Taylor Swift’s Evolution Continues on ‘Reputation’

If Taylor Swift is a snake, as her critics like to claim, then her new album Reputation is all about shedding her skin.

Swift has never been a stagnant artist. Her sound has evolved over the course of her career, gravitating more and more towards mainstream synth-pop—a sound which she’s fully embraced on her sixth studio album. This shift in sound on her newest record accompanies a change in both style and content, and eschews much of the narrative balladry that’s been her signature since her early years. Storied lyrics of whirlwind romances and broken hearts are not her focus this time around. On Reputation, Swift presents a simpler poetry, one that deals with more “grown up,” adult material.

In this case, that doesn’t mean adult as in overtly dark or particularly mature, but rather, that this is the first album Swift has released which truly reminds us she’s a grown woman. After becoming famous at only fifteen years old, Swift was confronted with the reality of growing up in the spotlight. She couldn’t remain a darling country sweetheart for her whole career, but like other young female music stars (such as Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato), she undoubtedly felt pressure to remain that doe-eyed girl making music about high school crushes that 14-year-olds can sing along to without closing their bedroom doors. But Swift is far removed from high school. She’s 27 now, and for the first time in her career she’s singing about sex, drinking, and even throws in a swear or two.

Reputation’s opener, “…Ready For It?” begins by asking listeners if they’re prepared for what’s about to follow. The immediate reaction is no, because it’s not the most appealing track, sounding like something you’d hear in the basement of the dingiest club you can imagine. A ridiculously aggressive beat stomps over the lyrics until the chorus, with a playful tone in jarring contrast to the song’s beginning, grants a nice, though simplistic, reprieve before those monstrous synths returns for a kick to the face. If the track was meant to serve as an indication that Swift is changing up her style, then it makes sense at the top of the album; however, it plays more like an alarm that’s screaming “stay away,” with all the melody and subtlety of an air raid siren.

Things get worse on the second track, “End Game,” which has the only two features on the album, rapper Future, and Swift’s long-time collaborator and friend, Ed Sheeran. The song leans heavily towards a hip-hop style, which doesn’t work for her at all. There’s nothing interesting going on lyrically or musically, and if it were performed by capable rap artists it would be bland and forgettable at best. Swift is not a capable rap artist, though, and ends up “ooohing” and “aaahing” in between some sort of digitally processed talk-singing. It’s not awful, but it’s certainly not the right sound for her; Ed Sheeran, meanwhile, sounds completely out of place. “End Game” isn’t a track that suits Sheeran’s style under any circumstances, but the fact that this is the song he’s featured on is perhaps the biggest statement by Swift that she’s taking her music in a new direction. One of the highlights from her 2012 album, Red, was “Everything Has Changed,” a genuinely lovely duet with Sheeran that heard them harmonizing beautifully while showcasing their strength for narrative songwriting. To now hear him featured on this hip-hop mess is bizarre. At 15 songs long, the album could easily afford to cut the first two numbers.

After the two misleading opening tracks, the third, “I Did Something Bad,” brings a sigh of relief. Swift unveils her characteristic vocal sass with stinging lyrics, including her very first time swearing in a song: “If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing / I don’t regret it one bit, ’cause he had it coming.” The upswing continues with “Don’t Blame Me,” a soulful pop song which features excellent production and a killer chorus.

“Delicate” continues the trend of slick pop production. Although capable, it’s less memorable than the previous song. The lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” is next, and in the context of the album, it’s an odd choice to head the release. With its vengeful verses and bizarre chorus (which actually samples “Too Sexy for My Shirt”) that don’t mesh, it’s a single that feels frankensteined together, although it’s impossibly catchy, sticking in the listener’s head. It also contains the most outright statement from Swift (and this is probably why it was chosen as the first single): in a spoken interlude, she says “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead,” essentially announcing her new direction. Though whether or not the “old Taylor” is actually dead and buried remains to be seen.

The well-crafted pop production and synth-fuelled jams continue to impress as the album progresses. Some tracks, such as “So It Goes…” are stronger than others—“King of My Heart” and “Dancing with Our Hands Tied” leave less of an impression, though nothing is mediocre or bland. “Gorgeous,” the third single, is a highlight, with an infectious musical hook and relatable lyrics about lusting after someone you can’t have.

Even though she’s moved away from narrative songs with big emotional connections, Swift still shows off her songwriting skills on tracks like “Getaway Car,” another standout that relies on an extended metaphor likening her reputation for revolving door romantic-relationships with being on the run from the law, all while taking jabs at herself. “Don’t pretend it’s such a mystery / think about the place where you first met me,” she sings; “shoulda known I’d be the first to leave.” It’s the best song from the album’s midsection, and of all the tracks on the release, this one would sound the most at home on her previous record, the mega-pop masterpiece 1989.

