On sixth album, pop mastermind ditches tabloid drama, goes darker and deeper.
"I swear I don't love the drama – it loves me!" Now there's a credo that sums up the Taylor Swift of Reputation. So rest in peace, Old Taylor, and for that matter New Taylor, because Reputation is New New Taylor. Swift spent most of the past year off the radar, dropping out of the media hustle – a major challenge for a star this relentless about sharing her feelings, not to mention her cats' feelings. Taylor turning off her phone was the equivalent of Leonard Cohen moving to a Zen monastery for five years.
From the sounds of her excellent sixth album, Swift spent that time going into deeper, darker, more introspective places. Reputation is her most intimate album – a song cycle about how it feels when you stop chasing romance and start letting your life happen. As one of the all-time great pop masterminds, she's trying something new, as she always does. But because she's Taylor Swift, she can't stop being her own turbulent, excessive, exhausting and gloriously extra self. Make no mistake, this girl's love affair with drama is alive and well.
The world was expecting Reputation to be a celebrity self-pity party, after her September single "Look What You Made Me Do," airing her grievances about getting mistreated by other famous people. Even if you think her complaints were totally justified, they felt like a dreary waste of her creative time, and many fans were dreading the idea of a whole album's worth. But sorry, world – that was just one of her Swiftian fake-out moves, because there's nothing else like that song on Reputation. (Whew.) Instead, she's playing for bigger emotional stakes – this is an album full of one-on-one adult love songs. That's a daring swerve from a songwriter who's scored so many brilliant hits about pursuing the next romantic high. Taylor might love the players, but nowhere near as much as she loves the game.
We all know better than to treat Swift's songs as straight autobiography, but a year into her relationship with actor Joe Alwyn, she sure isn't cranking out the break-up songs. Gems like "Dancing With Our Hands Tied" and "New Year's Day" are long-term love stories that don't end with a scarf hidden in a drawer. As she sings in "Call It What You Want," "Nobody's heard from me for months/I'm doing better than I ever was." The songs are full of everyday details – spilling wine in the bathtub, building blanket forts. But they also explore a timely question: What happens to your identity when you step back and stop defining yourself by how strangers see you?
There's a surprising amount of sex ("scratches down your back" is a Tay lyrical first) and her first recorded profanity, when she sneers about her exes in the superbly dishy "I Did Something Bad": "If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing." "Dress" rides on the hook, "I only bought this dress so you could take it off." But even when Ms. White Horse works blue, she can't resist droll self-mockery. Even the title is a sly in-joke, since Taylor has always loved singing odes to her dresses – it's like Bruce Springsteen calling a song "Car." "End Game" is her deeply weird, wildly funny R&B collabo with Future and Ed Sheeran – now there's a threesome nobody saw coming. While both suitors pledge their devotion, Tay plays coy ("You've been calling my bluff on all my usual tricks/So here's the truth from my red lips") and confesses, "I bury hatchets but I keep maps of where I put 'em."
Reputation builds on the synth-pop of 1989 – ingenious hooks blown out for maximum sonic bombast, with production split between the team of Max Martin and Shellback ("2 Swedes and a Swift") and Jack Antonoff. The delirious "Getaway Car" chronicles a love triangle that starts out somewhere fancy ("the ties were black, the lies were white") only to burn out in a sleazy motel with the realisation, "Nothing good starts in a getaway car." And in case you were worried she might retire Petty Tay, "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" is a kiss-off to a posh friend she used to party with ("feeling so Gatsby for that whole year"), like a mega-budget "Better Than Revenge."
The word "reputation" comes up in a few of the songs – not in reference to her public image, but the far more relatable dilemma of how you surrender your identity in counting the likes and faves you rack up every day. In a way, that's always been a theme of her songwriting, going back to the high-school milieu of her earliest records – she's always sung about girls struggling not to internalise the misogyny around them, from "Fifteen" to "New Romantics." As she found out, that struggle doesn't end when you grow up. (Which is why she spent her summer in a courtroom when she could have been on a beach.) For that deluxe touch of self-expression, Tay pivots to print with the long-awaited Reputation magazines. Both 72-page issues are full of her hand-written lyrics, photos, poetry ("May your heart remain breakable/but never by the same hand twice") and watercolour paintings, packaged in faux-tabloid headlines from "Catitude: Meredith Is Out Of Control!" to "Who Is Olivia's Real Father?"
