Big Machine · November 11, 2017
Despite previous claims, the old Taylor is alive and well on her sixth album – she’s just a little more mature, slightly less focused, and a lot more pissed off.
After taking a very private year to herself and outside of the spotlight’s glare, Taylor is finally back with reputation, the moody follow-up to the nostalgic megahit 1989 and the sixth album in her impressively long career. Every Taylor release tends to be a world-shifting event, but fans seemed particularly antsy this time around after the album’s debut single, the sinister ham-fest ‘Look What You Made Me Do,’ infamously declared the nose-punch heard ‘round the world, “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ‘cause she’s DEAD.” With a line like that on the very first single, fans were eager to see the “new Taylor” embrace the power of the snake and destroy her enemies with every passive-aggressive stab to the throat. The cutesy breakup anthems were all fun and games before; this time, Tay Tay’s out for blood.
So, is the old Taylor truly dead, buried, and gone from the pop lexicon forever? The short answer: not really, no. The album is still chock-full of the usual songs about shitty exes and amazing new boyfriends that she has always done since she was a thirteen-year-old crying on her guitar. The biggest difference, and biggest point of growth, this time around comes thematically, as Taylor sheds her squeaky-clean, wholesome pop star persona and finally admits to the world that she’s an adult in her twenties who parties, drinks, occasionally makes questionable decisions, and yes, has sex. We’re not talking a left turn as drastic as Miley Cyrus circa-Bangerz, but for an artist who made people’s heads explode when she showed her belly button, it’s a surprisingly big step nonetheless. Wave goodbye to breakfast at midnight and innocent musings about first-base loves, folks. This pop star’s all about whisky on ice, spilling wine in the bathtub, and leaving scratches on lovers’ backs.
It’s an ultimately necessary pivot after the world stopped buying Taylor’s “good girl” shtick two summers ago, and not only does she roll with it, but on a few of the songs, she actually sounds like she’s having a damn good time. On ‘Dress,’ one of the record’s strongest tracks and probably the one that’ll cause the most double-takes, Taylor sings in the chorus, “I only bought this dress so you could take it off,” followed by a repeat of “take it off” with some, shall we say, suggestive breathing techniques. It’s easily the most provocative Taylor has ever been, but it doesn’t feel all that forced, or like she’s doing it for the shock factor. Considering the firestorm she’s endured, the song comes across as a convincing ballad about embracing unbridled lust and intimacy in the face of a harsh and judgmental outside world.
These types of tracks might be more introspective than the people ready for a catfight were hoping for, and there certainly are tracks that oblige – more on that in a second. But honestly, Taylor has always been at her strongest as a songwriter when she paints personal, introspective stories that have an uncanny amount of wit and depth for pop music. That fact remains the case on reputation, whose best moments come when Taylor focuses on telling these contained tales of past, and current loves. Yeah, she’s more up-front about her vices this time around, but that adds a much-needed sense of maturity that prevents things from becoming too stale.
Take ‘Getaway Car,’ for example, which explores the negative effects of fame on relationships through vivid metaphors of running away Bonnie-and-Clyde style, only to be trapped in an endless loop of scrutiny and drama (“Well, he was runnin’ after us, I was screamin’, ‘Go, go, go!’ / But with three of us, honey, it’s a sideshow / And a circus ain’t a love story”). ‘New Year’s Day,’ a stripped-back closing track that’s a welcome retreat from the synths and drum pads, offers a poignant look into how memories will be the only thing you can hold onto after the party’s over and all the guests have left. Even as someone who never was fully on board with Taylor’s patented sentimentality, there’s no denying that lyrics like “Please don’t ever become a stranger / Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere” hit pretty damn hard. It’s tracks like these where Taylor shows the most growth in her strengths, and a greater confidence to be a fuller, liberated version of the glossed-up pop image she’s been up to now. In other words, when she leans closer to “old Taylor,” but still exudes a newfound conviction, the songs work.
