So it’s finally here. Taylor Swift’s Reputation, the most hotly-anticipated of all the hotly-anticipated Q4 albums debuted this morning – although unusually for these times, if you actually want to hear it, you are going to have to spend some real money, as it’s been held back from streaming services for now.
Swift’s decision to keep Reputation (out on Big Machine in the US and Virgin EMI here) off Spotify et al has been interpreted and misinterpreted in a number of ways, but actually looks entirely consistent with everything she’s ever said about albums being important and music having value. Ed Sheeran showed earlier this year that going wide on streaming on release date doesn’t necessarily stop you having a monster first week. But Sheeran was already massive on streaming before ÷ dropped. For someone like Swift, not yet fully-established on streaming platforms (despite breaking records with lead single Look What You Made Me Do) but on track to break the one million first week sales barrier in America for the fourth album running, there is still more worth in selling physical and download albums.
Not that money is necessarily the prime factor. Music Week was one of the lucky few to hear the album pre-release and it’s clear that Swift wants this record to be heard as a body of work. That’s why she’s stayed off the traditional promo trail, instead preferring to publish her own magazines as part of the Reputation special edition and interact directly with her fans on Tumblr, rather than face a zillion questions about Kim Kardashian and ex-boyfriends.
On Reputation, Swift has doubled down on one of her most famous phrases and excluded everybody else from her own narrative. Reputation is a complex record about identity and fame that both plays up to and plays with her public image(s). Just as Look What You Made Me Do either saw her playing the victim or satirising that stereotypical perception, depending on your own view, so many of the album’s standout tracks can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
I Did Something Bad raises an ironic eyebrow at her so-called relationship dramas (“I never trust a playboy/But they love me/So I fly ‘em all around the world/And I let them think they saved me”). Delicate’s minimalist electronica pleads “My reputation’s never been worse so/You must like me for me”. And King Of My Heart’s speeded-up pre-chorus declares “I’m your American queen” and drops brands like Range Rover and Jaguar while its middle eight demands “Say you fancy me not fancy stuff”.
Musically, Reputation is also notably less concrete and more edgy than any of her previous records. As usual, Swift has an indie act that’s much cooler than her as the album’s prime influence. Red took Rilo Kiley’s country-ish pop-rock mainstream. 1989 bolted Tegan & Sara’s electropop magnificence to some weapons-grade choruses. And Reputation takes on Lorde’s Melodrama electronica via co-writer Jack Antonoff, who helped pen six tracks here, although this time Swift declines to gloss things up too much.
The presence of Max Martin on the other nine tracks, however, shows that this is still, at heart, a pop record, albeit one with an urban/EDM edge. The four tracks that dropped before the album may actually have been part of a crafty strategy to seed streaming tracks (you will find all four on Spotify), because the real hits seem to have been held back for here.
End Game, featuring Ed Sheeran and Future, shows just how far she and Sheeran have come since their last duet (the acoustic Everything Has Changed), with a no-holds-barred club banger that sees Swift declaring, tongue firmly in cheek, “I swear I don’t love the drama/It loves me”. Getaway Car is sublime Style, um, style electronica. Dancing With Our Hands Tied and Dress (“Only bought this dress/So you could take it off”) bring the Robyn/Tegan & Sara-esque ‘sad in the club’ vibes. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is more lyrical feud porn set to a giddy, trashy beat. And New Year’s Day ends proceedings with a beautiful, old school party comedown acoustic/piano lament that could have come from Speak Now. You might think you know which one is the true Taylor but, as the note accompanying the record points out, you "only know the version of [someone] they have chosen to show us".
It is, in short, a multi-faceted album from a multi-faceted artist. Whether that will be enough to sell quite as many albums as more easily-codified previous Swift incarnations remains to be seen, but that’s not really the point. The real Taylor may not be able to come to the phone right now, but she remains dead good.