The new Taylor Swift album is awful. Simply awful. There, I’ve said it. Someone needed to say it and I now I’ve done it. After her incredible 1989 album I wanted to make absolutely certain that my initial instincts on this new album were correct. So, I played it continuously. After numerous plays, I must sadly admit that my initial reactions were correct.
I have always maintained that Taylor Swift has a true gift for melody. Her shortcomings were always in the juvenile nature of her lyrics. I believed that once able to grow up and gain a greater sense of maturity in her lyrical content, she could very well become a significant songwriting voice for her generation. Unfortunately, emotional lyrical maturity remains sadly elusive. Chockfull of bitchy scores to settle, entitlement and sniping put-downs, Reputation plays like the diary of one of the title characters of Heathers or Mean Girls in audio form.
A misguided attempt to incorporate Hip-Hop elements into her sound dominates the first half of the album to wildly varying results. Now, I love Rap as much as anyone. I really do. I think Tribe Called Quest may just be one of the greatest musical acts to occupy a pair of headphones for extended periods of time. That being said, I have NO business EVER attempting to pull off anything close to a “rap.” I just lack the skills the come so effortlessly to artists like Kendrick Lamar, Snoop or Eminem. This is something that Swift and I have in common. On first single “Look What You Made Me Do,” she attempts to incorporate rap phrasing and flow throughout the song with unintended hilarious consequences. During what passes as a “chorus” she adds an extra beat that she clumsily stumbles over and creates one of the biggest embarrassments released by a major artist in recent memory. Ed Sheeran’s flow during his verse on “End Game” easily bests any of Swift’s attemps and gives further evidence to the “you either have it, or you don’t” argument. Future’s appearance on the same track only cements the point.
Throughout Reputation there is a preoccupation with self-absorbed attacks on rivals and former friends. This is most pronounced on the overly mean “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” This put-down was intended to come across as funny, and it is on first plays. Repeated spins reveal a cloying “woe is me” arrogance that is unsettling. It plays like a Facebook dispute come to life. Considering the current social and political environment, this track is bitterly “of its time.” Much of the album is about the current on-going feud between Swift and Katy Perry. That is a real shame for both of these wildly talented artists. The only significant results of this “feud” have been mediocre releases from both artists.
Surprisingly, much of Swift’s melodic gifts are absent from the album. While never possessing an exceptional singing voice, she was able to craft memorable, tuneful melodies with intriguing hooks that drew attention. Swift’s preoccupation with the lyrical message on Reputation has unfortunately distracted her from her primary skills. As a result, this is an album of disappointing tuneless songs with limited staying power. After the brilliance of the hyper-catchy 1989, that is tragic.
After an abysmal first half, there are a few minor bright spots that can be dredged up out of what remains. “Getaway Car” is a welcome breath of the classic pop sensibilities that marked her previous work. A solidly crafted track with a hooky melody, a warm driving beat and an intriguing bridge section, this track provides evidence that Swift still has a deep pool of songwriting skills available to her provided she is able to successfully get out of her own way to allow them to fully operate.
One thing that really mares Reputation was the way that it was marketed and sold to the public. While this may not correspond directly to the music contained, it is important to note. When released, Swift refused to allow it to stream on the various streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music which has now become the industry standard. For dedicated fans wanting to hear it, they were forced to either buy the download or purchase the physical CD in stores. Checking out a copy of Reputation at Target, I was quick to notice the $16.99 retail compared to the standard $13.99 on all other releases. Swift knew her audience was out there and she and her record company were more than willing to pocket an extra $3.00 as a result. Tom Petty had an opportunity for this as well on his Hard Promises album in 1981. His record company at the time, MCA, was pushing for the higher “superstar” retail of $9.98 for the record and Petty refused. He threatened to either hold the album back or to release it titled $8.98 if MCA would not comply with his desire to avoid taking advantage of his fans. That is an admirable stance and is one of the many reasons why Petty’s untimely passing in 2017 was so difficult for music-lovers everywhere. Taylor and Big Machine Music effectively drive the final nail into Petty’s coffin with the crass marketing and release of this one.
Despite all this, I still feel that Taylor Swift has the potential be one of the premier, long-standing artists of her generation. She has all the talent, skills and drive necessary. Pushing herself to look beyond self, and into the world at large as well as the audience she sees are the vital, important steps that she still needs to make. This is what separates artists like Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and affords them THEIR reputation. That is the Reputation that Swift should strive for. It makes me sad to view this album this way. I was hoping Swift would make the great strides forward her talent deserves. It was not to be with this album.
Bottom Line: An unmitigated, self-absorbed mess of an album that is more interested in settling scores, Reputation contains few memorable songs and only serves to cement Swift’s brat-like reputation. A real disappointment from start to finish.
Album Grade: D