Taylor Swift returns, with her 'Reputation' at stake

Music Despacito
Taylor Swift performing in February in Houston.

Taylor Swift began her forced march back to world domination in August with “Look What You Made Me Do,” the first single from Reputation (Big Machine ***), the Wyomissing, Pa.-raised pop star’s sixth album, which went on up sale — but not on music streaming services — at midnight on Thursday evening.

“Look” offered little cause for optimism. It’s an industrial-strength robo-stomp that’s short on melody, with a chorus that bears a close enough resemblance to Right Said Fred’s 1991 hit “I’m Too Sexy,” that the British group was given a songwriting credit (probably to ward off a potential lawsuit in the wake of the Marvin Gaye estate’s legal victory over the writers of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”)

What’s worse, straight off the bat Swift tipped off that the “you” she refers to is Kanye West (“I don’t like your little games / Don’t like your titled stage”), whom Swift has had an on-and-off feud with ever since he rudely spoiled her MTV VMA award-winning acceptance speech in 2009.

In this case, the singer is still bent out of shape after West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, leaked a taped phone conversation as proof that Swift knew she was going to be referred to in a song on West’s 2016 The Life of Pablo album, despite her claims otherwise.

Haven’t we already heard way too much about the TayTay-Kimye beef? Yes, we have. Swift isn’t done with it, however: Her irritation also animates another Reputation track, the extremely catchy and equally grating “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”

But what was really worrisome about Swift’s reentry with “Look” isn’t just her fixation with West and the damage to her reputation. It’s that musically, she seems so proud to have thrown herself wholly into a style of assembly line machine-made pop that obscures the gifts for melody and songcraft that turned her into a country, and then pop, superstar in the first place. Look what you made her do, indeed.

So does that sad story dominate Reputation on the whole? Does the interlude in the “Look” video when Swift, having shed all her previous iterations, tells a caller that “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now … ’cause she’s dead” truly mean that the human, vulnerable Taylor — with her knack for well-constructed tunes that have connected with legions of loyal Swifties — is no longer with us?

Thankfully, no. Reputation is by no means an error-free affair, but Swift is way too smart and canny a pop star to make an album that wholly abandons her strengths. The album’s second single and opening track, “…Ready For It?” relishes her reentry into the pop music fray, exulting, “Let the games begin!” with the enthusiasm of a showbiz pro accustomed to living her life on stage, no matter how much she claims to crave her privacy.

The song begins with an aggressive sonic assault that might make you think she’s gone full EDM or maybe is determined to out-Yeezus her nemesis. But a funny thing happens about a minute and a half in: A dreamy melody appears on the musical horizon, and she gives up the half-spoken, quasi-rap vocal approach and starts singing about dreamy doings in the middle of the night. Old Taylor is back, it seems.

Camera icon (Big Machine via AP)
Cover art for Taylor Swift’s new  “Reputation,” expected Friday.

That ying-yang approach carries on from there, with songs constructed in collaboration with two surefire hit-making producing partners, both of whom were also present on 2014‘s 1989, Swift’s first unadulterated, pure pop, no country whatsoever release. There’s the Swedish team of Max Martin and Shellback, and the now-ubiquitous knob twiddler Jack Antonoff, known from his band Bleachers, as the boyfriend of Swift squad member Lena Dunham, and as a key player on recent albums by Pink, St. Vincent, Lorde, and many others.

Reputation ruminates on celebrity, public image, and perception, subjects that are top of mind for Swift, who writes in the liner notes that “we think we know someone, but the truth is we only know the version of them they have chosen to show us.”

In the past, Swift has been unashamed to show us how she feels about a parade of exes: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” from 2012’s Red was thought to be about Jake Gyllenhaal, but it expressed a sentiment that has been applied in other kiss-off songs that were said to be targeted at John Mayer, Harry Styles, and Taylor Lautner, not to mention her high school boyfriend Brandon Borello, who was recalled in “Tim McGraw,” the now 27-year-old’s precocious first single from 2006.

Much of Reputation also concerns a dude, but the difference this time is that, for the most part, they’re not break-up songs that look back in anger and regret. The songs about nastiness and recrimination are in the minority, such as “Endgame,” which features guest raps from Atlanta emcee Future and (most regrettably) Swift’s ginger Brit pal Ed Sheeran. On that one, she sings: “I bury hatchets, but I keep maps of where I put ’em.”

But Reputation shows its soft side in love songs, which are presumably about Joe Alwyn, the 26-year-old London-born Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk actor with whom Swift has not publicly confirmed she’s in a relationship, despite the entire internet’s being certain that it’s so.

And whoever inspired them, those songs — “Gorgeous,” “Call It What You Want,” “King of My Heart” (in which she can’t resist getting backhanded digs in on recent Brit beaus Calvin Harris and Tom Hiddleston), and in particular the A Tale of Two Cities-referencing huge-hit-to-be Bonnie & Clyde adventure “Getaway Car” — all bring Swift’s melodic gifts to bear, and nicely balance out the more self-consciously edgy tracks.

Reputation in many ways does leave many formerly familiar Swiftian traits behind. Never mind a twang; in a first day of listening, I didn’t discern the sound of a guitar anywhere on the album. And though electronic musical settings still aren’t a natural fit for Swift, she sounds increasingly comfortable on the more mechanistic tracks over the course of the 15-song set.

She’s wise, though, to close things out with “New Year’s Day,” a breathy piano ballad that largely strips the layers of production away and gives her loyal fans a glimpse of their heroine and her beau holding hands in the backseat of a taxicab, headed off together on what she “can tell is gonna be a long road.” For Swifties who have been in it for the long haul, it’s a reassuring reminder that old Taylor isn’t gone just yet.

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