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Album Review: Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’

Taylor Swift
“Reputation”
(Big Machine)

If there are two things that seem destined not to go together, it’s the up-to-the-second rhythmic pop of 2017, where percussiveness trumps poetry 99 times out of 100, and the confessional singer/songwriter genre, where beats can come off as necessary evils. And if there’s anyone destined to prove that you can have it all, it’s Taylor Swift. On “Reputation,” terse beats and brutal honesty don’t cancel each other out; trap-style drum sounds almost seem to be setting the trap for her next lyrical divulgence. It’s Swift’s refusal to have to choose between delightfully effervescent sonic values and raw, classic candor that makes “Reputation” the pop album of the year.

It might be the album of next year, too. If your poptimism fails you, as you wonder whether there are enough great acts to keep hit radio stocked with worthy hits, it’s reassuring to find that “Reputation” might have just about enough first-rate future singles to carry us through the next 12-18 months, all by itself.

There are a couple of immediate lyrical takeaways from Swift’s first album in three years. One is that our narrator is madly, deeply, crazily in love, which isn’t atypical for a pop album but is uncharacteristic for Swift, better known as the contemporary queen of postmortems. (She’s moony, but not “June-y”; with typical attention to telling detail, she mentions “late November” as a turning point in the romance that most of these songs seem to be about.)

The other big reveal is that, if she’s sweetly over the moon, Swift isn’t nearly so smitten with planet earth. However much we might imagine that celebrities let backlashes roll off their backs, it’s clear the public reaction to the Kim-and-Kanye “Famous” feud flare-up of 2016 really, really, really did a number on her. She’s not just playing the title for kicks: Unlike Joan Jett before her, Taylor Swift does give a damn about it. Swift has some playful moments on the album about embracing bad raps and bad reps, but there are plenty of brittle asides (not just in the lyrics, but the essays and poems in the packaging) where it’s clear that being widely painted as untrustworthy in that Kimye controversy — a case of she-said/he-selectively-edited — left a mark on her as sure as the lover’s imprint she invokes in other songs.

That amour-misanthropy divide may seem like a recipe for an album with a split personality, but plenty of fans in humbler circumstances will be able to relate to Swift’s us-against-the-world attitude — even if in her case, when she expresses “deep fears that the world would divide us,” she means, you know, the world.

Defensiveness was a hallmark of the album’s polarizing first single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” which was as tense rhythmically as it was psychologically. The second single, “…Ready for It?,” while ostensibly a love song, was also rigid enough in its programming to feel more like a call to arms than to clinches. If these made some fans worry every remaining track would be aggro enough to have a long future as bumper music on sports programs, that’s not the case. Although you might not guess it from the songs that have been released prior to the album’s launch, “Reputation” is, in whole, a lot more sensual than it is peeved. Nearly all the tracks are as unapologetically electronic as those first teasers, but they get looser, sultrier, hookier and more about the R&B than EDM influences.

Which is to say, of course, not at all country-er. Last year’s rumor about Swift returning to her Nashville roots couldn’t feel more laughable now; “Reputation” is just urban enough to make the pure pop of “1989” sound like Flatt & Scruggs freestyling in the holler. She has made musical tour de force albums before — most notably the cornucopia of styles that was “Speak Now” — and this is not one of them. There’s not even an organic-sounding cameo appearance this time from original producer Nathan Chapman, as Swift has narrowed her collaborators to Jack Antonoff (six tracks) and Max Martin and Shellback (who, along with a few Swedish protégés, are responsible for nine). For the first time in her six studio albums, Swift has made a record that sounds all of a piece — and it’s a piece that may break the camel’s back for some old fans. But if “Reputation” is not her most strictly versatile album, its cohesiveness in this whiplash-inducing pop landscape is a key part of what makes it maybe her best.

The song most likely to stop Teen Tay partisans in their tracks is “Dress,” in which Swift swoops up into a nearly Prince-like falsetto to confess: “Carve my name into your bedpost / ’Cause I don’t want you like a best friend / Only bought this dress so you could take it off.” Not that anyone should worry she’s going licentious on us all at once — proceeding with caution is a recurring theme, and even this deeply sexual a song mentions “hands are shaking from holding back from all of this… pining and desperately waiting.” It’s definitely one of the best songs ever written about the abstinence jitters, and what comes after, which includes psyche-carving as well as knives on bedposts.

