Long before Taylor Swift embraced pop, she seemed destined to strike the mainstream charts with a meteoric bang. As she began inching away from the bedroom country ditties of her first two albums, Swift transformed into a more sophisticated, canny, and universal songwriter. Pop domination became the prophecy that, in retrospect, played out as an irrevocable fact. Her perch atop of the Hot 100 went from “if” to “when” after the release of Red, with its layers of stadium bombast and bubblegum bounce. This pivot brought apprehension, if not outright gloom, from admiring listeners like me, who believed Swift discovered the sweet spot of tunefulness and twang, complexity and directness on Speak Now, her last (and finest) Nashville-adjacent record.
If Red eased into a sharp left turn, 1989 gunned the accelerator. The gambit paid off handsomely. With 1989, Taylor Swift emerged as both a pop juggernaut and a blockbusting outsider. She annexed the (then) dated territory of late-80s synthpop and made it a fresh and fertile aural playground. The album eschewed instant fashions and preemptively shook off complaints that Swift was a Billboard interloper. Even Ryan Adams took note and recorded a loving, front-to-back tribute in its honor.
Taylor Swift’s newest release Reputation is the hypothetical pop album we once feared. Here she is, an artist on the defense, an expert singer-songwriter struggling to grasp at current trends that may not be beyond her reach, but also don’t suit her particular talents. These songs, at worst, brim with grievous blunders (all of which can be found on “Look What You Made Me Do”, the lead single). They barely withstand an onslaught of mismatched sonic flourishes, such as incessant rat-a-tat trap beats and flatulent EDM synthesizer bursts. Right Said Fred earn a song credit. Swift raps on multiple tracks.
Bad decisions abound. Good taste is under regular assault. And yet, Reputation reveals treasures with each successive spin, much like Rihanna’s Anti. Taylor Swift, with producers Max Martin and Jack Antonoff at her side, soars as often as she crashes. Stockholm syndrome may explain my growing appreciation for Reputation, though I doubt it. I credit Swift’s ear for a sturdy tune, which remains as impressive as ever. Does another contemporary artist have her flair for sky-high choruses? Listen to “Don’t Blame Me” or “King of My Heart” or “Getaway Car” on repeat a few times before you decide.
Through the years, Swift has been savaged for playing the beleaguered sufferer (at awards shows and in her personal life) and has invoked victimhood on songs like “Mean” and “Bad Blood”. Not now. For once Taylor presents herself as a cosplay version of Maleficent and on “I Did Something Bad” and “Look What You Made Me Do” (which is an abuser’s excuse for domestic violence) owns and relishes her role as a diabolical villain. See, for example, Reputation’s most wicked kiss-off, “This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things”, which is joyfully caustic.
Reputation is, too often, an ugly sounding album. But Taylor Swift has a superhuman knack for a stunning melody. Many of these songs are downright sweet. “Delicate”, “Gorgeous”, and “Call It What You Want” recall the breeziness of 1989. The featherlight “Dress” interpolates FKA Twigs’ indelible “Two Weeks”. The acoustic ballad “New Year’s Day” closes Reputation with a reminder that Swift, like her fellow squad mate Lorde, is an heir to Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks.
But it’s the album’s opener, “…Ready for It?”, that best summarizes Taylor Swift’s shaky place in 2017. Its verses are trashy, aggressively percussive throwaways. Its chorus — oh, its chorus! — is heavenly. She performed a gorgeous acoustic rendition of “Call It What You Want” on SNL over the weekend and proved the old Taylor isn’t really dead but in self-exile. Reputation isn’t the album I expected (or maybe wanted) to loathe. Nor is it a worthy follow-up to her magnificent 1989. As much as she’s co-opting contemporary sounds, Swift seems baffled and adrift. Like a stopped clock, she gets things right, apparently by accident (again, the ebullient “Getaway Car”). This, I suspect, isn’t the Taylor anyone is looking for. Combative and petulant, she’s the Swift who needs to exorcise tabloid demons, at least for the current album cycle. C PLUS