So much time on Taylor Swift’s new album is spent in bedrooms. Until now, Swift had only written around sex. On reputation, she gives it due space in the plots that unfold. The limited way she wrote about intimacy (stuck in fairytales, high-school hallways, and tiny slivers of innuendo) had become as suffocating to her as an artist as it sounded to us as listeners. All the evidence you need that this move is a good one is on the song “Dress.” Swift uses falsetto and sharp exhales to express how unbearable it feels to crave. It’s sexy, sure, but it’s also so much fun. There’s a joy communicated between the lines about sex that is at least partially due to the freedom to sing about it at all. It’s a great shift in gears, and not her only one.
Swift’s last album, 1989, was marketed as an ode to '80s pop, and, accordingly, it used its fair share of synths and reverbed drums. Reputation hits "fast forward": Swift has never sounded so similar to her Top-40 contemporaries. There’s a negotiation with hiphop going on. Future has a verse on “End Game,” which boringly touches on jet-setting and his being a bad boy and nothing else. Verses in “Dress” echo those in Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off,” and as some have pointed out, R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)."
“Delicate” mimics the dancehall production of Drake’s recent work and uses terms like “chill” and “where you at” unironically, words and phrases that wouldn’t be caught dead in 1989. The resemblances matter for more than record-keeping purposes. Her willingness to touch them indicates a kind of freedom from old discretions.
The opening track “...Ready For It?” and the seventh “So It Goes…” are bookends for the sonically and lyrically abrasive first half of the album: from the defensive bite of “Look What You Made Me Do” to the noisy dubstep on “I Did Something Bad.” The second half backs up as Swift’s GPS redirects, and she takes a scenic route down an uncertain romance. Here, we get the album’s highlight, “Getaway Car,” which is a thrilling song about trading a stifling relationship for a doomed affair. It’s a total Jack Antonoff production, but at the same time, so blatantly Swift-ian in its storytelling, which is at its best when dealing with volatility. On the outro, she mourns riding/crying/dying/saying goodbye in a getaway car and it wrecks me. Conversely, happier songs like “Gorgeous” and “Call It What You Want” fall flat because they feel so safe.
The album closes with “New Year’s Day”, a minimally produced ballad that acknowledges how uncertain love can be. You never know if and when things are going to go off the rails. What choice do we have but to take it one day at a time. After an album full of turbulent production and emotions ranging from vengeance to yearning, this final track is the cathartic choice to relinquish control.