by JANICE LEVENS
producers Max Martin and Karl Schuster
November 10th on Big Machine
When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savour. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death.
– Niccolò Machiavelli
If Taylor Swift is anything like the person depicted on her new album Reputation, she is the most devious, complicated, multifaceted person ever to exist. Let us take our time with a line from “I Did Something Bad”, which I believe in the end represents everything this woman is concerned with: “I never trust a narcissist, but they love me.” Such a statement implies that every single association Swift has with other people is deceitful in some way. This admission is startling on another level, since it prizes the latter section of the clause over the former. The beginning of the lyric is a preference, the ensuing clause is a state of being.
Of course there is the possibility that this, like so much else on Reputation, is tongue in cheek, or simply written by one of the many co-writers Swift has worked with over the years. On Reputation, Jack Antonoff and the producing-songwriting team of Karl Schuster and Max Martin are present to work in the confines of Swift’s familiar sound. But the lyrical voice is distinctly Swift’s own, and the message is completely fucked up:
I stay when it’s hard, or it’s wrong
Or we’re making mistakes
I want your midnights
But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you
Again, if this is true, it’s desperately sad and twisted. If it’s only a conceit, the expression of it is somehow worse. I know that massive amounts of money and adulation are capable of changing a person, but altering them to this extent is potentially what happened to Lady Macbeth. Of course, no one ever said Lady Macbeth was boring, and Swift is intent on focusing this aspect of her personality. On “Dancing With My Hands Tied” she explains, “I’m the mess that you wanted.” Uh-huh.
But no one could ever think Swift was, or has ever been a mess. So that part is a lie, and probably a lot else on this album. Swift’s last album, the more enjoyably pop 1989, sold ten million copies, and Reputation attempts to put it in the dust. The more considered, low-key elements of that album are completely submerged here, with Swift more often sounding like mid-career Madonna than any iteration of herself.
There is something dated about Reputation, which suggests that the 27-year old is becoming very old, very quick. The orchestrations are generally limited, leaving the focus on Swift’s sharp, bouncy voice, which is at its best when breathily intoning in something like speech. “Dress” is her most complete and exciting track in this vein, explaining, “I don’t want you like a best friend,” hinting at a story she refuses to tell. Instead, we receive the following blandishments:
Even in my worst times, you could see the best of me
Flashback to my mistakes
My rebounds, my earthquakes
Even in my worst light, you saw the truth in me
And I woke up just in time
Now I wake up by your side
It would be compelling to watch Swift take on various new themes in her work, including authentic estimations of loss and love. Instead Reputation is an extended revenge fantasy on no one in particular. “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams,” she blurts out on “Look What You Made Me Do.”
When Niccolo Machiavelli retired from private life, he wrote his signature work, The Prince. The entire time he was longing to return back to politics, since it was what brought joy to his life. In The Prince, he explains that such a person must be able to change his views at a moment’s notice. He isn’t able to be honest, because it would mean losing his ability to defeat his rivals, and kill them when he can. This was what Machiavelli called virtu. I feel like Taylor Swift is articulating a new philosophy along these lines, which is essentially a return to the old.
Janice Levens is the music editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles.