Review: Taylor Swift makes room for vulnerability and mistakes on ‘Reputation’

Taylor Swift’s new album ‘Reputation’ sees the artist using a more mainstream pop sound. (Creative Commons)

Taylor Swift drinks and (kind of) raps now, according to her new album, “Reputation.”

But the album, with its increased autotune and expansive production value, isn’t just about the death of “Old Taylor,” or her feud with Kanye West or the media’s perceptions of her life. Nor is it a simple declaration of “I’m a bad a girl now,” or a step back towards “girl on the bleachers” Taylor.

“Reputation” finds a self-aware Swift writing more overtly about sexuality and maturity in her relationships, but it also explores how the events of the last couple years (mainly the media’s coverage of her relationships and her feud with Kanye) have affected how she sees the world.

These themes paired with a more mainstream pop sound produce a few more songwriting duds than “1989” or “Red” did. At the same time, the album takes bigger steps and bigger risks, and for the most part (spare Ed-Sheeran’s rapping in “End Game”), it works.

For someone who has crafted her image in such a smart way — often Swift’s critics use terms like “calculated” or “a snake” when describing her — Swift is newly vulnerable and even a little messy on “Reputation.” Her image is still crafted, but there’s a little more room for mistakes. This album is surprisingly real.

Swift didn’t put her best foot forward by releasing “Look What You Made Me Do” — the worst song from “Reputation” is its first single, but that could easily be argued for her other albums, too. The track with its trickling piano beginning and interpolation of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” needed its music video to be a complete thought. This is the biggest mistake on the album, besides the campy “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” Thankfully, it is buried in the middle. Other singles make more sense in context, but still struggle on their own.

Other songs like “Delicate,” “So It Goes…” and “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” fare much better. Swift pulls a heavy emotional punch with the album’s last track and best song, “New Year’s Day.”

Swift’s lyrics are at their vaguest at the start of the album, but in some ways, this fits. “Is it cool that I said all that / is it cool that you’re in my head,” she sings, her voice coated in breathy autotune on “Delicate.” She’s well aware that fans and media outlets will be scouring these lyrics for any hints, and she plays to this well.

Swift’s experimentation with a more overt sexual feel is a noteworthy part of the album because of this confidence. It almost feels like a more developed theme than her feud with Kanye or her actual “reputation.” “Say my name and everything just stops / I don’t want you like a best friend / I only bought this dress so you could take it off / take it off,” she sings, chasing after a Prince-style falsetto.

At 56 minutes, some of the album does blur together, especially in the middle. If anything, this is a Taylor Swift album for wine-drunk nights when everything else is blurry. But the last track “New Year’s Day” provides some clarity. Swift and her piano cut through the autotune and her decent, but not outstanding rapping on other tracks, tying it all together.

“There’s glitter on the floor after the party / girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby,” she croons. “Candle wax and polaroids on the floor / you and me from the night before.”

And in that moment, suddenly it’s a little clearer. The only thing worth returning to in the end is the thing that makes Swift happiest. Reputations matter somewhat less when anyone’s got a hand to hold.

Follow Sararosa on Twitter @srosiedosie.

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