As far as concept albums go, Beyonce’s “Lemonade” is the textbook definition. The thematic arc from “Pray You Catch Me” to “Formation” is abundantly clear and climactic. The journey Beyonce goes through is one of redemption, forgiveness and newfound strength. When she sings “I found the truth beneath your lies” in “Pray You Catch Me,” you know that lies she’s referring to are the secrets she was smelling in “Hold Up.”
But for how much Taylor Swift has always emphasized the value of records, “Reputation” strangely falls at the intersection of sonic cohesiveness and lyrical inconsistency, defeating the purpose of a concept album.
Especially because of the marketing strategy that alluded to an acceptance of the vindictive narrative surrounding her attached to it, Swift’s sixth record seems to be conceptually confused. While it opens with “…Ready For it?,” which thematically leaves a lot of room for more romantic love ballads like “Gorgeous,” the inclusion of songs like the bordering on cartoonish “Look What You Made Me Do” contribute to a disorganized tracklist.
“End Game” features both Future and Ed Sheeran and inadvertently, but comically, symbolizes the weird dichotomy of the ways Swift wants to be perceived. The track solidifies her uncertainty about whether she wants to be “We Can’t Stop” era Miley Cyrus bad or burnout sitting on an old couch in a rec center bad. But once the beat drops and she sings “Big reputation/ Big reputation/ Ooh, you and me, we got big reputations,” you’re almost willing to look past it because even though you’re sure the two don’t mix, either one sounds fun.
Songs like “I Did Something Bad” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” also seem out of place when they’re surrounded by “Dress” and “King of My Heart” that both offer a more refreshing side of her.
She spends so much of the album switching between internalizing the media’s perception of her, victimizing herself, and writing love letters to nameless lovers, that there’s barely any time to establish which Taylor died and which one can come to the phone.
A hint of “Speak Now” era Swift appears briefly in “New Year’s Day,” an interesting choice to close the album to say the least. The contrast between the opening and closing tracks are either purposefully esoteric or accidently evidence of Swift’s failure to adopt her new image.
Mourning the specificity of Swift’s lyricism is justified. Swift has gone from detailed storytelling, singing about forgetting a scarf at her lover’s sister’s house (“All Too Well”) to echoing vague pop cliches (“Getaway Car”). The melodic brilliance of “So It Goes” is undermined by the nearly flippant lyrics. This stylistic change at least comes with the side effect of undeniable sonic cohesiveness, with big chorus chants appearing as consistent motifs. In this way, Swift and her supposed antihero Kanye West are similar. The amelioration of the production value of their records over the course of their careers comes at the cost of their lyrical wit.
Swift’s initial southern belle, girl next door, dorky despite being tall and blonde appeal worked for her until it didn’t. In “Reputation,” she has completely stripped herself of that depiction to accept the vindictive bad girl persona that’s been projected onto her. But this shift only serves as a reminder that whether she’s appeasing her fans or giving into her critics, she has no control over her image. It essentially begs the question, who is Taylor Swift when she’s not pandering?