In the run-up to the release of Taylor Swift’s sixth album, Reputation, the singer-songwriter-cum-lighting-rod has been excoriated by fans and foes alike for too often playing the victim. The album’s lyrics will only serve to bolster that perception, as she refuses to take responsibility both for her public relations woes (“I swear I don’t love the drama, it loves me,” she quips on “End Game”) and her personal life (“Don’t blame me, your love made me crazy,” she declares on “Don’t Blame Me”). But it’s Swift’s willingness to portray herself not as a victim, but the villain of her own story that makes Reputation such a fascinatingly thorny glimpse inside the mind of pop’s reigning princess.
Swift has proven herself capable of laughing at herself, thereby defusing the criticisms often levied at her, but with Reputation she’s created a larger-than-life caricature of the petty, vindictive snake she’s been made out to be. She embraces her reputation on the album’s lead single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” dropping seething bon mots like “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me” with tongue only half-planted in cheek. She similarly perpetuates her status as the queen of holding grudges on “End Game”—“I bury hatchets, but I keep maps of where I put ’em”—and bursts into forced laughter at the very thought of forgiveness on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”
Retribution is paired with resurrection throughout the album, which is clearly positioned as a rebirth for the singer. Her reanimated corpse shovels dirt onto Taylor circa 2014 in the music video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” as she deadpans methodically, “I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time/Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time.” Only Reputation isn’t so much a rebirth as it is a retreat inward. It marks a shift from the retro-minded pop-rock of 2014’s 1989 toward a harder, more urban aesthetic, and Swift wears the stiff, clattering beats of songs like “...Ready for It?” like body armor.
That can make Reputation feel impenetrable, leaving the listener to search for the humanity in defiant songs like “I Did Something Bad”: “They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one/They got their pitchforks and proof/Their receipts and reasons,” Swift sings before conceding, her voice doused in distortion: “Go ahead and light me up.” There are fleeting glimpses into a psyche shaped by public scrutiny: “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me,” she tells a prospective love interest on “Delicate,” blurring the line between confident ultimatum and uncertain deliberation.
Max Martin and Shellback’s production, which comprises the bulk of the album, results in some tired, repetitive EDM tricks, but tracks like the aptly titled “Delicate” and “Gorgeous,” which tempers scathing self-critique with effervescent pop, are as understated as the other songs are bombastic. With its percolating beat and shimmering synths, the Jack Antonoff-helmed “Dress” reprises the nostalgic reverie of 1989, a reminder that Swift is capable of making pop perfection seem effortless: “Only bought this dress so you could take it off,” she swoons, followed by syncopated nervous laughter.
By album’s end, Swift assesses her crumbling empire and tattered reputation, discovering redemption in love on “Call It What You Want.” The closing track, the acoustic “New Year’s Day,” finds her nimbly switching time signatures and layering harmonies in ways she largely eschewed throughout the rest of the album. “You squeeze my hand three times in the back of the taxi/I can tell that’s it’s gonna be a long road,” she laments. For a moment, she takes off her armor and reveals the big, bleeding heart underneath.