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Reputation (Universal)

Most times Taylor Swift is mentioned in the same sentence or context as Kanye West it is in some form a commentary on that most beloved of media constructs, the “feud”. And that includes the new album, or at least the first single from it, Look What You Made Me Do, which is a very Swiftian - and for that matter, Westian - catalogue of those who have done her wrong and now lie sliced up like a deli ham.

(It isn’t, by the way, the last song on Reputation where someone gets dissed/dropped/destroyed. They may well be little shits, but I can’t help but feel sorry for whomever it is earning the Swift wrath in the Disney-on-chills This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things. Someone won’t be using those kneecaps any time soon.)

The connection Swift and West have that is much less often mentioned is two-fold. Maybe three.

Firstly, despite being highly needy (love me/be my admirer/confirm my superior status, or you’re dead to me) they consistently have refurbished their musical contexts in ways that directly challenge fans to move out of comfort zones and defend to themselves why they like this artist.

Reputation is not so much an extension of 1989’s embrace of brighter, shinier, electronically-enhanced pop as its complete absorption. It is at the same time deliberately brittle in sound and shorn of steps from melody to hook that might make a definition of pop more straightforward.

Put it this way, you can’t see 2008’s Fearless from here. And not just because for the first time Swift acknowledges behaviour that isn’t tightly controlled and general, to wit, drinking and sex – though it’s unlikely Swift loses total control in either sphere.

The most interesting aspect of this change is that melodies themselves are less important than the message. Unusually for a modern record, Reputation is a lyric-driven, even more than rhythm-and-sound-driven, collection where the tunes are not even secondary factors.

You are guided to the words by the clarity of sound around them, the prominence of her voice, and the absence of too many competing elements.

And if you’re wondering, revenge and demolition are not the only focus: Swift may be happier off-screen, as it were – there’s a boyfriend who has been kept on so far apparently - and a song such as the slinking R&B Dress (“I only bought this dress so you could take it off”) positively glows.

Secondly, they do this redesigning often brilliantly and boldly, in ways which evoke admiration and respect for daring as much as writing – which was done with a couple of blocks of Swedes whose names keep frequent company with the past decade’s biggest pop hits.

There are artists who push the boat out but very, very few who have so much – in terms of success and status - and then risk so much each time.

Ready For It opens the album with Swift effectively rhythmic talking over a dank squelching track that prods your chest assertively, then flips into a Euro-club chorus of blandly accommodating nature. I Did Something Bad aims to (positively) irritate in its chorus playout after its subdued verses blow-up into a larger, but not very hooky refrain.

While Gorgeous has a chorus that lays the pretty on – or you could say rescues - Rihanna-like verses which never really resolve, it’s only occasionally, as in Getaway Car, that conventional shapes emerge.

The more conventional Getaway Car is by no coincidence the song which most resembles Swift in her first, Nashville-approved, incarnation, though the controlled ballad which ends the album, New Year’s Day, is closer still emotionally.

Finally, neither Swift nor West appear to be particularly likeable people. Which is arguably less relevant: this isn’t about making friends after all. Except I think one of the ways Swift succeeds or fails here – and that call is entirely subjective - is in creating an atmosphere of cool distance that makes for observation by and of her, rather than engagement by and with her.

The Swift here is not new, but she is even less constrained by the need to present well than before. She is self-aware but not necessarily self-critical, saving the harshest verdicts for friends who blab, less so because they blabbed but because they spoke without script you suspect.

As with her supposed bete-noire – come on, who really thinks these two arch manipulators of media and image are as bitterly divided as the headlines suggest when they do so well out of the contretemps? – Swift is no longer concerned with seeking your approval.

She wants it, make no mistake, but there’s an acceptance that you’re coming to her one way or another, and the confidence to make that transaction on her terms. Or the confidence to stop pretending she was ever that accommodating really.

If this makes Reputation cold then so be it; you’re here anyway, aren’t you?

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