Swift doesn't switch into ballad mode much on Reputation, which is a real shame – if you're a fan of her epic weepers like "All Too Well" or "Clean" or "Last Kiss," you might picture her acoustic guitar sitting alone in the corner, impatiently clearing its throat. But she saves up her ballad mojo for the killer finale "New Year's Day," which continues her streak of ending each album with a sinus-exploding mess of a tearjerker. It's the quietest moment on Reputation, yet the most powerful – she wakes up after a glam New Year's bash ("Glitter on the floor after the party/Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby") and reflects on what she has left to call her own, which is the not-so-glam partner she'll be spending this not-so-glam day with. It's a tiny moment between two people, a moment the rest of the world will never notice. And all over Reputation, Swift makes those moments sound colossal, the way only she can.
Topics: Taylor Swift
After heartbreak, Icelandic iconoclast chooses (strange, arresting) love.
Björk wants you to know she is not in the same place she was a few years ago. 2015's Vulnicura, which chronicled her breakup with longterm partner Matthew Barney, was heavy, with songs like "Black Lake" and "Quicksand" laying bare Björk's battered heart with mournful strings and disconcerting beats. From its opening bars, Utopia tells a very different story, field recordings of birdsong interrupted by luxuriant harp and the glow of a woman in love: "Just that kiss was all there is," Björk breathes, the words drawn out to evoke a memory stuck on rapturous repeat.
Harp aside, she largely does away with the strings on this record, instead employing a 12-woman flute orchestra that she arranged and conducted to convey lightness and emotional freedom. So joyous are the bird calls and flute sections at times, they might be fit for a Disney soundtrack, but Venezuelan producer Arca, with whom Björk collaborated on Vulnicura, returns with more dissonance and off-kilter beats to lend her utopia an intriguing complexity (he also accompanied her on walks in the jungle recording birds; other bird sounds are taken from David Toop's experimental 1980 record Tekura).
Lyrically, there's less obfuscation on what the singer has jokingly referred to as her "Tinder album"; "Blissing Me" speaks of "two music nerds obsessing/sending each other MP3s" while "The Gate", contrary to its eerie woodwinds and atmospherics, is about healing. But even in love, Björk's music is rarely straightforward. A song about seeing someone with the same characteristics as a lover, "Features Creatures", comes over more maudlin than its lyrics with a ghostly choir and the singer's deliberate, emotionally ambiguous delivery, while on "Loss", Texan producer Rabit roughs up the music-box plinks and flute with digital percussion like muffled explosions on a scratched CD.
Healed Björk might be, but the carcass of her relationship with Barney is still fodder for some fairly unambiguous material. "Sue Me" addresses Barney's suing the singer over custody of their daughter, Isadora. "To spare our girl I won't let her get cut in half everrrr," Björk wails over muddy toms, while the beatless, piercing "Tabula Rasa" implores her ex for a clean slate. By instrumental interlude "Paradisa", though, she's content once more, and in closer "Future Forever" is at one with love, "in a spiritual sense", as she's described it in interviews.
Björk has described making Utopia as "paradise" compared to the hell of Vulnicura ("like divorce"), but while the record contains blissful moments, Björk's utopia is weirder and more realistic than that. Perhaps it's the best kind of utopia of all – the kind that acknowledges the rough and the smooth and knows that peace lies in acceptance of both.
Main page illustration by Leo Coyte.
Brit artist returns with more formulaic, well-executed pop.
"I was adamant I wouldn't write about love," Paloma Faith said of her fourth album, but things patently didn't go to plan – it includes a John Legend duet called "I'll Be Gentle"; "Kings and Queens" is Carly Rae Jepsen-esque pure pop reflecting on a past love; and then there's "Love Me As I Am". Even when she's attempting to be more socio-political – the title track, for example, addresses humanity from mother earth's perspective – her bluesy vocal still comes off like a scorned lover set to dramatic strings. The Architect is nothing new, in other words, but nimbly traversing disco, ballads and soul-spiked pop, Faith is still a more versatile singer than most.
Pop's contrarian delivers original jingles for the festive season.
