“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.