you out of the project’s artistic qualities as you become a detective.
On Reputation Taylor Swift comes across as the pop star who is doing the absolute most. But instead of being effortlessly cool, the project is bogged down in overproduction and melodrama. At several points it comes close to capturing the excellence of her earlier work, but she tends to fall just short of expectations.