When it comes to reviving that most tired of musical traditions, the festive album, who better to put their quirky spin on the formula than Sia Furler, a less than conventional pop star. Together with fellow chart-topping scribe Greg Kurstin, she's written an album of original Christmas songs, all of them managing to sound very much her own with added seasonal twinkle.
There are the more straight up-and-down, jaunty, jolly numbers – "Santa's Coming for Us" and "Candy Cane Lane", all jingle-jangle and Yankee Doodle Christmas motifs – and then slowies like "Snowman" and "Snowflake" which turn Christmas characters into cutesy, clever analogies for real people. "A puddle of water can't hold me close baby," Furler sings, beseeching her snowman not to cry. "Ho Ho Ho" is like holiday group therapy for those who related to "Chandelier", a "misfits'" Christmas celebrated with bourbon and whiskey and rendered almost vaudevillian with horns and a crash-bang chorus. "Everyday Is Christmas", meanwhile, is for the newly in love; "everyday is Christmas with you by my side".
There's no doubt Furler would have done a fine job interpreting the classics, but in her and Kurstin's hands, it's hard to veer too far wrong with any of these songs, which, if you're a fan of her intelligent, powerfully felt pop, you will likely enjoy too.
The boys from Brazil deliver a tepid lesson in violence.
Max and Iggor Cavalera and their loyal sideman Marc Rizzo return for volume four of their conspiracy theory, wherein they eschew most of the nuances of their other musical projects for unrelenting thrash metal bludgeoning. It's brutal, heavy and raw, yet it seems to exist almost for those reasons alone, as if the brothers want to prove that as they close in on their 50s, they can still be a punishing force. Rizzo provides some much needed texture with some deftly crafted melodies and soloing, and the title track offers a little respite, but it's all been done before – and better – by this band and many others.
Shape-shifting 2015 LP gets a lavish re-package.
Usually you have to wait at least a decade for a deluxe reissue, but here's Currents, less than three years on. Kevin Parker, the Fremantle musician who largely writes and records by himself, had been at the pointy end of the psych-rock revival for a while, but his third album marked a big shift. Goodbye elephantine guitars, hello pillowy beats, keyboard washes and falsetto vocals.
Disco-funk and Nineties R&B can be found in its DNA, tweaked with Parker's penchant for swirling atmospherics and compressed drop-outs. High points include "Eventually", which sounds like Brian Wilson getting it on with the Flaming Lips, and "'Cause I'm a Man", a stately slice of swoon-worthy soul. It's so shiny you have to wear shades, and the guitar wig-outs and trippy rock are missed, but as Parker puts it in "Yes, I'm Changing": "They say people never change, but that's bullshit – they do."
The lavishly packaged box set is aimed squarely at the avid collector – a red marbled vinyl album, two remixes on a 12-inch, a flexidisc with three extra tracks, a poster and a zine.
Proto-punk slackers welcome more softness and depth.
Geelong quartet the Living Eyes inject some newfound softness into their blurted proto-punk on this third album. "Spring" sneaks in poppy vocal harmonies and a cheeky description of cold weather ("My dick's the size of my thumb"), while "Household Day" adds plinking background melodies to its grainy lope and lurch. But the main attractions are still Billy Gardner's halting vocals and those deranged monster hooks, which bring a lashing catchiness to "Horseplay". It's all fairly low-stakes, but there are signs of looming depth during "Fear of Heights", on which the band reach the four-minute mark – just barely.
A soul queen's powerful posthumous farewell.
When Sharon Jones died of pancreatic cancer last year, the world lost its greatest exponent of vintage soul. Recording over her last two years with the Dap-Kings and other longtime sidemen, genre masters all, Jones meets darkness with hope on her final album, now a posthumous treasure. "Matter of Time" envisions world peace; "Come and Be a Winner" is a funky pep talk. It's easy to read themes of mortality into the lyrics, but this is a stirringly indefatigable farewell. Her own church choir joins in for "Call On God", and the LP ends heartbreakingly with Jones chuckling or crying – it's hard to tell. Maybe both.
Toowoomba alt-country quintet deliver sophomore outing.
