Don’t Blame Taylor

By Spencer Bowen

Taylor Swift turned 28 yesterday. In her 28 trips around the sun she’s become an omnipresent and polarizing cultural figure. You have an opinion about her and so does everyone you know.

But at her core Taylor Swift is an overwhelming talent, a devastating cocktail of hard work and songwriting instinct that led to country music domination before she could legally drink. 2014’s 1989 wasn’t just notable because Swift decided to conquer pop and dance music. It was a near-perfect album, winning Album of the Year and spawning 6 (!) top-20 singles. Musically, Swift could do no wrong.

We’ve all changed a lot in the last three years. Popular music is becoming more diverse, musically and racially, and that’s a really positive thing. Reputation is Swift’s first attempt to double down on the pop acclaim she rightfully earned. The new album comes at a time of massive transition for pop, when how and where and why we consume music is shifting by the minute.

Instead of trying to bottle up the magic that propelled 1989 to the top, Taylor tried something new. This album is dark and brooding and sensual. It’s a Swift that sometimes misses (you’ve certainly heard the album’s first single, “Look What You Made Me Do”) but more often than not connects in a fresh and intriguing way.

So don’t blame Taylor because Reputation isn’t what we expected. In fact, we should applaud Swift for avoiding a stylistic carbon-copy of 1989. Reputation isn’t as good as 1989, but that’s not really the point. This album is different, and it points toward a promising future for a still-young artist.

Let’s dive in.


…Ready For It?

Some immediate Yeezus-era Kanye vibes. Musically, that’s a good thing but also a very weird thing for Taylor. This song is actually pretty interesting – it’s got three distinct flavors that somehow combine for a pleasing and textured musical experience. This could’ve easily been empty-calorie pop, but it’s edgier than it’s getting credit for. A disarming but encouraging start to the album.

 

End Game

The lyrics are questionable (“big reputation, big reputation, oooo you and me we got big reputations”), but that’s the only weak point here. Future, deftly clearing the “rapping better than Taylor Swift” hurdle, is deployed very effectively. His grumbling “I’m singing off/on key at the same time” thing contrasts nicely with Swift’s crisp and reedy voice. Obviously Ed Sheeran is great, but you knew that. He’s so good at vocally driving through measures in unexpected ways to keep the listener off balance. In the end, this isn’t really Taylor’s song. She’s hardly in it and when she is she’s sort of rapping. I’m into it.

 

I Did Something Bad

Taylor’s “Cell Block Tango” is the third straight certified banger to open the album. This song would’ve absolutely killed on the dance floor at Emerson Junior High School in Davis, California.

 

Don’t Blame Me

A breather after the first three songs, Taylor serves up a driving pop ballad that’s maybe 70% of a Solange song, a very admirable thing to be. Although she tragically butchers a chance for a fun Batman reference (the “poison ivy” lyric), this is the most exciting song thus far because it’s moody and dark and unexpected.

 

Delicate

I typed “Wait, this is amazing” about 35 seconds into listening to “Delicate.” This track has the contained build and subtle evolution that takes you on a journey but an unfinished quality that leaves you wanting more. More 80s vibes, more unexpected musical choices, more moody beats. This album is…. great?

 

Look What You Made Me Do

Nope, spoke too soon. This is the first swing and a miss – the song isn’t inventive at all. It sounds like someone made a sweet beat on Garageband and convinced Taylor Swift to sing over it. I’ll say this: I kind of love the much-maligned “because she’s dead” bit because it’s so over the top and campy.

 

So It Goes…

Not much to see here except Taylor doing her best Rihanna vocal inflection impression. I don’t hate it because Rihanna is a goddess, but this is standard big bass pop fare. Next.

 

Gorgeous

And we’re back! A mashup of 1989’s “Blank Space” and “Clean,” self-deprecating Taylor pokes her head out of her shell to great effect. While this song continues to push Swift’s musical limits a bit, it’s more of a windows down sing-along. Undeniably catchy.

 

Getaway Car

Classic Taylor Swift source material (“X marks the spot, where we fell apart /
He poisoned the well, I was lyin’ to myself”) paired with the cloudy and moody atmosphere underpinning the whole album. There’s a troubling key change, a longtime weak spot for Taylor, but this extended metaphor comes back home to its sweet beat soon enough. A definite highlight.

 

King Of My Heart

Woof. Selena Gomez-esque in the worst way. This could’ve been an interesting exploration of the cool percussion beat she toys with, but Swift trivializes it by remaining in a comfortable place verbally and lyrically.

 

Dancing With Our Hands Tied

I’d like to actually dance to this song, which is admittedly not a high bar to clear, but still a good sign. I really like the shock to the system delivered at each refrain / chorus shift. It’s keeps the listener fresh and makes each piece of the song a distinct experience. I dig.

 

Dress

This song is kind of morose if you consider what she’s saying, repeatedly using the past tense about someone she likes – but doesn’t like enough to be a best friend and presumably life partner. The song limits itself musically, and this restraint dovetails with the story Swift tells. The overall vibe feels like a headfirst dive into a dark pool with a distorted and slightly unsettling beat to match. It’s barely recognizable as Taylor Swift – maybe that’s why it’s one of the best songs on the record.

 

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

There’s a Great Gatsby reference, so by rule I must like this song. It’s like eating a crisp bag of Cooler Ranch Doritos – it’s not doing anything remotely good for me, but it’s so satisfying. Catchy, stupid, fun.

 

Call It What You Want

Like walking down a sidewalk and hearing a couple snippets of another couple’s conversation, this song feels like a peek into a longer and fuller story. It’s a pleasant change of pace for Swift. She’s confident and affectionate, not overly flirty or angry with any number of ex-boyfriends. The whole album teases a new musical restraint and this song is probably the best example of this newfound conservatism.

 

New Year’s Day

Every once in awhile, Taylor has to remind us she’s a dominating and generational songwriter. It seems like she spent fourteen songs turning her prodigious talents toward production and carving out an expanded pop repertoire, but “New Year’s Day” is something entirely different yet familiar to those who have listened to her music for awhile. Reputation could’ve been absolute garbage (it isn’t) and this song would have redeemed the entire effort. Swift paints a crystal clear mental image of her playing a piano the morning of January 1, observing the wreckage of the last night’s revelry. It’s quiet in its power, with just enough instrumentation to shape the song’s affecting plot but not enough to overpower Taylor’s voice and emotion. Like all great songs, it’s easy to picture yourself as the protagonist in the plot because she’s created a human experience that we can all access emotionally.

Cover photo via USA Today


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