Review: Taylor Swift’s ‘reputation’ on cruise control
Even some Taylor Swift diehards had to be cringing after the singer ushered in the publicity push for her latest album with “Look What You Made Me Do,” a single in which one of the most famous people in the world complained about all her famous rivals — which could be everyone from her ex, Calvin Harris, to frequent antagonist Kanye West.
The song also proclaimed the demise of the “old Taylor,” which really is old news. “Old Taylor” keeps getting dumped with each new Taylor release, and her sixth studio album, the lower-cased “reputation,” is no exception.
One of the keys to Swift’s decade-long dominance of the pop universe is her ability to press the reset button with every album. Since 2006, she’s gone from guitar-strumming country act to the expansive pop detours of “Red” (2012) and the MTV-era retro hooks of “1989” (2014).
“Reputation” arrives with another shift, this time into electronic pop, split between the Swedish production team of Max Martin and Shellback and American pop-rock songwriter Jack Antonoff.
Swift puts her guitar on the shelf in favor of synth-heavy productions that crackle and groove, a kind of EDM lite with a touch of hip-hop in service of sleek hooks.
It turns out that “Look What You Made Me Do” is an outlier on an album of love songs. Swift has a new real-life boyfriend, and her new-found contentment appears to have muted her desire to play tit for tat.
Only “I Did Something Bad” revels in payback. “This is how the world works,” she sings as she tries to justify her narrator’s “he had it coming” cruelty.
Taylor’s penchant for getting in the last word in any dissing match has given her music an extra layer of mildly sleazy allure. Without the subtext, the singer is essentially a pop appropriator, able to absorb whatever sound and producer suits her desire for continual reinvention. She’s a savvy businesswoman who understands the shifting tides of her audience and the pop marketplace more clearly than most music industry executives. And so her albums are as much perfectly executed marketing plans as they are musical statements. They are designed to press buttons and achieve predictable results: Four straight No. 1 albums and nearly 30 million album sales at a time of declining profits in recorded music.
Little wonder her music sounds so unruffled, so sure of itself. Her earliest albums boasted a callow, openhearted charm, her transparency about the awkwardness of teenager-hood striking a chord with her young fans. But in adulthood, calculation and cash have usurped raw diary entries as guiding principles. Now when she’s picking at the carcass of an ex-lover or taking shots at Kanye or Kim, it feeds the churn in the gossipy corners of social media more than upsetting musical convention.
Though “reputation” sounds different from any previous Swift release, as pop music it’s in fact relatively conservative, especially when compared with the latest releases of artists such as Lorde, Beyoncé or Rihanna. Even an odd-couple pairing on “End Game” fails to spark. Future, who sounds bored, and milquetoast singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who tries to rap, sound like they’re trying hard not to upstage each other, let alone outshine Swift.
It’s easy to admire the craft: pulsing synths and rippling drums fuel “Getaway Car,” which then detours onto a snappy piano-led bridge, and the call-and-response vocal orchestrations, finger snaps and drum accents on “King of Hearts” conspire to create drama.
But the Swift who used to treat her fans like confidantes instead of a marketing demographic resurfaces only as the album winds down. On “Call It What you Want,” she sounds quietly liberated as she sings, “nobody’s heard from me for months” but “I’m better than I ever was.” She wears a wan, bleary smile as she paints the mood of a post-holiday bash on “New Year’s Day”: “There’s glitter on the floor after the party/ Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby.” For a brief moment, Swift sounds like one of her fans again.