When discussing Taylor Swift, it’s all too easy to get bogged down by the tabloid controversies and oversaturated marketing ploys (Have you seen a UPS truck recently?), but regardless of how you feel about her personal life or her musical career, it’s hard for anyone to deny her prowess in one area in particular. She has done what even Bob Dylan never could: she has found a way to convince her fanbase to stay by her side, even as she moves between genres and artistic reimaginings of herself. However, Reputation, her grandest sonic leap to date, may put this talent to the test.
For nearly her entire career, Taylor Swift has assumed the role of the victim, often being chastised by her critics for doing so. However, as she has reminded up overtly, that version of herself is in the past. Throughout Reputation, Swift acknowledges the notion that she is the villain of her own story, unleashing her inner Rebecca Bunch with diabolical tales of wickedness (“Don’t Blame Me,” “End Game,” “I Did Something Bad”) and cold-hearted diss tracks (“This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” “Look What You Made Me Do”). She is a woman scorned, but she is tired of asking for pity; now, she is ready to exact her revenge, pointing the finger inward and embracing her own demons.
Reputation is an album that is mature in its subject matter – although rarely in its tone – and it shows a clear shift in demographics from the teenage diehard Swifties to an older audience that has experienced the pleasures of the flesh. Nearing age 30 herself, Swift is eager to shed any traces of the sweet, innocent image she once held, doing so by swearing and discussing her experiences with sex and alcohol (she sings of her love of wine and Old Fashioneds). As if this shift in attitude wasn’t clear enough, she gives us “Dress,” her most explicitly sexual track thus far: “I only bought this dress so you could take it off.”
Playing into the musical trends of the moment, Swift fills her songs with EDM beats and trap drums, often making them feel over-produced and self-indulgent. It’s welcome to see her expanding her musical horizons, but it isn’t always a natural fit, like when we see her trying her hand at something resembling rapping (“End Game,” “…Ready For It?”) or drowning her talents with unnecessary autotune (“Delicate,” “King of My Heart”). Although she is making herself vulnerable, she appears to be reevaluating her place in the world and still struggling to finding her own voice. Hopefully, we will get a batch of acoustic demos from this album in a few years.
That’s not to say that there aren’t moments on the album where Ms. Swift reigns supreme. It’s difficult to image how the crop of mostly forgettable singles leading up to the album’s release were chosen, given that Reputation boasts some truly catchy earworms, like “I Did Something Bad” and “Dancing With Our Hands Tied.” It also displays some moments of the honest, open-veined songwriting that brought her fame in the first place. “Getaway Car,” one of the strongest tracks on the album and a welcome addition to Swift’s catalogue, tells a Bonnie and Clyde style story of a romance that was doomed from the start: “There were sirens in the beat of your heart / I should have known I’d be the first to leave / Think about the place where you first met me.”
From start to finish, Reputation is an album about intoxication, both in terms of alcohol and the aftermath of romance turned sour. Naturally, it ends on a sobering chord. After “Call It What You Want” has already begun the descent in tempo, the record closes with “New Year’s Day,” a Red era piano ballad that is sure to become a staple of Swift’s live sets. It doesn’t quite reach the depths of emotional devastation the way that “All Too Well” did, but the song casts out any detractors until all that is left is Taylor and her idyllic love interest. Perhaps the endearing, wide-eyed romantic iteration of Swift isn’t “dead” at all; rather, she is simply lying dormant while the loud, vindictive Taylor is letting out her frustrations.
When music fans look back on the career of Taylor Swift, Reputation won’t be celebrated as her crowning achievement. However, it spans the many fascinations of the artist in a way that finds her continually growing and adapting to her surroundings. Unfortunately, this tonal inconsistency often makes the album feel less like a singular statement and more like a collection of loosely related singles. Not everything on the record is a winner, but it has enough glimpses of magic that it is certainly worth the dive.