The followup to Taylor Swift’s world-conquering, Grammy-winning smash hit 1989, this album came 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 proved bitterly divisive even among her fans upon its release, 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 failed 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 Reputation is her White Album.
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 righteous anger and vulnerability. 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/looking in mine/I think that I 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).
Like 1989 and every other Taylor Swift release since the beginning of the current decade, this is a full-fledged Concept Album. However, while 1989 resembled a miniature musical in the vein of Tommy or Ziggy Stardust, Reputation is built more on the model used by Pink Floyd’ Dark Side of the Moon, with two contrasting ‘sides’, one dealing her lengthy public mistreatment by the media, the second with her most recent relationship and the solace it provided her during that mistreatment. 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.
The other really extreme examples of Swift’s ‘new sound’ are both from the first side, “I Did Something Bad” and “Endgame”. The former is a dark, angry, discordant showstopper that is particularly stunning when performed live. 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. Granted, even the love songs on the first half (like the eerie invocation of Eighties New-Wave “Don’t Blame Me” or the exquisitely bittersweet “Delicate”) are still darker and more paranoid that most of the second ‘side’. “Delicate” actually became the album’s best-liked single among the amateur “internet” critics, most of whom had apparently never listened to the entire album and thus never knew that most of the album they professed to hate sounded a lot more like the song they liked than it did like the other singles.
As expected, there are several songs specifically targeted at her professional archfoes Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Some have accused her of pettiness as a result of this, but people were obviously going to read that subtext into anything she released at that time anyway, so I agree with her decision to address it directly. In addition to “Look What You Made Me Do” and “I Did Something Bad”, there’s also the only “angry” song from the second ‘side’, 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 rest of the second side is nearly all love songs, whether blissful (“King of My Heart”), bittersweet (“Dancing With Our Hands Tied”), or both (“Call It What You Want”). It even feature the most overtly sexual song that Swift had ever written up to that point in “Dress”, which unlike so many attempts at sexuality by former Teen Pop stars, is tasteful and subtle enough to be genuinely erotic rather than just an embarrassing public spectacle.
This is an unusually straightforward album by Swift’s previous standards. The only track that is really open to interpretation is “Getaway Car”. Now, I tend not to dwell on the significance of Swift’s music to her personal life beyond what she communicates directly (frankly, I think it’s none of my business), but if I had to make a guess, I’d say this was a subtler, more sophisticated version of something like “Back to December”—an expression of regret for something she had done to one of her ex-boyfriends. In any case, it is a thrilling narrative ballad that seems to simultaneously apologize abjectly and shrug off any responsibility, and it probably would have been one of the album’s biggest hits had it actually been released as a single in the U.S. market.
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. It shows an unheard-of level of maturity for Swift at that point, pledging to be there for the bad times as well as the good, but also essentially saying that if anything should ever force them to separate, “Don’t forget me” and “Don’t be a stranger”. This is in sharp contrast to the angry breakup ballads that characterized Swift’s early work, and it showed that this fresh-faced songwriting prodigy who emerged out of Nashville was finally growing up.
As I said, this album 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.
This seems to be the kind of album that’s going to need a few years to settle down into the status of an acknowledged classic, but I can say with a fair degree of certainty that it’ll get there eventually…indeed, it’s already visibly beginning to happen in some circles. In any case, the people who pillory this album as a “failure” are engaging in wishful thinking because of their own prejudices against the artist…it may not have had the same success on the singles chart as 1989, but “failed” albums don’t end up as Year-End best-sellers. The truth is that with this album and its follow-up Lover, Swift is starting to outgrow the singles chart (much like Beyonce did before her) and become one of those “classic” artists whose albums are generally enjoyed as a unified whole. And this is something to be proud of…remember that Swift has said that her real career role model was Joni Mitchell, and so this was probably her real long-term ambition all along.