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The Old Taylor Is Dead?

A Track-by-Track Review of 'Reputation'

2017's Reputation

How many albums were released in 2017? Scratch that. How many albums were available for purchase in 2017? Countless. How many albums sold over one million physical copies in 2017? Just one. In an industry that’s had to turn to digital streams from non-paying consumers for revenue, because the product simply doesn’t fly off the shelves anymore, Taylor Swift’s sixth album Reputation is the only album to reach this milestone. One million and thirty-five thousand copies, and it took just fifty-two days.

Swift’s two main collaborators on Reputation are Bleachers frontman and ex-member of Fun, Jack Antonoff, and pop music industry giant, Max Martin, both of whom were collaborators on Swift’s previous album 1989. The album keeps two sonic signatures throughout the album, with half of the songs being synth-pop based and reminiscent of the 1989 sessions, and half being based around trap-influenced hip-hop beats. Incidentally, Antonoff and Martin have credits on both styles, as opposed to one collaborator being associated with one style.

The album comes on the heels of Swift’s rivalry with rapper Kanye West. The rivalry began in 2009 after Kanye interrupted her acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards. Recently, after being singled out on the track “Famous” from West’s 2016 album The Life of Pablo, Swift stated the line including her was misogynistic, and that she would like to be “excluded from the narrative.” It appears the public feud has reached its conclusion, with Kanye being the victor, as Kim Kardashian released video footage of a conversation between Swift and West where Swift verbally agreed to the line’s usage. Her sweet, country girl next door persona had been destroyed, with the Twitterverse naming her a snake. Snakes in mythology are considered cunning creatures, even being used in media like the Harry Potter series to classify students that are cunning and achievement-oriented. On her new album, Swift doesn’t shy away from her new-found reputation. She flaunts it on tracks like the polarizing “Look What You Made Me Do,” and the album opener “...Ready For It?” Even on tracks like “Don’t Blame Me,” one that fits as a softer track from 1989, she acknowledges her reputation as a serial dater. Still, while some of the 1989-esque cuts are Reputation highlights, the decision to include these in the same sonic space as the new sounds, promote an overall lack of cohesion on the album, as her new attitude gets lost in the familiar sound. 

"... Are you ready for it?"

The blatant ownership of her reputation as a snake is front and centre in the opening of the album. In the intro of “...Ready For It?” alone there is a droning distorted bass note, accompanied by an electronic snare hit that’s been manipulated to sound like a roar from a carnivorous cat. It’s a nice transition from being known as a slimy snake in the grass to a she-wolf or a lioness. The song introduces the listener to the two styles on the album, with trap verses being paired with synth-pop choruses. This song sees Swift aggressively on the prowl for her next relationship victim, “Knew I was a robber first time that he saw me/Stealing hearts and running off and never saying sorry/But if I’m a thief then he can join the heist.” The song does what it sets out to do: introduce the listener to the new era of Taylor Swift, doing little to prepare them for it, but instead simply throwing it in their ears.

"You and me, we got big reputations."

The album then expertly flows into the next track “End Game” by way of a lyrical land bridge. Having just finished on an outro of Swift shouting “Baby, let the games begin,” she immediately croons “I wanna be your end game.” Off to a good start with cohesiveness. This song is the only track on the album to have a feature, with both singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, and rapper Future, getting a verse. All three of them echo the same sentiment in the song, stating variations of “my [bad] reputation precedes me.” This adds another layer of cohesion, but at the expense of the song. They’d “be a big conversation” if they weren’t parroting each other. One of the song’s redeeming qualities is when Swift sings “I wanna be your A-team,” a reference to Sheeran’s song “The A-Team,” which essentially began his reputation. Despite being one of the weaker points, the song raises one of the most pressing questions on the album: with Future enlisted to rap, why are Swift and Sheeran trying to spit bars?

He had it coming. He only had himself to blame.

Swift channels the lioness again on “I Did Something Bad,” letting the man in the story think he is in charge, before she pounces unexpectedly. As is tradition, she references her signature red lipstick, tying in the reputation theme. The technological wonders of production leave their mark on this track. Max Martin was able to create a post-chorus hook of a chopped up, pitch-down sample of Swift’s voice to make it seem like Jack Antonoff was rapping a verse that would fit on Big Shaq’s “Man’s Not Hot.” It truly is a time to be alive.

"My drug is my baby."

“Don’t Blame Me” falls into a cliche comparison of being in love with being addicted to drugs, similar to Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (both songs are co-written by Max Martin). The song is a mixed bag of welcome departures and missteps. The synthpop, spacious verses are a fresh breath from the trap and hip-hop productions of the previous songs, but the high vocal flourishes are distracting. The album is developing a habit of overdubbing vocals in the final choruses to make them feel bigger. Maybe the production team’s forgotten this isn’t the only way to end a song.

This IS for the best.

“Delicate” continues in the synthpop vein, but this production is driven by a vocoder. The automatically-produced harmonies fill out the sonic space. This stripped-down production is expertly placed for breathing room, and sounds like an after-midnight version of 1989. Keeping the reputation theme in the pre-chorus and chorus, there’s a reason this song topped Rolling Stone’s Top 25 of 2017 list.

"I do it all the time!"

