Taylor Swift redefines herself once again

Country music fans, avert your eyes: if 1989 left any room for speculation that Taylor Swift might ever return to her Nashville roots, Reputation has thoroughly stomped that idea into the ground. And yet, in the midst of the rhythmic vocals and chandelier-rattling bass beats, and in spite of the singer’s own claim that the “Old Taylor” is dead, there is a thread of her old self running through even the most hip-hop of tracks. It reveals itself most of all in her singular ability to take a very specific emotional situation and crystallize it into a moving narrative anthem.

Reputation, as the name suggests, is at its heart an album about finding real love underneath the heavy shell of a famous, or at times infamous, reputation. This leads to a sort of split personality: on the one hand, Swift embraces the image first introduced in 1989’s “Blank Space,” that of the unrepentant master manipulator, playing men and the media “like a violin” (“I Did Something Bad”). On the other, Swift reveals a deep vulnerability and in songs like “Delicate,” singing breathily “My reputation’s never been worse, so / You must like me for me.” One thing, however, is certain: no matter which side of the album is on display, no one can accuse Swift of playing the victim anymore. It is undeniably apparent in every track: the singer is taking full control of her reputation, for better or worse.

Swift has always been brutally honest in her lyrics; but what is really remarkable in Reputation is how well she meshes her sound with her lyrical themes. The tracks that embrace the more villainous side of Swift’s image are also the most brazen in sound. From the angry rhythmic beats of “…Ready For It?” to the dispassionately unapologetic vocals of “I Did Something Bad,” Swift really has come back “stronger and harder,” at least from a sonic standpoint. But while these songs are undeniably catchy and will no doubt be big radio hits, Swift, as always, shines in her most achingly introspective songs.

It is ironic that in Swift’s most outwardly unforgiving album to date, the queen of breakup songs writes less about the men of her past and more about a new love, a love that begins fragile and cautious in “Delicate” and shines golden and unbreakable in “King of My Heart,” “Call It What You Want,” and especially “New Year’s Day.” If her 2012 transition album Red was about losing everything, and 1989 was about picking up the pieces of a broken heart, Reputation is about rebuilding a life and a love in the aftermath.

Swift excels in her storytelling. Reputation reads as a cohesive narrative from start to finish; the singer moves away from the electronic tones of the first guarded, vengeful tracks to a softer, more carefree style in the latter part of the album. The strongest track on Reputation comes at its close; the only acoustic song on the record, “New Year’s Day” reveals a new Taylor who truly does seem stronger than before. Both fairy-tale romances and celebrity drama have been left behind, and what emerges is an incredibly candid and real love song. Timeless lyrics like “Please don’t ever become a stranger / Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere” and “Hold onto the memories, they will hold on to you” reveal a new kind of love for the singer: a grownup, realistic image of finding love in little gestures and fighting for it through hard times.

It was never a question that Reputation would be commercially successful. For the fourth time in a row, Swift’s new album sold over a million copies within the first week of its release.The real question: is the “Old Taylor” really dead? Swift has certainly changed. Gone is the Nashville sweetheart, the teen romantic, the twenty-something heartbreak star; but forged from those ashes is a woman taking control of her own image, finding real love in the real world. Is Reputation the album we wanted? Debatable. Is Reputation the album we needed? Absolutely. Critics will point to songs like “Look What You Made Me Do” (one of the weaker tracks on the record) and continue to paint Swift as a scheming, vindictive drama queen. But in doing so, they are looking only at the beginning of the story. The album is not defined by its weakest songs or by its darker themes; its greatness lies in the hopefulness and simplicity of its final track.

Caroline O’Callaghan is a freshman living in Badin and majoring in studio art. Her ultimate life goal is to live in a cabin by a beach with a multitude of dogs.