This review originally appeared on The Arts Desk.
In “Look What You Made Me Do”, the tabloid-level diss track that heralded the arrival of Taylor Swift’s sixth album, the one-time darling of Nashville declares the “old” Taylor “dead”. That song, and its follow-up procession of lukewarm singles in desperate need of a chorus, raised a gloomy prospect: had contemporary pop’s cleverest, wittiest, most sensitive lyricist been killed off in favour of score-setting and clumsy Bonnie and Clyde comparisons?
Turns out the “new” Taylor is pretty much the same as the old one, albeit with cut-glass EDM hooks in place of teardrops on her guitar. Reputation is brassy and bold, intimate and sensual. It juxtaposes songs about retreating from the limelight, building blanket forts with a lover with outrageous bridge-burners, all the while professing that its author doesn’t “love the drama”. It includes more than one song in which Swift tries to convince the listener that she is a “bad girl”, as if “bad” means drinking a little, and scratches down somebody’s back, and her first recorded s-bomb. It is an album full of contradictions – much like, perhaps, a 27-year-old woman whose every public hand-hold since the age of 16 has been a topic of fascination.
And, because Swift can’t help herself, it’s an album full of cryptic love songs and kiss-offs that beg further exploration, sprinkled with irresistible hooks and wrapped up in glistening production, courtesy of long-time collaborators Max Martin, Shellback and Jack Antonoff. There’s “I Did Something Bad”, delivering comeuppance to a shit-talking ex over trap beats and an ominous bass line. There’s “Gorgeous”, the one that pulls and twists the riff from the opening credits of Netflix horror hit Stranger Things into a synth-pop lust song, rumoured to be about her first meeting with actor boyfriend Joe Alwyn. And there’s standout track “Getaway Car”, a giddy, soaring anthem to doomed romance, on which the metaphors fly so fast that the crash is inevitable.
Less lyrically dense than its predecessors – Taylor-in-love plays her cards much closer to her chest than Taylor-in-longing – Reputation still comes sprinkled with the goofy asides of a singer who’s determined at least to appear as if she’s not taking herself too seriously: the wry “alone … unless you want to come along” in “Gorgeous”; the “she’s dead” interlude; the just-on-the-wrong-side-of-calculated cackle, towards the end of “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, that sounds a little more hollow every time you hear it. The sentiments have, strangely, become less universal as they have become more generic: somehow it’s easier to see yourself in detailed lyrical paintings of Wednesdays in cafes and scarves left in drawers than it is in the broad sports-based metaphors of the surprisingly solid Future/Ed Sheeran collaboration “End Game” when you’ve already seen the headlines.
But the old Taylor lives on in those hooky choruses (“Getaway Car” and the heady, gospel-adjacent “Don’t Blame Me” in particular); and in the quiet, lovely moments of the album’s closing piano ballad. “I want your midnights, but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day,” Swift sings, and you can’t help but hope those two kids will get their happy ending.