The divisive “Look What You Made Me Do” follows, returning to the trap production. The song defies the conventional structure that’s been entrenched since even before the days of Nirvana: quiet verse, loud chorus. After building the pre-chorus, Swift and Antonoff refuse the customary drop. Instead, they leave the club to only electronic percussion, and a repeating vocal identity. That line is, of course, the direct interpolation of the Right Said Fred hit “I’m Too Sexy.” With the original song being a satire of model narcissism, this is perhaps the pinnacle of Reputation’s theme; how others view you, and how you react to that. But even with “Look What You Made Me Do” being integral to Reputation, it is unclear what she has done until the bridge when she mentions that the old Taylor is dead.

"Dressed in Black Now"

“So It Goes…” doesn’t offer too much musical interest. The title is a reference to the novel Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, where the phrase “so it goes” is repeated each time a character dies. I think she’s trying to tell us someone just died, if you didn’t already know. Maybe you should call Taylor and ask.

Look at your face!

“Gorgeous” reduces Swift to a childlike mess with her partner, going against the huntress attitude she’s been pushing throughout the album. With this in mind, the Reputation narrative collapses, but, outside of that lens, it is one of the strongest pieces on the album. Oh, and that child at the beginning? Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively’s son.

Correct. Nothing good starts in a getaway car.

Keeping the synthpop going, “Getaway Car” sees the return of the vocoder, and the criminal story serves as a metaphor for her serial relationship reputation. The pre-chorus is reminiscent of the chorus on 1989’s “Style”, and Antonoff’s production on the outro plays like a Bleachers cut. One of the skippable moments on the album, possibly the only interesting thing about this song is maybe this is what happened when “Love Story” ended: “With three of us honey, it’s a sideshow/and a circus ain’t a love story.” I guess Taylor’s absorbed her new LA surroundings, following Hollywood’s trend of making a great movie,, and terrible sequels.

"I'm your American queen."

“King of My Heart” continues with car references, and the vocoder. She’s continued using vocal overdubs to make the last chorus hit big. The whole three and a half minutes sounds like three and a half minutes I’ve heard elsewhere on the album.

"Forever, with your hands in my pockets."

After the lengthy low-point on the album, “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” opens with spacious block chords. It seems like this will be a slow ride until fast percussion suddenly starts, and transforms it into the perfect soundtrack to a midnight drive. The production feels like “Style” until a house-influenced drop kicks in at the chorus. If a remix of this song doesn’t light up the club scene soon, I don’t think I want to go out any more.

"All of this silence and patience."

Possibly the second chapter to “Dancing...”, “Dress” is different to anything Swift’s cut anywhere in her career. She’s overtly sexual, like the huntress persona, but more delicate, swooning “Say my name and everything just stops” and “Only bought this dress so you could take it off.” Her voice reaches a quiet, breathy territory, and as a result the “ah, ha, ha” moments seem like she’s sharing very intimate moments with us. In the final chorus, when she sings “stops,” the entire production cuts out for a moment. There’s no additional overdubs, and no loud synths. That’s how you end a song.

"Did you think I wouldn't hear all the things you said about me?"

With lines like “friends don’t try to trick you/get you on the phone and mind-twist you,” “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” gets into diss track territory. Maybe she hasn’t given up on her feud with Kanye after all. Swift uses the now popular phrase as a metaphor for the death of the old version of herself. She says “because you break them, I had to take them away,” she is telling her “haters” that thanks to them, the old Taylor is gone, and now no one gets to enjoy her. Even with this, she has trouble carrying the sayonara idea throughout, as she’s fallen into spoken musical theatre-esque interludes that similarly litter “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

"All the liars are calling me one."

“Call It What You Want” immediately calls back to “Look What You Made Me Do.” With lyrics about castles, crowns, and being gone for months, the two have a lot more in common narratively than the songs around them. It feels like the part of the story where she’s acknowledging being pushed down, but she’s shrugging it off to live her own life. She’s reflecting, and trying to rise above all the noise. Though the electronic snare borders on a tone of a metronome, “Call It What You Want” is a highlight on the album. It is a solid track that vibes enough to keep you entranced for the whole three minutes, and twenty seconds. The addition of Antonoff’s whispered vocals in the chorus, and outro adds a lovely slice of life into the soundscape.

"Read the last page."

The fifteenth and final song on the album “New Year’s Day” is a strange addition. It is a very minimal production, with the only example of a real piano on the album. There’s vocal layering in the last chorus of the two independent lines to create a countermelody, which is quite a welcome disruption to the high overdub choruses she’s established. But the sound does not fit with anything on the album, and is simply out of place. That being said, it is a beautiful song. It is a different reflection of the old Taylor than she’s given previously, saying “please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere,” and “hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you.” It’s this moment, and possibly this moment alone where Swift acknowledges that the old Taylor that she’s killed off is still a part of her history, and that she doesn’t want to forget her. Who she was is responsible for who she is now. It may seem overly poetic, but that’s what an artist does.

Verdict:

Reputation sees Swift mixing a new production sound with her previous pop style, creating some great songs in both styles. Her new bad person reputation, and public low point is the central theme on the record, but with emphasis on entering a new era of Swift it is simply perplexing why some of the songs retain their 1989 sensibilities. And if 2019's "ME!" has anything to say about it, living in a 1989 past is the new generation, and Taylor doesn't give a damn anymore.

Highlights: "Call It What You Want," "Dress," "I Did Something Bad," "Dancing With Our Hands Tied," "...Ready For It?," "Delicate"

Skip: "Getaway Car," "King Of My Heart," "End Game"

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