The tides have turned against Taylor Swift. Even more quickly than the masses latched onto the pop perfection of 2014's 1989 (like, in addition to the masses of tweens and country fans that launched the singer's career by picking up millions of her first four albums), they've hopped off the bandwagon.
Sure, her devotees are still lurking the depths of Tumblr in the hopes of an emoji-laden personal message from Swift herself, but since Kim Kardashian outed Swift's phone conversation with Kanye West on Snapchat earlier this year, the singer's reputation amongst the wider public has taken a major hit. The 27-year-old pop star is savvy enough to know that, and she's attempted to spin it in her favour on this album cycle — from adopting snake imagery in video teasers and merch to literally killing off all her previous public personas in the video for "Look What You Made Me Do."
Of course in the time between albums, Swift has also gained infamy for being petty as fuck. Returning her music to streaming services on the same day that long-time rival Katy Perry's Witness album dropped and releasing her own album on the anniversary of Kanye West's mother's death left a sour taste in many people's mouths — and all of that was before she avoided an easy opportunity to publicly denounce white supremacists.
With the odds of public opinion stacked against her, Swift finds herself stuck in the unenviable position of needing a miracle of a pop record (if anything) to regain her throne. And whether it's a reflection or a result of her increasingly problematic public persona, Reputation is a complicated listen.
"… Ready for it?" — one of the more divisive teaser singles — opens the album with bombast and an onslaught of confused influences that range from EDM to trap to tropical house. It's completely disorienting, but by the time the breathy refrain kicks in, Swift shows hints of her former glory. It gets worse before it gets better, though, with the ill-fated Ed Sheeran and Future collaboration "End Game."
1989 fans will breathe a sigh of relief when "I Did Something Bad" kicks in, though, which starts off a string of shiny pop songs that not only feel like a more natural progression from the last album, but improve upon each listen in that sneaky way Swift songs tend to do. Ensuing highlights include the auto-tuned electro-pop of "Delicate," the sickly sweet bubbling beat backing a tale of forbidden love on "Gorgeous" and the most 1989-ish track on the record, "Getaway Car."
And while "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" is undoubtedly the biggest and best banger on the album, it's not exactly easy to digest. A paradox that only befalls the handful of artists that reach Swift's level of fame, the moments on Reputation that Swift stans appreciate the most are likely the ones casual listeners will be quickest to dismiss. To Swifties, "TIWWCHNT" is Swift triumphantly taking charge of her own narrative (rather than one she "never asked to be a part of"); to haters, it's a petty dredging up of old drama in an attempt to once again vilify Kanye.
Swift is the first to acknowledge that the people listening to this record will never truly understand her whole story — or anyone else's, for that matter. "We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them that they have chosen to show us," she writes in the liner notes of the new album. "There will be no further explanation. There will be just reputation."
On Reputation, the Taylor she's chosen to show us is one that's more confident than ever. Her adventurous sound is coupled with lyrics that are drunker and more sexual than ever — she even drops her first in-song swear with a "shit" in "I Did Something Bad." It might not be everybody's cup of tea, but she's convincingly committed to it.
The final two tracks on Reputation hint that the Old Taylor might be able to come to the phone after all, closing with the whimsical romance of "Call It What You Want" and the stripped-down piano-driven nostalgia of "New Year's Day." But make no mistake: if and when she picks up, it'll be on her own terms.
Order Reputation on CD via Umusic. (Big Machine)