If there’s one thing Taylor Swift wants you to know, it’s that the Old Taylor is dead. You definitely knew her; the Taylor who sat in the bleachers with her t-shirt longing from a distance, who stood on the VMA stage, mouth agape, as Kanye West grabbed the mic from her and declared Beyoncé “Single Ladies” to be superior. The one who danced awkwardly at every award show as if she forgot the whole world was watching. New Taylor doesn’t give press interviews ahead of album releases. In fact, she’s almost fully retreated from the spotlight and has embraced being the villain because, yes she knows what you say about her on the internet.
Reputation, Swift’s sixth studio album, would like to convince you of this fact. “They say I did something bad/Then why’s it feel so good?” the singer/songwriter wonders on “I Did Something Bad,” right before declaring it was the “Most fun I ever had/And I’d do it over and over and over again if I could.” The song continues Swift’s shift away from the shimmery sounds of 1989 and into a bombastic and sinister hybrid. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to call this the darkest Taylor Swift record yet. She talks about sex (“Dress”), drinking and even curses a bit, giving herself over to what feels good. Sometimes it’s the intoxicating drug known as love that she’ll be using for the rest of her life (“Don’t Blame Me”) and other times it’s chasing what others perceive as “bad” and pushing against the boundaries of the narrative of her celebrity. “My reputation’s never been worse, so/You must like me for me…” she muses to an unnamed lover (presumedly her boyfriend Joe Alwyn) on “Delicate.”
Swift’s strength as a lyricist remains leaning into a certain archetype. On “You Belong With Me” it was the lonely underdog up against the popular cheerleader. “Blank Space,” saw her playing the serial dater who would smash your car with a golf club. Here, Swift dives headfirst into being the snake emoji that became synonymous with her brand following the now infamous Kim Kardashian Snapchat video leak last summer. “Look What You Made Me Do,” the lead single, could easily serve as a clapback to the West family (“I don’t like you little games/Don’t like your tilted stage/The role you made me play/Of the fool, no, I don’t like you”) or the general public; the song seems to be addressing both at the same time. She’s smarter now that she’s risen from the dead and has a list of names that, Santa Claus, she checks twice. The accompanying video features snake imagery and illusions to the accusations leveraged at her by her critics: She’s greedy for not putting her music on streaming services, her army of famous and fabulous friends and of course all of her ex-boyfriends. Built on a sample from Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” “Look What You Made Me Do” comes off as a lobotomized version of a Disney villain song/reprise. She was made to embrace the snake. It’s about as convincing as it sounds.
Reputation is at its best when Swift is working on a smaller scale and writing about what she knows; “Getaway Car” feels every bit as grand and adventurous as “Out of the Woods,” (both produced and co-written with Jack Antonoff) but feels incredibly specific like a classic Taylor Swift song. Just as she did on Red‘s centerpiece “All Too Well,” Swift packs a sucker punch of impassioned emotion and backstory about a love gone awry in a way that feels like a true maturation of her sound: “Don’t pretend it’s such a mystery/Think about the place where you first met me… No, nothing good starts in a getaway car.” “King of My Heart” dives deeper into her use of auto-tune, while “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” feels like the darker sibling of a song on 1989, and is the most fun moment and closest thing the album has to a straight banger. Of the two stories being told on reputation, Swift finding love with Alwyn in the chaos of her celebrity image is the more compelling, and believable.
But the album’s Achilles heel, its identity crisis, is what keeps it from ever getting off the ground and soaring to the highs found on Red and 1989. Where her previous efforts have felt cohesive and focused, Reputation is loud, bloated and all over the place. The moments she puts up her hood and gives a wink to a Darth Vader-lite persona don’t feel remotely as edgy as Swift probably thought they would when she was readying the album. “…Ready for It” sounds like three different songs that eerily resemble the material found on YEEZUS. “End Game,” a misfire of a collaboration with Ed Sheeran and Future sees Swift trying her hand at rap, boasting about her “big reputation” and “big enemies.” On one hand, you can hear her having the time of her life playing the bad girl. But songs like “Call It What You Want” would have you believe that she’s a victim of circumstance. “My castle crumbled overnight/I brought a knife to a gunfight/All the liars are calling me one,” she recounts about that fateful night last July. Swift is no Anakin Skywalker, and this decade long feud at the center of the album isn’t as compelling as she believes it to be. Her inability to address topics that people would actually like for to address casts a shadow over the album that is impossible to shake off. No, Taylor is not going to tell you who she voted for and she’s probably not going to take full responsibility for her part in West v. Swift. Because she was forced into this role, and now she’s going to play it because that’s allegedly what she had to do. It’s classic Taylor Swift. I’m not sure I buy all that, but if there’s anything I’ve learned after hearing Reputation it’s that Old Taylor is alive and well. She’s just got a darker wardrobe.