It’s no secret that the record has been sold as this edgy new rebirth for Taylor, hence why she came out the gates swinging with ‘LWYMMD.’ Ironically enough, however, it’s in these moments where she actively tries to be edgy and address her various controversies directly that the album feels painfully heavy-handed and lacks the fun of her past records. ‘LWYMMD,’ namely, is by far the album’s lowest point, as it’s devoid of any hint of nuance and wit that even Taylor’s shallowest songs usually possess, instead devolving into a pissy knee-jerk reaction to year-old squabbles. Fans who actually still care about the Kimye and Katy Perry stuff will inevitably eat it up, but for people who thought the whole situation was petty and stupid to begin with, the song will come across as just that. ‘I Did Something Bad’ feels like it only exists so that Taylor could say “shit” in a song for the first time, and ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ tries to go for the same quirky “screw the haters” thing as past hits, but feels so snot-nosed and heavy-handed that I had to take an Excedrin after hearing her forced cackle.
It’s in these certain tracks where it feels as though, despite what she claims, Taylor does in fact care what people say about her, and as a result, she’s painfully over-compensating to make it seem like she doesn’t. At the very least, the album’s final single, ‘Call It What You Want,’ offers the one true level-headed look at the past year, accomplishing what tracks like ‘LWYMMD’ attempted to do with infinitely more grace. Again, this song works because it shows Taylor viewing her public troubles from an introspective standpoint, reflecting on how her loved ones stood by her even when everyone else was quick to tear her down. No matter if you’re yay or nay-Tay, that’s immediately more appealing and potent than some half-assed line about receipts.
While reputation lacks the thematic focus of her past records lyrics-wise, the instrumentation is at least pretty consistent throughout, with Max Martin and Jack Antonoff trading producer credits on every other song. You can clearly hear Taylor leaning into her hip-hop tendencies more than ever before, which may rub people who’ve accused her of appropriation the wrong way, but it honestly only bothered me when it didn’t work. Her sing-rap hybrid style on the verses for ‘…Ready For It?’ are exciting and pack plenty of personality and snarl over the trap-inspired beat, which makes for a solid pump-up track even while the chorus falls a little flat. Immediately following that, however, is the less-than-stellar Future/Ed Sheeran collab ‘Endgame’ which, between Future’s mumble rap and Sheeran’s über-intricate, perpetually dorky verbal acrobatics, feels like a hastily made grab bag of current Top 40 hip-hop trends. Add Taylor’s white-girl-singing-along-with-Migos vocal delivery on top, and the song has so many vastly different parts that it becomes distracting.
Overall, reputation likely won’t be remembered as Taylor’s strongest album, but even with its various issues and low points, it’s hard to call it an outright dud. At her best, Taylor still delivers well-crafted pop songs that will latch onto your brain like Flex Tape, and it’s these tracks that point to a promising, and more mature direction for the former teen star. If there were only more moments like this, though, then maybe this album would’ve come together better. But for now, reputation is not going to win over anyone who wasn’t already on Taylor’s team. There will probably still be outcry over appropriation, she’ll probably still be called out for her nonexistent political stance, and many skeptics, including me, will probably still take anything she says with a grain of salt. I mean, when her legal goons hand out a defamation suit to some irrelevant blogger for a little-known stink-piece during release week, can Taylor really turn around and say she doesn’t give a damn about her reputation?
Ultimately, reputation isn’t going to offer any true revelations, but that definitely can’t be considered a failure. It isn’t a reinvention so much as it was a step somewhere different, and whether or not that step is in the right direction will be left up to the listener. Personally, I think the album offers a compelling change in Taylor’s style, that hopefully points to more focused work down the line. But in the end, the album is going to do exactly what you’d expect a Taylor Swift album to do: Her fans are going to love it, her haters are going to hate it, and it’s going to sell a bajillion copies in its first week. Nothing lost, nothing gained, and after the year she’s had, maybe that’s good enough for now.