Frequently harnessing the travelling sideshow rollick of the Felice Brothers ("Canyons"), Augusta simultaneously intensifies the low-slung country-rock undertow of 2015 debut Ghosts We Forget. While maintaining the band's cosmic bent ("Broken Lines"), it's a stylistically tighter, sonically meatier offering than its predecessor. The barroom rumble of the coarser guitar parts – see hefty snarler "Horses", and the energising heartland rock urgency of "Yearling" – conjure Lydia Loveless and Drive-By Truckers, while so many glistening textures and melodic undulations align Jenkins and co with local alt-country frontrunners Halfway and Raised By Eagles.
Swedish pop firestarter continues dark lust saga.
The sequel to Tove Lo's raw Lady Wood, like her stylised longform videos, deals explicitly with derangement – sexual, emotional, drug-induced. It'd be easy to dismiss as softcore shock-pop if her songwriting wasn't so formidable. The nicely-titled "Disco Tits" is a lustily convincing club single; "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and "Struggle" tunefully unpack messy relationship psychology, E.M. Forster's "only connect" repurposed for the dancefloor. More problematic is "Bitches," an icy banger evidently involving unsafe sex and gynophobic hook-ups. Like much of Tove Lo's work, it's admirably uncensored, but may leave you craving a shower, however close to home it lands.
Mesmerising, genre-defying debut from chill Melbourne duo.
For a debut to have such poise and confidence is remarkable. In crafting an immersive futuristic chillscape, the Melbourne duo harness a cornucopia of warmly dense beats, elegant, dreamy synths and combine textural features from jazz, hip-hop and electronica. Across the striking acid-soul of "Castle"; spiky astro-funk jabs of "14 Days"; Lamar-isms of "Hand It Over"; Gallic-swagger of "Keep Up With It"; and the sly "A Hearing", Miller Upchurch's falsetto knifes in and out with brutal effectiveness, and combines perfectly with Ed Quinn's exquisitely produced synth collages to offer up neo-noir electro of the highest order.
Rarities collection too good to be leftovers.
Angel Olsen's approach on almost all the songs on this compilation of B-sides and rarities – including a stark version of Springsteen's "Tougher Than the Rest" – is to strip, pare, expose and then rebuild in ways that leave no room for anything but subtext. Take "All Right Now", which is a song that might elsewhere be called haunting (spectral voice, weighted space, low boom bass drum) but is in fact quite physical and present. Or "California", which feels like Wilco as interpreted by Roy Orbison and Tiny Tim. Seriously. It's not a quiet record – charged, literally with electric guitars; metaphorically with its tone – and it carries a heavy emotional weight.
1992 blockbuster reissued with demos, live recording and more.
R.E.M.'s unimpeachable classic gets the anniversary treatment with a box set that includes a 60-page book and four discs: the album in both remastered and Dolby Atmos formats, plus 20 demos and R.E.M.'s sole '92 gig, recorded six weeks after the LP's release. Despite Michael Stipe joking on-stage about being unrehearsed, the band are in career-best form, even when playing songs for the first time. The demos range from near-fully-fleshed-out LP cuts to rough sketches with a lyric-less Stipe humming melodies, revealing a band ably manifesting a mid-career masterpiece that still stands as their finest work.
Folk-rock traveller strikes a sweet note on album six.
Sean Scolnick trades the country-punk rawness that powered much of The Spirit Moves (2015) for endearing folk-pop spontaneity. There's a diamond-in-the-rough quality to these songs that belies the album's proliferation of sonic accoutrements – from the strings of "Life Is Confusing" to the squeezebox zephyrs and tuba of "Ocean City". "House of My Soul" melds the chorus groove of Roy Orbison's "You Got It" with the off-kilter swing of Deer Tick, while there's Simon & Garfunkel-like immediacy in "Private Property". It's impossible to resist the pervading charge of optimism throughout – even in batshit undead/unrequited love song "Zombie".
South Australian knockabouts deliver meaty third album.
Grenadiers' sweatily ragged punk-rock ages gracefully here, with affecting, subtler Australiana in moments like "Long Way Down" butting against odes to "Suburban Life" ("Smash a two-piece feed/Watch Family Feud"; finishing with the 'burbs soundtrack of a two-stroke lawnmower). Their brand of punk has always resembled a gnarled, tatted-up arm, but there's life and all the earned pain and frustration that comes with it sitting behind the attack of "Live Fast, Diabetes". There's no saccharine bullshit in their heart-on-sleeve-tatt punk rock, and Grenadiers will have you throwing a fist in the air in a heartbeat.