Failure has never really felt like an option for Taylor Swift. From the outside her career arc reads like a steady, spectacular upslope: no chutes, all ladders. Even adversity — in the form of, say, a certain 2009 awards-show incident so notorious it earned Kanye West a public scolding from the leader of the free world — only served to make her more known, more relatable, more beloved.
But America’s Sweetheart is also a heavy sash to bear, and on her new sixth studio album, Swift seems determined to abdicate the throne, or at least retreat. Reputation is an oddly bifurcated creation, half obsessed with grim score-settling and celebrity damage, half infatuated with a lover who takes her away from all that. On lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” a stark, synth-rattled blitzkrieg widely believed to be about West, she refers darkly to a list of enemies, repeatedly intones “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me,” and even declares the “old Taylor” dead — replaced perhaps by the goddess of vengeance, or possibly J. Edgar Hoover. The girl who kicked off her last record cycle by giddily urging us all to “Shake It Off” now sounds thoroughly shook, and she doesn’t care who knows it.
WATCH: All The Criticism Taylor Swift Is Slamming In ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ Music Video
A lot of facile prerelease comparisons have already been made to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, because apparently two female superstars can’t make confessional albums without a running social-media scorecard. If anything though, Reputation — with its subterranean bass notes and lyrical fixations on seduction, alcohol, and the soul-numbing isolation of fame — runs more along the lines of late-night libertines Zayn and the Weeknd. She drops a skittering verse from rap god Future into the breathy extended sports metaphor “End Game,” coos “My drug is my baby” like an incantation on the gospel-gothic “Don’t Blame Me,” and even goes full Salem on the defiant “I Did Something Bad,” chanting “They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one/So light me up, light me up.”
And yet even at her most Darth Taylor, those sentiments (many of them co-penned and polished by Swedish studio veterans Max Martin and Shellback) don’t quite ring true. It’s not just that she wears badness uncomfortably, like leather pants tried on in the wrong size; for all their borrowed swagger, the songs, with their vague allusions to dive bars and lipstick marks, lack the sharp specificity of her best work. It’s her more recent collaborator Jack Antonoff who often helps bring out the more vulnerable side of her songwriting — though he also shares credit on the taunting “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which effectively recasts “Look What You Made Me Do” as a blithe, bratty call-and-response with a roof-rattling hook.
WATCH: Taylor Swift’s ‘Gorgeous’ Lyrics Decoded: All About the Singer’s Romance With Boyfriend Joe Alwyn
Even the central romance has two sides, toggling between girlish rushes like “Getaway Car,” a wistful dream-board anthem she might have turned out circa 2012’s Red, and the frankly sexual R&B slow burn “Dress.” On nearly every track, the reported muse for these swoons, British actor Joe Alwyn, is invoked over and over again as a refuge and a savior, the only person she can trust in a world where “All the liars are calling me one/Nobody’s heard from me for months.” She also saves one of the strongest entries for him, and for last: “New Year’s Day,” an intimate, infinitely tender ballad plinked out on bare piano notes with a sweeping roundelay chorus.
On any past album, a song like that or the blissfully smitten “Gorgeous” might even feel like throwaways, sweet sketches to fill the spaces between monster singles. But they’re a reminder of how easily Swift shines when she’s true to her creative DNA—not the burn-it-down renegade she wants to be but the pure pop destiny she still can’t help manifesting, with or without a crown. B