Though the beginning of the album stumbles and the midsection improves, the end of Reputation is where its strongest material lies. “Dress” is the sexiest, most raw song Swift has ever released and shows a more mature side of her. In the past, she’s always sung about romance as sets of feelings and emotions; love has primarily been seen in the fairytale-esque way we imagine it to be as children and teens. On this track, though, Swift finally addresses the physical, and it makes for one of the most memorable moments on the album. During “Wildest Dreams,” a song off of 1989, she wishes for the man she loves to remember her “standing in a nice dress / staring at the sunset.” But now she’s not as interested in the picturesque ideals of beautiful gowns and cinematic romance. In “Dress” she sings, “I only bought this dress so you could take it off;” her breathy vocals glide over slow sultry synths punctured with bright waves in the chorus, evoking deep sensuality.  “Carve your name into my bedposts / I don’t want you like a best friend.”

The years following the release of 1989 were tumultuous for Swift, filled with intense scrutiny of her personal life and relationships, not to mention more drama in her never-ending feud with rapper Kanye West (and subsequently his wife Kim Kardashian). As a result, the star has spent the bulk of the last year out of the public eye, during which time she began a relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. The final three tracks address all of this and present the theme for the whole album, and perhaps even the narrative for where Swift is at in her life right now.

The third song from last (13th overall—her self-professed lucky number), “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” is a scathing indictment of West and others whom Swift perceives as having wronged her. As per usual, she doesn’t name any names, but her pointed lyrics leave little room for doubt. Though she doles out plenty of shade to her targets, she also doesn’t play the part of a passive victim, instead taking an active role in the drama: “And therein lies the issue / friends don’t try to trick you / get you on the phone and mind-twist you / and so I took an ax to a mended fence.” The song is one of the catchiest, and best produced on the record, and Swift’s recognizable sarcasm and snark make it the album’s most fun moment.

With only two songs remaining after “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, it may seem Swift isn’t over the drama that’s plagued her over the previous few years—but that doesn’t actually appear to be the case. She ends “Nice Things” by giving thanks to those who’ve stuck by her side through it all, and suggests she’s making peace with the situation in the opening of penultimate track “Call it What You Want.” “My castle crumbled overnight / I brought a knife to a gunfight / they took the crown but it’s alright. All the liars are calling me one / nobody’s heard from me for months / I’m doing better than I ever was.” In this first verse Swift acknowledges her public absence but expresses contentedness with her current situation, and that feeling extends through the whole song, which is presumably about her relationship with Alywn. “Call it what you want to,” she sings in the chorus, presenting a somewhat nonchalant attitude and no longer caring about perceptions of her relationship. Swift’s past discography is full of songs dealing with the ups and downs of love—lust, unrequited feelings, long distance, new romance, dwindling flames, heartbreak, etc.—but this feeling of satisfaction is less familiar. It gives the song an air of care-free simplicity that’s reinforced with a mellow beat and soft vocals, and it’s the strongest of the four singles. It’s the equivalent to the calm after the storm.

The sentiment from “Call It What You Want” is carried through into the final offering, “New Year’s Day,” which is easily the best song on the album. All the lavish production that has carried the music to this point is dropped for a beautifully understated ballad; there are no pulsing synths and grand hooks, just piano and acoustic guitar. It’s a gorgeous number in which Swift shows us that the “old Taylor” isn’t really dead and gone, she’s just grown up. Ironically, the song that sounds the most like her earlier works is the one that most shows how she’s changed.

Throughout the entire album, Swift has referenced drinking, a first for her; whiskey, wine, and various other alcohols populate her lyrics. This last track serves as the morning after the party, quietly waking up next to her partner. All the dreams Swift may have held about the epic, sweeping fairytale romances that marked her previous hits are gone. Now she’s singing about the real thing—sticking together through good times and bad, enjoying the parties, but cleaning up the mess afterwards—which she knows is what will last: “Don’t read the last page / but I stay when you’re lost, and I’m scared / and you’re turning away / I want your midnights / but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.”

Such ruminations on love are the territory of “old Taylor,” but finally Swift gives herself away. The New Year is a symbol of a fresh start, a new beginning, and who is “new Taylor” if not just “old Taylor” reborn? Like the snake shedding its skin, Swift is moving into a new chapter of her life. She’s a little “smarter,” a little “harder,” but she doesn’t desire to run away from her past either: “Hold on to the memories / they will hold on to you,” she surmises on that final track.

Though it doesn’t end up being her best work, Reputation is an excellent release that demonstrates capable pop production mixed with meaningful songwriting. A reflection and a forecast, this album sees Swift embrace her own reputation while moving confidently forward.

Grade: A-

Recommended Tracks:
“Don’t Blame Me”
“Getaway Car”
“This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”
“Call it What You Want”
“New Year’s Day”


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