Taylor Swift’s particular brand of celebrity has always been fascinating for its intensely curated nature. Things seemed to come to a head last year though when she lost a very public feud with Kimye Kardashian-West and retreated into self-imposed exile. For over a year, her fans were left to wonder if she was achieving her #squadgoals or if they would be hearing new records from her anytime soon. But now she’s back, with a new album and a Time Person of the Year cover to boot!
Whether her encircling haters are real or perceived, they were obviously fuel for the creative fire that would become Reputation. The defiant lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” dropped unexpectedly this summer as an utter rejection of Taylors past: “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead!” We’re a long way from “Teardrops on My Guitar,” to be sure. Between then and now we’ve seen Swift evolve from bright-eyed country blonde singing about boys into platinum-haired pop megastar singing about, well, still mostly about boys.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Write about what you know, they say, and everyone on the planet knows what it’s like to be smitten and/or heartbroken. Her songwriting is as strong as it ever was, so who cares if the material never passes the Bechdel test? Even with so many cooks in the kitchen—there are zero tracks without a cowriter—her wit and knack for narrative shine through. “Getaway Car” has all the traces of an “Out of the Woods”-like Jack Antonoff hook, but the story of a failed romance neatly filtered through the unbroken metaphor of a broken heist is unmistakably Tay Tay.
If there’s a lyrical difference between Old and New Taylor, it’s that this version fucks. No longer are the men in her songs marriage material, and gone is any semblance of innocence. She now seduces as well as she pines. On “Dress,” over shimmering synth she breathily explains that she only ever purchased the titular garment to be wrapping for the sexy present inside. (Does it count as wasteful fast fashion if put to such utilitarian ends?) On the otherwise forgettable “So It Goes,” the evocative bridge has her at her sultriest, with impressionistic images of “scratches down your back.”
It’s not just the sex, though. Reputation showcases Tay at her most self-assured yet, even more so than on the blockbusting 1989. While that album had her wide-eyed in the city lights of “Welcome to New York” (“It’s been waiting for you!!”), 2017 sees her nicely settled into her chic TriBeCa digs and loving it. “Dive bar on the East Side, where you at?” she sings, or texts, with a wonderfully light touch on “Delicate.” Even so, she channels the confused sentiments of prospective lovers everywhere when she croons, “Is it cool that I said all that? Is it chill that you’re in my head?” as backtracks of her own voice cut in, “’Cause I liiiiike you.” It’s a nice effect, and it all adds up to one of the best songs on the album.
Just how supremely comfortable she is in her own boss bitch skin shows on every track of Reputation, and it’s all the more impressive given the stylistic range of the album. But that range presents a puzzle at the same time because unlike its especially cohesive predecessor, this album lacks a singular vision of what Swiftian pop should sound like. The tuneless “Look What You Made Me Do” is pure electroclash. The towering “Don’t Blame Me” borrows from the gothic soul (gothpel?) of Hozier. Wobble bass comes and goes over the course of the album like an older guy at a club self-conscious about his age. Trendier sounds abound as well, such as the reverb-heavy synth that punctuates the sugary chorus of album opener “…Ready for It?” once you push through the cacophonous production of the verses. At multiple points, T-Swizzle actually raps.
At 15 tracks long, Reputation undeniably has some fat to trim. But if Swift has somewhat lost sight of a truly trademark sound, she at least demonstrates herself to be an endlessly adaptable pop star. Not all of Reputation sounds great, but she never embarrasses herself when dabbling with different pop elements, even when she raps. “End Game” features Future and Ed Motherfucking Sheeran as guest rappers, and it’s the latter who sounds out of place. Tay can hang—maybe only because Future is clearly phoning this one in, but still!
Swift is ever the star of the show, and it’s enough to make you sometimes wish the producers (varyingly Antonoff, Max Martin, and Shellback) would just get out of the way. “Gorgeous,” a fun little ditty about a hot guy in a bar, might contain the kernel of a good song, but it’s buried too deep beneath the infuriating music box-like production. The minimalism of a track like “Call It What You Want,” a languorous synthpop declaration of love despite the haters, is all the more refreshing as a result. The decision to omit a giant hook is surprising, especially after the shout-along ear worm of the preceding “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” (search me as to why that one wasn’t a single), but it works. The listener is never shaken from the reverie.
Nothing is more stripped down though than the bittersweet album closer “New Year’s Day,” a return to Swift’s singer-songwriter roots. In stark contrast to the rest of Reputation, if the lone instrumental accompaniment were a guitar rather than a piano, the track would fit in seamlessly on just about any of her previous albums. “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere,” she pleads. Writing of that quality is vintage Tay Tay, and ultimately what keeps her fans coming back, whatever pop persona she happens to be cultivating at the moment. She may claim the old Taylor is dead, but we know better.