Well, the most anticipated album of the year, Taylor Swift’s Reputation, has finally been released. The followup to her world-conquering, Grammy-winning smash hit 1989, the album comes after a two-year hiatus in which curiosity about this megastar’s next release reached an absolutely fevered pitch even from those who didn’t like her music. Despite this, the album has proven bitterly divisive even among her fans, but judging from the album itself, I imagine that was exactly what Swift was going for.
Let me explain. Swift, whatever her detractors may say about her, is exceptionally smart, and she knew that almost anything she released after 1989 was going to feel like a letdown (look at what happened with Adele’s 25, for example). She was smart enough to know that the only way to win that game was not to play…to play a different game instead, and do something that absolutely no-one was expecting. To this end, she released a difficult, complex, almost avant-garde album, and the fact that it is currently failing to match the Pop success of 1989 is a reflection on its intentions rather than its quality. To use an analogy from the greatest Pop musicians from another era, 1989 was her Sgt. Pepper, and now Reputation is her White Album.
If that makes this album seem like a calculated commercial move, then I apologize for giving that impression, because that’s the last way anyone would describe this album. The music is a mix of harsh, discordant, even deliberately ugly sounds and blissful lyricism, but the dark undertones are ever-present, even on the most ebullient love songs like “Gorgeous” (‘Ocean blue eyes/gaze into mine/I think I just might/sink and drown and die’). “…Ready For It”, the opening track, does a fine job of telling the audience what they’re in for, with a dissonant, taunting verse and a chorus that is pure Pop bliss.
The album’s lead single, “Look What You Made Me Do”, while it was an extremely effective way to roll out Swift’s new persona, seems to have led many people to expect a darker album than the one we actually got. A terrifying mix of eerie piano, pounding Hip-Hop beats and hissing whispers, it is easily the scariest of all Swift’s ‘angry’ songs. It was also the first song of her entire career to really embrace the influence of Hip-Hop, even including a bizarre but oddly effective sample of the chorus from Right Said Fred’s Nineties novelty hit “I’m Too Sexy” (the repeated “Look what you made me do” on this song’s chorus is set to the same rhythm, and it manages to make it sound terrifying).
The other really extreme examples of Swift’s ‘new sound’ are “I Did Something Bad” and “Endgame”. The former takes a warping, discordant chorus that could have come out of a mid-2000s Britney Spears song, and surrounds it with intelligently-written verses and lyrics that actually give it a valid dramatic function. The latter is a flat-out Rap song, featuring guests spots by her frequent collaborator Ed Sheeran but also by Pop-Rap superstar Future. This is Swift’s first serious attempt at genuine Rap (her duet with T-Pain, “Thug Story”, doesn’t really count, as it was intended as a parody), and as much of a shock as it must have been to many of her fans, she proves to be surprisingly adroit at it. But most of the rest of the album is simply blissful, melodic love songs with tinges of darkness under the surface, recognizably different from her earlier work but not to the degree that many expected when they heard the first singles.
The album’s sound is largely built on the best and most ambitious song from 1989, “Out of the Woods”. The bulk of this album uses the same mix of sorrowful lyricism and creative dissonance that made that song so unique, only here the sounds are much more chaotic and discordant than they were on the earlier song. This makes sense, as this entire album is built on chaotic and discordant emotions…1989 was an album about clarity and self-acceptance, while this is an album about paranoia and vulnerability.
This also explains why, while 1989 told a clearly-plotted linear story, the songs and situations here come out in seemingly random order like a burst of jumbled-up inner thoughts…which is exactly what they’re supposed to be. Still, the growth she showed on 1989 is continued here…she still acknowledges her own neuroses, and she still shows willingness to paint herself in an unflattering light in places.
She seems to focus mostly on her most recent relationship and the solace it has provided her during her lengthy public mistreatment by the media, and that mistreatment itself, with several songs particularly targeted at her professional archfoes Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. In addition to “Look What You Made Me Do” and “I Did Something Bad”, there’s also the witheringly sarcastic “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”. The latter song isn’t as biting as some of Swift’s earlier lyrical takedowns of her enemies, but it’s easily the funniest of them since “Better Than Revenge” back in 2010.
The high point of the album is the sublimely beautiful final song, “New Year’s Day”, which could give “Out of the Woods” some serious competition as the best song of her career. As I said, this album has proved bitterly divisive among both critics and fans, but I’m fairly certain Swift was expecting that when she released it. Given her relative stability and level-headedness for a Pop star, I imagine this is the closest thing to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band or Michael Jackson’s HIStory that Swift will ever release…that this is her version of the proverbial ‘nervous breakdown’ album.
And it seems to be exactly the kind of album that’s going to need a few years to settle down into the status of an established classic, but I can say with a fair degree of certainty that it’ll get there eventually…albums of this sort generally do, if they’re of this level of quality, and Reputation wouldn’t be the first great album to take a few years to be fully appreciated. Hell, if Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music can be acknowledged as a classic after the fact, then I imagine this album won’t have too much trouble winning people over with a few repeat listens. Just give it time.