B Taylor Swift
Even some Taylor Swift die-hards had to be cringing after the singer ushered in the publicity push for her latest album with “Look What You Made Me Do,” a single in which one of the most famous people in the world complained about all her famous rivals.
The song also proclaimed the demise of the “old Taylor,” which really is old news. “Old Taylor” keeps getting dumped with each new Taylor release.
One of the keys to Swift’s decade-long dominance is her ability to press the reset button with every album. Since 2006, she’s gone from guitar-strumming country act to the expansive pop detours of Red (2012) and the MTV-era retro hooks of 1989 (2014).
Reputation is another shift, this time into electronic pop, split between the Swedish production team of Max Martin and Shellback and American pop-rock songwriter Jack Antonoff. The synth-heavy productions crackle and groove, a kind of EDM lite with a touch of hip-hop.
“Look What You Made Me Do” is an outlier on an album of love songs. Only “I Did Something Bad” revels in payback. “This is how the world works,” she sings as she tries to justify her narrator’s “he had it coming” cruelty.
Swift is able to absorb whatever sound and producer suits her desire for continual reinvention. She’s a savvy businesswoman who understands the shifting tides of her audience and the pop marketplace more clearly than most music industry executives. So her albums are as much perfectly executed marketing plans as they are musical statements. They are designed to press buttons and achieve predictable results: Four straight No. 1 albums and nearly 30 million albums sold.
Little wonder her music sounds so unruffled, so sure of itself. Her earliest albums boasted an openhearted charm, her transparency about the awkwardness of teen-hood striking a chord with her young fans. But in adulthood, calculation and cash have usurped raw diary entries.
As pop music, Reputation is relatively conservative, especially when compared with the latest releases of artists such as Lorde, Beyonce or Rihanna. Even an odd-couple pairing on “End Game” fails to spark. Future, who sounds bored, and milquetoast singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who tries to rap, sound like they’re trying hard not to upstage each other.
It’s easy to admire the craft: pulsing synths and rippling drums fuel “Getaway Car.” The call-and-response vocal orchestrations, finger snaps and drum accents on “King of Hearts” create drama.
But the Swift who used to treat her fans like confidantes resurfaces only on “Call It What You Want.” She sounds quietly liberated as she sings, “nobody’s heard from me for months” but “I’m better than I ever was.” She paints the mood of a post-holiday bash on “New Year’s Day”: “There’s glitter on the floor after the party/ Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby.” For a brief moment, Swift sounds like one of her fans again.
Hot tracks: “Getaway Car,” “Call It What You Want,” “New Year’s Day”
“My Heart Is Broken”
Should you be nostalgic for the self-confident rock ’n’ roll urgency of the mid-2000s, take comfort in the fact that no amount of social, cultural or political change has convinced Evanescence to veer from its lite-opera-rock theater. “My Heart Is Broken” is one of the better songs on Synthesis, the group’s fourth album and first since 2011, which sounds like an only mildly restrained version of its earliest work. Amy Lee’s voice remains vibrant, soaring and sweet. She makes disappointment sound like romance.
— JON CARAMANICA
The New York Times
“Walk on Water”
On the new Eminem single, there is no sense of mischief or joy, no sense of danger or devastation. Instead Eminem, once a master of playful extremes, is assessing his diminished place in pop culture, and wondering if all the effort it requires to be him is worth undertaking once more. “Walk on Water” — the first single from his forthcoming album, Revival — is grim and ponderous.
Eminem has been self-lacerating before, but perhaps never this soberly. And there are feelings here that are alarmingly, and arrestingly, stark: “Always in search of the verse that I haven’t spit yet/ Will this step just be another misstep/To tarnish whatever the legacy, love or respect I’ve garnered?”
Beyonce sings the chorus, reduced to an unimaginative avatar of dignity and goodness, and Rick Rubin produces what’s little more than a glum piano. A song like this, misguided though it may be, can only come from a place of savvy. Eminem is alive to the way he is seen, and astute enough to know he has few moves available to him, especially in a cultural moment likely to abjure his scathing, violent early work.
For almost two decades Eminem has been, for white rappers, the high-water mark and the most visible and theatrical personality. It is astonishing to hear him rapping — in mood, tone and, sometimes, pattern — like Macklemore.
Print Headline: Swift hits reset, shakes things up