By Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)
It would be fair to describe Taylor Swift’s 1989 era as mixed. The record itself was widely praised as it heard Swift confidently shaking off her country sound which characterised her early releases in favour of a more synthetic 80s-inspired pop sound. What helped to make 1989 so likeable was that the majority of the lyrics were innocent and playful (Bad Blood was an exception) and matched the sugary instrumentals.
However, in the years after 1989, Swift managed to make far more enemies than friends by seemingly being on the wrong side of just about every issue she spoke on. This led to a rare scenario – Swift, one of the world’s biggest pop stars found herself with her back against the wall – after arguably her best and most successful album.
Swift undoubtedly felt this pressure, as she made her return to the spotlight with one of the year’s worst singles – the Kanye diss track Look What You Made Me Do, which hears Swift pettily continuing a beef which everyone – including Kanye – forgot about ages ago. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, the track is built on a generic trap beat which Swift raps over. After the mess of the lead single and the disappointing follow-ups, it looked like reputation could be a car crash of the record.
The start of the record does little to convince listeners otherwise. The first two tracks hear Swift rapping more than singing, with opener …Ready For It? hearing Swift using what sounds like a bad Kanye beat, and it goes without saying that as a rapper she doesn’t nearly match her rival’s charisma or general entertainment value. Following this is End Game, which has to objectively be the one of the worst tracks of the last 10 years. Seriously. The Swift/Ed Sheeran/Future cocktail is far worse than it ever looked on paper. Swift and Sheeran sound horribly out of place over another trap beat which has clearly been suited to Future, and even his verse is horribly below-par.
As if abandoning her sweet pop sound wasn’t enough, on these trap tracks Swift abandons her usual innocent lyrical tone in turn of a more aggressive one as she drags out her petty beefs, instantaneously making her songs a hundred times less likeable. Throughout End Game, Swift wriggles to fit the album title into the lyrics at every opportunity – with her and Sheeran both singing “reputation proceeds me” which raises the inevitable question – what reputation does Ed Sheeran have and in what ways does it proceed him?
Another motif throughout the album that End Game introduces is dreadful autotune – Swift flirts with it on the chorus, but deeper into the album on Delicate, the superstar revels in it. From a songwriting perspective, Delicate is an improvement – the track is the most subtle and understated track so far on the tracklist – but Swift feels the need to pursue derivative hip-hop sounds further and drown herself in autotune. Another track with potential is So it Goes…, but the more low-key verses are ruined by a horrifically overbearing synth sound in the chorus.
The three-track succession of these 2 with Look What You Made Me Do sandwiched in the middle serves as a disappointing microcosm of reputation as a whole – there are decent tracks ruined by cheap production alongside tracks which are just irredeemably awful. Gorgeous falls into the former category – the beat is genuinely catchy and Swift makes at least a partial return to her former innocent lyricism (“I guess I’ll just stumble on home to my cats”) but again she frustratingly feels the need to mask her more-than-capable voice with autotune.
Finally, 9 tracks into the 15-track record, the first genuinely brilliant track appears. Getaway Car harks back to 1989 and arguably better 80s-inspired pop records (Carly Rae Jepsen anyone?) with its brilliantly inoffensive sound palette – even the lyrics are a return to form for Swift, rooted in innocent fantasy like Wildest Dreams and Out of the Woods. The vocal melodies on reputation are annoying for the most part, but Getaway Car is an overwhelming outlier, with an undeniably stick-in-your-head chorus.
After the peak of Getaway Car, the record returns to its earlier failings. King of my Heart and Dancing With Our Hands Tied are two decent pop songs, and lyrically are more enjoyable as Swift is innocent and playful rather than petty and argumentative, however they are ruined by overbearing autotune and an overly explosive chorus respectively. In sharp contrast, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a return to the argumentative lyricism of the first half of the tracklist, featuring a cringe-inducing laugh from Swift before the final chorus which somehow manages to make a track called This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things more embarrassing than it already is.
Frustratingly, reputation ends on a relatively strong note. Call it What You Want is an indistinctive but nice enough pop song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1989, while piano ballad New Year’s Day harks back to older Swift releases such as Red and even Speak Now. This heartreaking track, after an album of predominantly generic hip-hop/R&B imitations, is a frustrating reminder of how good a singer and songwriter Swift is, with the refrain of “hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you” providing a genuinely touching moment on a record flooded with petty grudges.
Moments like the album closer are genuinely brilliant, but are sadly too few and far between, and it would be difficult to call reputation anything but a flop. The generic hip-hop sound that dominates the album is nothing short of awful, and highlights like Getaway Car simply hear Swift rehashing what she has already done, and the mesh of such contrasting musical and lyrical styles on an hour-long album makes reputation an absolute mess.