“We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them that they have chosen to show us. There will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation.”
This is the statement Taylor Swift leaves us with at the end of the liner notes for “Reputation,” her first LP in three years. As an introduction to the album, it calls into question the sincerity of the songs that follow. She may as well have just written, “Take all this for what you will.” Which “version” (or versions) of her will manifest in the lyrics? Which songs feature her true emotions? Which are mere reflections of the light cast upon her by the public? By the end of the album, none of this is truly cleared up, and it could be her most or least intimate album, depending on who you ask. In a fame culture obsessed with authenticity, Swift is illuminating the various lenses and filters through which celebrities are depicted.
For the first half of the album, Swift explores the different narratives applied to her (including the one she asked to be “excluded” from) and tries them on for size. She’s spiteful and vindictive, obsessive and clingy, or a man-eater, depending on the track. Largely written and produced in collaboration with Swedish pop behemoths Max Martin and Shellback, the songs are brash, bombastic, and brilliantly engineered. None demonstrate the sneering wit of “Blank Space,” arguably one of Swift’s best songs, but all (or almost all) showcase her knack for writing earworm melodies, complemented by lustrous, thunderous production.
The best of these is “I Did Something Bad,” a scorched-earth war cry complete with brazen call-outs: “He says don’t throw away a good thing / But if he drops my name, then I owe him nothing / And if he spends my change, then he had it coming.” This is the smarter, harder, take-no-prisoners Taylor that was advertised (but not manifested) on lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” and while that song was sleazy, campy Disney Villain fare, Swift isn’t playing around here. She sings the verses over plucked strings that sound like the ticking of a time bomb, an ominous bass wobbling back and forth underneath until it explodes into a gargantuan chorus that uses gunshots as percussion: “They say I did something bad / Then why’s it feel so good? / Most fun I ever had / And I’d do it over and over again if I could.” Subtlety has never been Swift’s strong suit, and she makes no attempts at it here, yet the whole thing works out of the song’s sheer force.
Not all of these ventures prove entirely fruitful, though, as to whether or not Swift is convincing in assuming these personas varies from song to song. The rowdy synth blasts in the pre-chorus of “…Ready For It?” are enjoyable, as is the dreamy chorus, but the half-rapping verses are rather grating. Reputation is a venture further into the realm of pop, both for better and worse. Swift uses electronic production to her advantage (her use of a vocoder on “Delicate” creates a soft, vulnerable atmosphere), but she also embraces both the EDM and hip-hop trends currently dominating the charts, causing many of the songs to sound too similar to other artists. The stark, moody “So It Goes…” could be an outtake of The Weeknd’s “Beauty Behind the Madness,” and elements of Rihanna ring clear in the Future/Ed Sheeran collaboration, “End Game.” Yet Swift proves she can play chameleon fairly well—Sheeran ends up being the one who feels most out of place.
After seven or so tracks, however, the album shifts in tone, moving toward the “Old Taylor” territory of romance. The Jack Antonoff-produced “Getaway Car” is a clear standout, a synth-pop story of a doomed relationship that results from using one lover to escape another. It showcases a return to vivid lyricism (“The ties were black, the lies were white / In shades of gray and candlelight / I wanted to leave him / I needed a reason”) and boasts a rousing key change in the bridge, where Swift appears to openly discuss her own wrongdoing: “We were jet-set, Bonnie and Clyde / Until I switched to the other side / It’s no surprise I turned you in / ‘Cause us traitors never win.” Considering her reputation as a victim, this is a striking (and refreshing) change.
The topic of celebrity permeates the bottom half of the LP too, as Swift expresses her fear of how fame and public scrutiny affect her relationships. If the first half of Reputation was a muddled “Blank Space,” the second half is a more compelling “I Know Places” (a cut from the album 1989 about a couple running to escape the crowds). Swift appears caught in constant fear of public scrutiny tearing her away from her lover, such as on the frantic “Dancing With Our Hands Tied”: “People started talking, putting us through our paces / I knew there was no one in the world who could take it / I had a bad feeling.”
The album is also undoubtedly her most mature. There are many mentions of old fashioned’s and “whiskey on ice,” as well as her first recorded curse (“If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing,” on the aforementioned “I Did Something Bad”). Swift’s vocal delivery on many of the tracks is darker and sultrier than ever before, such as on the pop-gospel “Don’t Blame Me,” not to mention the frankly sexual “Dress,” where she breaks into a falsetto over gossamer synths to let her lover know she “only bought this dress so [he] could take it off.”
Swift saves the best for last, though, knocking it out of the park with “New Year’s Day,” a poignant piano ballad that features the best lyricism on “Reputation” (“Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere”). On an album full of various Taylors—some artificial, some not, some somewhere in between—“New Year’s Day” shines through the cacophony, showing that Swift can still do what she does best.
Fritz Spofford can be reached at email@example.com.