Reputation, Taylor Swift‘s sixth studio album, is not what you’d expect it to be. It’s not a vendetta album, a caustic cry for scores to be settled. It’s not an acceptance of villainy, in spite of the snake graphics posted on Instagram and sarcastic Easter eggs in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video. It’s not a takedown of Katy Perry; it’s not a rebuke of Kanye West (or at least, most of it’s not). It’s not a signal toward whose squad Swift was on in 2016, #TeamDonald or #TeamHillary, and it’s certainly not an explainer of staying apolitical in politically righteous times. Swift has not read your thinkpieces, or, if she has, she isn’t spilling a drop of acknowledgement.
The Reputation album artwork shows Swift’s face half-covered in headlines, her name tattooing her image ad nauseam. It’s a physical representation of a crappy year: in 2016, when her 1989 era had come to a close, various perceived missteps and minor scandals kept Swift’s name in the news long after her final tour date. “Look What You Made Me Do” starred the side of Swift that collected those headlines and nodded to the fact that they collectively torched the concept of “the old Taylor,” but Reputation‘s lead single was a red herring, at least lyrically. Reputation is actually focused on the other half of Swift, the side of her that is untold and has existed outside of the tabloids. The album carries a vibe of “This is what was REALLY going on” amidst the narrative we think we know.
So what story does Reputation want to tell? A love story — and a complicated, grown-up one at that.
Swift uses her public faltering not as the primary subject of her latest album, but as the catalyst of its linear narrative; Reputation begins in a haze of frustration and anger, then ends with a sigh of affection. It is the inverse of Swift’s previous albums, so often full of sweeping romance and cartoonish exes begging to be exposed. For the most part, Reputation is a self-examination of Swift’s strengths and weaknesses — unlike a song like “Blank Space,” there’s little here that’s tongue-in-cheek — as well as a glimpse into the relationship that brought her peace.
When she meets a guy at a bar and shrugs “My reputation’s never been worse/So you must like me for me” on the excellent fifth track “Delicate,” Swift is both brutally vulnerable and cautiously optimistic, as if seeing a sparkle of light after experiencing months of darkness. On the closing “New Year’s Day,” the party has ended, but Swift is helping her partner clean up the mess and embrace a new beginning. In between, there is drinking, self-deprecating, overt sexuality and fears of commitment, because Swift is 27 years old and those are all natural experiences. On “Dress,” listeners will likely focus on the lyric “Only bought this dress so you could take it off,” but another line — “Even in my worst lies, you see the truth in me” — is crucial to what Swift is trying to accomplish here. The fulcrum of Reputation is a startlingly relatable depiction of adult romance: messy and often flailing, but hopeful that another will come along and understand the flaws.
Three years ago, 1989 completed Swift’s transition from country to country-pop to pop, and with that loop closed, it was worth wondering if her next project would replicate her most commercially successful sound yet. Instead, Reputation is her most sonically ambitious album to date, a sort of a funhouse-mirror version of 1989 with a devil-may-care approach to its big hooks. The album is bursting with synthesizers, drum machines and an overall sense of maximalism, as Swift dabbles in vocal manipulation and quasi-rapping while Max Martin and Jack Antonoff help construct the metallic backdrops. On “King of My Heart,” Swift tinkers with her voice so much that it sounds like she’s trying to detach from herself, while “End Game” is a main attraction because of the guest spots from Future and Ed Sheeran, and Swift sounds surprisingly at ease on a hip-hop-indebted track — which would have been unthinkable two albums ago.
Like any 15-song experiment, Reputation has blemishes, from the dubstep breakdown of “I Did Something Bad” to the metaphor pile-up of “Getaway Car” (“X marks the spot where we fell apart!” Swift declares). But even in its missteps, the album’s willingness to explore the limits of Swift’s comfort zone makes for a fascinating listen. “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is the not-so-subtle shot at Kanye, and while its barbed lines and shout-along chorus don’t quite connect, the party is still luxuriously constructed and worth attending. Similarly, the lamentations of “Call It What You Want” make more sense in the context of the album, as a line like “They took the crown, but it’s all right” becomes less about pop-star pettiness and more about a hard-earned feeling of acceptance. Swift is too smart of a songwriter to have her risks blow up in her face, so even the clunkiest moments on the album are still refracted through the lens of a pro.
More than anything, Taylor Swift had the reputation of being a perfectionist — every melody, album rollout, tour production and fan interaction was pristine. Last year effectively proved that she is (gasp!) not actually perfect, and with Reputation, Swift has leaned into imprecision both sonically and narratively. Even if this doesn’t represent her strongest collection of songs, it’s certainly the most interesting project she’s ever released, with a sense of realism that she will likely explore on future projects. Look what we made her do: show her flaws, try new things, and welcome new challenges. In the end, it was worth it.