It’s not too long since the world was introduced to girl next door and singer-songwriter, Taylor Swift, with her guitar and her country tinged pop. Upon entering the scene, Swift instantly made massive waves in the music industry and pop culture, for better or worse, with singles like ‘You belong with me’ and ‘Teardrops on My Guitar’. The young and oh-so-naive Swift would, in the early 2010’s, evolve into your standard cookie cutter international pop star with the clean, polished image and corporate pieces that labels like PC Music could unironically ship. Singles like ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, ‘Shake it Off’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ were marketing masterpieces, with just the right lyrics and amount of saccharine plastic production to secure mass popularity. Then there were the rough years. With negative media attention and the notorious back and forth with a certain Mr. K. West, the pristine image of Swift had been gradually tainted in the public eye.
The biggest catalyst for Swift Inc.’s latest re-branding effort Reputation would have to be the aforementioned bout with Kanye over the (now, infamous) ‘Famous’ verse on West’s latest project, The Life of Pablo. For the unaware, West, in the first 30 seconds, proclaims that he “and Taylor might still have sex” as he “made that bitch famous”. This resulted in a lot of publicised tension between the two parties, the apex being Kim Kardashian releasing a video depicting Swift’s consent to the audacious verse.
That brings us to today. Swift is now a hip, mature, and self-aware pop star. Or at least, she tries to be. As a declaration of her edginess, she released an hour-long album that immediately fell flat on its face. Her previous material was passable; I wouldn’t actively choose to listen to it, sure, but I could stomach it without a knee-jerk reaction as intense and visceral as I have now. Sonically, this has to be one of the worst produced pop albums in a long time. The sounds that producers Max Martin and Shellback bring on Reputation are absolutely grating, with some of the worst mixing I have ever had the misfortune to hear, especially prominent on the first track ‘…Ready For It?’.
The opener presents some sort of cheap imitation of West’s Yeezus, with a large, buzzy baseline and blaring horns. The vaguely industrial production of the start is immediately juxtaposed with Swift’s sickly sweet harmonies, and then synth pads which eventually all end up in a nauseating mix. The mish-mash of bass, horns, distorted snares, and Swift’s vocals at the end resembles something of a sonic train wreck, and is frankly unlistenable thanks to the horrible mixing.
Other deeper cuts like ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and ‘Gorgeous’ have some laughable production choices. As the album progresses, the Yeezy fetish dies off and Swift quickly settles into her old routine, with some basic synthpop and a smattering of whatever is currently in (in this case tropical house and a trap song featuring Future). They are not in any way remarkable. In fact, they are the very opposite, dull and dross. Swift does an impeccable FKA Twigs impersonation in ‘Dress’, uncomfortably similar in structure and melody of Twigs’ ‘Pendulum’. Somewhat surprisingly, the final track has a funny jittery piano piece, expressing some real, genuine emotion for the first, and perhaps only, time on the entire album. Ironically, this was the last track and this atmosphere dies off after the first minute, when an awkward guitar strolls into the mix.
Lyrically, the album is filled with cringeworthy snippets of half-baked attempts to be shocking. The main culprit here is Swift’s hyper literalism, which left me wincing. I guess only a work of great art from an artist who had mastered their craft could evoke such a physical reaction. Swift forgoes any semblance of subtlety, spouting pure shite in an almost vulgar, brutish way. There are a couple of songs in particular which display Swift’s literary prowess. On ‘I Did Something Bad’, she’s a witch being burned at the stake (“they’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one, so light me up (x8)”). On lead single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ she explains the reinvention of her image and identity by suggesting that the “old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ‘cause she’s dead!”. Swift also describes her past year as “so Gatsby”. When Swift isn’t being a lyrical bull in a chinashop, she sings about her relationship and love life, not saying anything new or worth noting.
The biggest achievement of it all was my unending patience to sit through this, and to come into it with an open mind. Reputation doesn’t do much well: not the vibe, not the arrangements, and certainly not the lyrics. In fact, it is not unreasonable to say it does nothing well. Flat generic vocals mixed in with drab over-produced and poorly mixed music all makes for a product to attract attention, not an album with any intrinsic artistic merit. This is the right product for Swift’s market segment, those preteens from when Swift first broke through, now angry hormonal teenagers who can relate to this vapid mess.
Artist: Taylor Swift. Label: Big Machine. Top Tracks: None. For Fans Of: Drinking bleach, Merzbow, The Gerogerigegege. 56 minutes