One glance at the songwriting credits on Taylor Swift’s latest album tells you all you need to know about the crossroads she’s at: about half of the songs are co-written by Max Martin & Shellback, who seem to have a Midas touch when it comes to pop songs and mainstream success; the other half are co-written by Jack Antonoff (of the band Fun and, more recently, Bleachers), whose writing is consistently lauded by critics and fans alike. The main goal of “Reputation” seems to be balancing these opposing perspectives: achieving mainstream success while having meaningful lyrics. Though the album hits some rough spots, it’s a generally enjoyable foray into electropop.
The album is at its best when it’s slightly unhinged and self-aware: “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” for example, has all the bravado of a musical (complete with a chipper chant), but it’s also got the bitterness of her past singles (“Bad Blood,” “Look What You Made Me Do”). The whole payback routine is beginning to grow wearisome, but the song is a blast to listen to anyway – it’s got an irresistible pop sheen. It’s also got a chant, as do almost all of the other songs on the album – fans of “Bad Blood” will likely rejoice at all of the hooky sing-alongs: one of the best is on the distorted electronica gem “I Did Something Bad,” in which Swift demands, “You say I did something bad – then why’s it feel so good?”
However, for all of the shiny pop and electronica the album serves up, the lyrics don’t suffer. Opener and single “… Ready for It?” has dubstep production vaguely reminiscent of Skrillex, paired with lyrics on which Swift describes her love (and lust) for a boy; though it sounds like a sort of provocative, self-assured number on the surface, below the
surface lurks something like longing: “In my dreams, you should see the things we do,” she murmurs. Another lyrical highlight is “Getaway Car,” which catches Taylor-the-storyteller at her peak. The song tells the tale of a crime-ridden late-night encounter that ends with Swift fleeing in a stolen car – the track sounds like a synopsis of a really cool action movie that’ll never get made.
Even when Swift switches gears, the end result is enchanting. “Call It What You Want,” for example, has a surprisingly restrained, almost whispered chorus, along with some of her cheekiest poetry yet: “All the drama queens taking swings; all the jokers dressing up as kings,” she sings. On “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” meanwhile, the chant is coupled with a gorgeous, uneven beat that’s completely dancefloor-ready.
The immersion in electropop does have its drawbacks, however: some of the beats used on the album are a poor replacement for Swift’s guitar skills, and a couple of the songs sound as though they were written about seven years ago. The most obvious example is “End Game,” a collaboration with Future and Ed Sheeran: it’s got electronic vocal processing, a hip-hop influence, and loads of sports metaphors. However, the song sounds reminiscent of “Starstruck,” by Lady Gaga, from her debut LP: both songs enlist a rapper for no apparent reason, have electronic vocal processing so the vocals sound vaguely robotic, and sound like they were included basically for the benefit of critics, who will no doubt use words like “quirky” and “funky” in their descriptions of the song. “Gorgeous” is the other track that sounds belated. Everything about it reminds of Kesha’s debut album: Swift’s breathless vocals, the simple keyboard melody, and even the candid lyrics (“you should take it as a compliment that I … made fun of the way you talk,” she insists) all sound like early Kesha – “Stephen” and “Kiss and Tell” come to mind. Both of the songs are fun listens, but it’s just a bit disappointing that they sound inspired by tracks that were out while Swift was singing “You Belong with Me.”
The odd man out is the closer, “New Year’s Day.” A slow piano ballad, it finds Swift helping her boyfriend to clean up after a wild New Year’s Eve party. The concept seems rather inspired by Lorde’s “Melodrama”: as Swift sings “I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day,” one can’t help but recall Lorde’s “Oh how fast the evening passes, cleaning up the champagne glasses.” Depending on your feelings about Swift’s past work, you’re likely to see it as either a breath of fresh air and lyrical honesty, or as a forgettable ballad included mainly as a concession to fans of Taylor-the-Balladeer.
Overall, “Reputation” embodies all of the year’s pop trends: irresistible chants, electronica-incorporating pop, and relatable storytelling. “Reputation” might not be the best record of the year, but it’s probably the best record you’ll hear during a halftime dance routine.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.