Most of the other songs, too, deal with a mixture of commitment issues and physical congress, moving from the secret late-night first date of “Delicate” (“Is it cool that I said all that?” she asks, exchanging verbal intimacies for the first time in the back of an East Side bar) to the lipstick-smearing firebrand of “So It Goes …” (“I’m not a bad girl / But I do bad things with you”) to, finally, the dreamy teen romantic we remember from her fantasy “Love Story,” now grown up and ready to declare that she’s in it for life IRL, in “King of My Heart” (“Is this the end of all the endings?”) and the lone acoustic number, “New Year’s Day” (“Don’t read the last page, but I stay”).

These are what fans will understand to be the Joe Alwyn songs, to put it in baldly bloggerazzi terms, apparently written about real love in real time over the last year. It may come as a slight disappointment that these don’t leave much room for the best breakup songwriter in the business to exercise her former stock-in-trade, but she does stretch those backtracking muscles in a couple instances. “I Did Something Bad” plays out like a less satirical version of “Blank Space,” in which she owns up to having toyed around with narcissists, “’cause for every lie I tell them, they tell me three.” There’s some real braggadocio here for pop’s former foremost good gal, and it’s bracing. She also owns up to some cavalier leave-taking in the album’s greatest addition to her confessional canon, “Getaway Car,” a song about serially finding fresh loves as convenient transitions from the ones expired: “Should’ve known I’d be the first to leave / Think about the place where you first met me / In a getaway car.” It’s a metaphor worthy of, dare it be said, a great country song.

But if she’s too much in love to devote more than two or three tracks to former paramours — and she’s pretty much taking most of the blame in those — she’s not so eager to accept fault in the couple of tracks everyone will presume allude to Kanye West, Swift’s off-again, on-again antagonist for a third of her lifetime now. He doesn’t only come in for the tilted-stage disses of “Look What You Made Me Do” but is also the obvious target of “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” in which Swift sings of a champagne-strewn friendship that had her “feeling so Gatsby for that whole year,” only to realize that “Friends don’t try to trick you / Get you on the phone / And mind-twist you.” The song has the cathartic sing-along quality of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” a lightness that seems at odds with the more serious and stricken tone she adopts in other moments on the album. In “Call It What You Want,” which ends as a tender love song, she begins by singing, “My castle crumbled overnight / I brought a knife to a gunfight.” In “Delicate,” she’s even worried — as a result of the public pillorying she got after the back-and-forth with the Kardashians? — that she’s not even girlfriend material, “’cause my reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me.”

On paper, lyrics like these may read as hushed, and occasionally they are, but mostly because Swift and her producers aren’t afraid of letting a song’s otherwise huge production drop out for an a cappella aside, just for aural shock value. She’s also learning how to use her voice as a percussion instrument of its own, with cadences that finally owe more to Rihanna than Shania. We’re still mostly in her intimate inner sanctum, even in the more hip-hop inflected moments of “Reputation,” but she comes out for a real party at least once, on “End Game,” an old-school ’90s R&B sing-along that gets a little less retro when Future shows up to rap and Ed Sheeran to scat. It’s probably the album’s most obvious smash — a “Good Blood” for 2018.

While most deluxe editions include bonus tracks, the Target version of “Reputation” features exclusive magazines with essays and poems that make it more abundantly clear that Swift, like a lot of us, hasn’t licked her 2016 wounds clean. “If you’re anything like me,” she writes in a poem, “you couldn’t recognize the face of love until they stripped you of your shiny paint, threw your victory flag away, and you saw the ones who wanted you anyway.”

To her detractors, who are legion, this will seem like more self-aggrandizement. But if you imagine that bold-facers have feelings, too, this text and all the songs that surround it make for a fascinating combination of social audacity and personal vulnerability. And maybe that latter side of Swift will still provide a key point of connection for fans of the old, mid-2000s, dweeb-era Taylor, even if to now takes a conviction in the court of public opinion to bring her down the way mere boys once did, and even if the teardrops, rarer as they are, now fall on digital-percussion programs and bottomless bass drops instead of guitars.

U2 divided “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” into two separate albums, but there’ll none of that for Swift, who’s not afraid to be ridiculously girlish in “Gorgeous” (the cooing infant in the opening is Ryan Reynolds’ and Blake Lively’s, but it could just as well be her) or, alternately, the most jaundiced kind of hot mess in “I Did Something Bad.” In the brittler, more wounded moments, or the ones where she cops to questionable behavior of her own, Swift sounds like she’s 27 going on 40. In the songs where she’s dealing with the love she believes can take her away from all that world-weariness, it’s more like 27 going on 16, again. That’s an ideal balancing act for a singer who was “happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time” in “22” and five years further on is still all that, along with seasoned, innocent, closed off, open, guilty, guileless, and really kind of genius at the same time. She contains multitudes. We might relate.

Album Review: Taylor Swift's 'Reputation'

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