‘Reputation’ Built on Self-Absorbed Theatrics and Glowing Honesty

3/5 STARS

“... Ready For It?”, the first song on Taylor Swift’s new album “Reputation,” leads an album that is much less aggressive than such a dramatic manifestation of her cyber-punk fantasies would suggest. It’s jarring to listen to her attempt this soft-rap, spoken-word performance, especially when compared to the guitar-wringing love ballads of yesteryear. Since her self-titled debut in 2006, Swift has transformed from America’s girl-next-door to a woman scorned, hashing out her discontent in pure pop. And in those eleven years, she’s been peppered with scandal after scandal, from a feud in which Kanye West referred to her as a “bitch” in his song “Famous,” to her recent legal confrontation with a blogger over an article that linked her to white supremacy.

It’s clear that these events are taking a toll on her carefully constructed narrative, something that manifests in “Reputation,” a 15-song letter to the scandal-watchers. Swift restlessly experiments with her sound in her latest album. There are its generic, electro-pop, dance-floor songs, with synthesizers thrumming, echoing, and splicing through pieces like “So it Goes…” or “Dancing With Our Hands Tied.” There are also songs made for hazy summer days, like “End Game,” a Future and Ed Sheeran collab with breathy R&B; tones. Swift gets whimsical in “Gorgeous” and “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” mediating the former with a triangle and the latter with her trademark snarkiness and a flighty melody. Swift also borrows from historically black music with moments of rap and gospel, raising an unanswered question of where boundaries are in music.

In its worst moments, Swift’s sixth album is a self-absorbed display of theatrics. But at its best, “Reputation” is breathlessly honest, a documentation of budding and faltering love against the backdrop of a burning limelight.

One of the first honest reckonings on “Reputation” is the dark and confessional “Don’t Blame Me.” She leans into the tempo with constant purpose, creating a sound that feels both violent and self-contained while singing about love’s extremities, and the paranoid undercurrent she lives through: “I would lose my mind / They say, ‘She's gone too far this time.’” It’s clear that dealing with the pressures of having a relationship under the public eye requires more than just rain metaphors and guitar-strumming. The heavier undertone of “Don’t Blame Me” is proof of that.

“Reputation” can also be interpreted as a full display of Swift’s spectrum of coping. Sometimes she’s unnervingly upbeat, doling out sarcastic pushbacks with a smirk like in “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” when she sings “And here's to you / ‘Cause forgiveness is a nice thing to do.” Swift then dissolves into exaggerated laughter. “I can't even say it with a straight face,” she adds. And sometimes, she’s unexpectedly vulnerable. In “Delicate,” she sings “My reputation's never been worse, so / You must like me for me…,” while her voice is run through a vocoder and split into threads. Swift’s reputation isn’t always touched upon in these songs, but that somehow makes the theme so much more compelling. It dots through the album, a constant, subtle reminder of the paranoia that comes with being such a high-profile musician.

“Reputation” swings from a self-aggrandizing rejection of blame to the complicated assessment of a relationship’s inevitable end. In cases like the lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” the album falters because it feels shallow to the point of dishonesty. It’s solely rooted in its spite, and not much else. But then there are cases like “Getaway Car,” a song that is paradoxically both melancholic and fast-paced. It’s expertly textured with flaring beats straight from the ’80s and personal regret. It sounds like a song that belongs on “1989,” but this is less a case of “Old Taylor” versus “New Taylor” and more that when Swift is practicing her signature move—disclosing pieces of her heart to her audience—she shines brightest. When she moves into cliches, though, her writing grows clumsy, the prime example of this being “Gorgeous”: “You're so gorgeous / I can't say anything to your face / ’Cause look at your face.”

The perfect antithesis to this lazy songwriting—and the highlight of “Reputation”—would be “New Year’s Day.” It’s the only acoustic song on the album, and her voice is wonderfully bright and bare. “I want your midnights / But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year's Day,” she quietly sings. This song is the last on the album—Swift has a habit of ending each one with an emotional punch. But it’s luminously soft and honest, as she remembers the candle wax on hardwood floors, the leftover glitter, and the girls holding their shoes in hand as they walk back home.

You can argue that Swift doesn’t have much to cope with—that at the end of the day, she still stands levels above everyone else in terms of power and wealth. Yet her problems are clearly urgent and real to her. “Reputation” tries to distill the aftermath of her feuds and drama into understandable terms. And while the album can be bogged down with self-indulgent snark and lazy songwriting, it glows brightly when Swift is herself.

—Staff writer Grace Z. Li can be reached at grace.li@thecrimson.com.

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