“The drought was the very worst.”
Taylor Swift’s lyrics in “Clean”, the finale to her 2014 blockbuster album 1989, take on a prophetic tone in hindsight. Following a chaotic 2015, which wreaked havoc on her public persona, the singer has largely extracted herself from the public eye.
Additionally, she broke from her established 2-year album cycle last fall.
Even after announcing her long-awaited sixth album, reputation, Swift kept under the radar. For all intents and purposes, it seemed as if Swift was hiding and licking the wounds that resulted from an ugly public breakup and, later in the year, a high-stakes blood feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. reputation, however, proves that, much like the serpent she’s become synonymous with, the singer was concealing herself in the shadows, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.
reputation is the sum of two divergent halves. The first half, which comprises the first 6 tracks, is marked by anxious, foreboding synth more reminiscent of The Weeknd than any of Swift’s previous work. Most importantly, Swift’s lyrics, more self-referential and self-aware than ever, reiterate the singer’s transition to a darker, more grim worldview.
The album’s first section has a decidedly Miltonic flair. Swift, freshly fallen from grace, begins a sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes apologetic, exploration of a world in which she is no longer a spotless Hollywood darling. The jabs she takes at herself range from sincere to sarcastic. The opening tracks see her label herself a robber and a witch. “I got some big enemies”, she brags on “End Game”, a monster track featuring Future and Ed Sheeran.
Lest we get the impression, however, that the new Taylor has adopted a “forgive and forget” policy, she promptly reminds us that her memory is as good as ever . “I bury hatchets / but I keep maps of where I put ‘em”, she sings in “End Game”. reputation’s standout third track, “I Did Something Bad”, sees her unearthing those hatchets and wielding them against those who have wronged her. “If a man talks shit then I owe him nothing / I don’t regret it one bit / ‘Cause he had it coming,” she says, hinting at the Kanye lyric that served as the catalyst for their second falling out.
The final act of Swift’s revenge arc is the leeringly resilient lead single “Look What You Made Me Do”. Swift mourns her lost status, the result of betrayal and deceit. In the bridge she famously declares that “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ‘Cause she’s dead.” Utilizing her established affinity for enlightenment via hindsight, Swift gestures to the first half of the album: “You made me bitter and wild. You made me kill my old self.” In the song’s chorus, Swift assures us that “I rose up from the dead / I do it all the time”. The rest of the album delivers on that promise.
reputation’s second half, featuring “the new Taylor”, serves as a rebirth for Swift and the album itself, both acoustically and lyrically. “You cut me into pieces”, Swift tells the subject of “So It Goes…”. Then, in the chorus, “all the pieces fall right into place.” This dismantling and reassembling of the self marks the album’s deft refocus from the old Taylor to the new Taylor.
As the lyrics switch gears, so does the production. “So It Goes…”, though by no means an acoustic ballad, is exponentially more sedated than its predecessors and “Gorgeous” even goes so far as to sound upbeat.
Eventually, and against all odds, reputation begins to transform into a more natural heir to the flamboyant verve of 1989.
“Gorgeous” reads like all your favorite romantic comedies rolled into one. After striking out at the bar, Swift complains “I guess I’ll just stumble on home to my cats….alone / Unless you wanna come along”. The moment provides necessary comic relief for an album that has so far been concerned with the systematic infliction of pain.
“Getaway Car” is one of the few moments on the album that showcase Swift’s unparalleled storytelling ability a la “Mine” and “All Too Well”—though still maintaining the singer’s newly-forged edge. “It was the best of times / the worst of crimes”, she says of her simultaneous mishandling of two boyfriends, effectively putting the blame on her own shoulders, an act largely absent from Swift’s songs pre-2014.
The new Taylor, though she has little time for the old Taylor’s resentful nihilism, still manages to pencil it in now and then. “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is a fun, vibrant takedown track no less biting and cynical than any of reputation’s earliest songs. “I’m not the only friend you’ve lost lately / if only you weren’t so shady”, Swift sings in a sugary sweet voice.
reputation’s final two tracks serve as a powerful emotional climax for the album. “Call It What You Want” takes all of the album’s pessimistic strands and spins them into shiny new gold. “My castle crumbled overnight / I brought a knife to a gunfight / They took the crown but it’s alright”, Swift begins. “I’m doing better than I ever was.” The song is Swift at her absolute best. Her storytelling abilities fuse with the sharp introspection she gains as the result of retrospection.
“New Year’s Day” begins, much like the opening tracks, with carnage. The difference now is that this destruction is the result of a successful New Year’s Eve party. While “Call It What You Want” looks backwards, “NYD” is the album’s most forward-thinking track and serves as an optimistic counterpoint to the moodiness of the album’s initial songs. “I can tell that it’s gonna be a long road / I’ll be there if you’re the toast of the town, babe / Or if you strike out and you’re crawling home”, Swift sings in her first acoustic ballad since Red in 2012. The song signals the the end of the album’s lyrical evolution.
At its heart, reputation is an album about overcoming disillusionment. It begins after the fall, barbed and defensive in both its voice and sound. Just like each of Swift’s previous albums, however, reputation is also about personal growth. Swift weaves her way through the album’s mazes, picking up lessons along the way and passing them on to her listeners. Over the course of the album the black thunderheads hanging overhead begin to clear, revealing Swift’s trademark optimism. reputation is a lyrically-exceptional, absolutely irresistible tale of when the forked tongue fuses back together and life goes on.