Swift and producers display different ideas of ‘new Taylor’ on ‘Reputation’
In the bridge of “Look What You Made Me Do,” Taylor Swift famously (or perhaps infamously) claimed that the “old Taylor” was dead.
With “Look What You Made Me Do” serving as the lead single off “Reputation,” it seemed to suggest that the record would be taking the songstress’ music in a totally new direction.
And while this is true in many ways, what Taylor and the rest of her team fail to do on “Reputation” is get around to defining what the “new Taylor” is.
In fact, there’s almost a tug-of-war between two different forces trying to pull Taylor toward one of two directions.
On the one side, you have the songwriting and production duo of Max Martin and Shellback, who have been behind some of Taylor’s biggest hits, like “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “Shake It Off.” Together, they produce nine of the album’s 15 tracks, and their songs ring out with an occasionally aggressive EDM edge.
The remaining six songs on the album are co-written and produced by Jack Antonoff, and Antonoff’s influence couldn’t be more obvious.
These songs are laden with 1980s synth-pop nostalgia, and they’re so filled to the brim with Antonoff’s songwriting quirks that they end up being reminiscent of his work with Bleachers, Lorde, Carly Rae Jepson and others.
Both sets of producers work with Taylor to make some incredible pop tracks. But the constant back and forth between their two sounds make it seem as though you’re listening to two separate albums cut between each other.
Regardless of which “new Taylor” we’re working with at a given moment, it’s clear she’s trying new things, or at least for the most part.
In general, those new things work out well. An early-album example of this is “End Game,” a track featuring verses from Future and Ed Sheeran which is notable for being the first time Taylor has featured a rapper on an album — Kendrick Lamar’s verses on “Bad Blood” don’t count, since they were only on the remix of the track.
And the song works out far better than I ever would’ve expected. Future hits hard and heavy with a verse more aggressive than you would typically associate with him, and Sheeran’s blend of singing and rapping is infectious as ever. Taylor brings everything together with a chorus that can only be described as an ear-worm, and you’ve got yourself a track that easily should have been this album’s lead single.
That’s partially because the album’s actual lead single is an unrepentant mess. “Look What You Made Me Do” is the surest example of the “new Taylor” not exactly finding her footing yet, and it’s probably one of the worst songs ever to come from either Taylor or Antonoff, the track’s co-writer.
This track is nothing short of grating. The mixing is messy, with bizarre effects being used on Taylor’s voice. The structure of the song is all over the place, feeling more like three songs mashed into one. The chorus is the definition of anticlimax, built around a sample of that Right Said Fred song — you know the one I mean.
Thankfully, though, most of Taylor’s experimentation in discovering who the “new Taylor” is pays off. Songs like “So It Goes…” and “Dress” feature the singer’s most frank discussions of sexuality, approaching the topic in a romantic, mature way. It feels like there’s real love in these tracks, and it’s a notable departure from the more cloying sort of “romance” displayed in her earlier work.
However, just like there’s a battle between Antonoff and Martin and Shellback, Taylor seems to want to dip into the sounds of “old Taylor” every once in a while.
This happens most notably on “Gorgeous,” which comes immediately after “So It Goes…,” a sultry track dripping in self-confidence.
“Gorgeous,” on the other hand, depicts Taylor ogling a man from across the room, saying he’s so gorgeous that it makes her sad and remarking that she’ll drunkenly walk home to hang out with her cats instead of speaking to him. All this comes while she is acknowledging she had a boyfriend at the time.
It makes for a really weird dichotomy, as “Gorgeous” feels at odds with the more self-confident tracks on the album, and it points to the identity issues that are pervasive on “Reputation.”
Ultimately, the “new Taylor” is capable of making some great songs, some of the best of her career even. She just needs a bit more time to figure out who she is.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan.
Artist: Taylor Swift
Label: Big Machine
Best Tracks: ‘Dress,’ ‘End Game,’ ‘So It Goes…,’ ‘Getaway Car’
Worst Tracks: ‘Look What You Made Me Do,’ ‘Gorgeous’