Hot-Take Reactions to Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department': Gossip That Outshines Murky Production

We attempt to dig deep into the shallow soil of the artist's 31-song new album of "mud-tier" synthpop

BY Megan LaPierre, Kaelen Bell and Alex HudsonPublished Apr 19, 2024

We're nearing the halfway point of this decade, and it's hard to think of a moment of it that hasn't been dominated by Taylor Swift.

Heading into 2020, her titanic album Lover was shaping up to be the touring event of the year — and when COVID lockdowns prevented that from happening, her quarantine twofer of folklore and evermore defined the moment. And once things opened back up, 2022's Midnights paved the way for her world-conquering Eras Tour, which is by far the hottest ticket in the business, coinciding with her re-recording her back catalogue.

And here she is, once again, with The Tortured Poets Department, a sprawling breakup epic that, including its surprise-released Anthology half, is a 31-song double album that essentially consists of two separate full-lengths: there's a synthpop opening half largely produced by longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, and a more folk-leaning second part reuniting Swift with her 2020 wingman Aaron Dessner.

Our full review is coming next week, as we attempt to sift through these two hours of dense metaphors, tabloid gossip and soft synths. While listening to the album on release day, Associate Online Editor Megan LaPierre, Reviews Editor Kaelen Bell and Editor-in-Chief Alex Hudson discussed the album's mushy and monotonous production, feared the wrath of the Swifties, and tried to find some favourite moments amidst the muck.

Where! Are! The! Hooks!

Megan: I just keep thinking about that one interview where she said she had never been to therapy. And was like, "I just feel incredibly sane."

Kaelen Bell: She's too sane. She needs to be crazier in a real way.

Alex: Let's just launch into this thing.

Megan: I need more coffee for this.

Alex: In "Florida!!!" she has that line, "Is that a bad thing to say in a song?" I wish she would say more things that were bad to say! Shock me. Say something really biting and specific. I dare you! Please, something interesting.

Megan. It's not okay to say Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist in a song. It didn't even rhyme!

Alex: Okay fair point. Charlie Puth is so incredibly famous!! I just checked and he has twice as many monthly Spotify listeners as the 1975.

Megan: I think he's probably most well-known for saying he's "hungies," but yeah.

Kaelen: I can forgive the Puth shout-out, but I will never forgive the tattooed golden retriever line. Today's weather is very fitting, not because of like pathetic fallacy and moody poetic weather, but because this whole album is such a heavy grey smear of nothing. Where! Are! The! Hooks!

Alex: Never mind Fifty Shades of Grey — Taylor offers us just two shades: imitation Midnights and imitation folkmore. The golden retriever line is obviously clumsy and bad, but in a way it actually feels like a swing at trying to say something specific and real (Matty Healy has tattoos and is a dirty dawg). Rather than just a jumble of mixed metaphors about gallows and prisons and sinking ships and whatever the hell else.

Megan: Exactly. It's a little tragic to me that it took Matty Healy of all people to give her true her star-crossed, torrid-affair moment. (And that it only lasted a fortnight.) Everything does indeed come out teenage petulance, like a girl reading Twilight for the first time.

The Antonoff Collab Runs Dry

Kaelen: I can almost appreciate the Blue Nile attempt of it all (at certain points), but of course, being Taylor, she has to shout them out by name. Because God forbid anything be left to mystery or interpretation. She's apparently had such an insane whirlwind these past few years, and this mid-tempo plodding sepia tone was all she could muster? It's such a tired thing to say at this point, but she really does need to move on from Antonoff. They made some great stuff together, but they're so creatively dry as a duo.

Alex: To me, the album falls somewhere between being too mysterious and not mysterious enough. She always seems on the verge of saying something truly vulnerable, then sinks back into a metaphor about, like, cobwebs inside a haunted house or whatever.

Megan: So many variations of "haunt" I lost count. I think you're tapping into something though: for all the oversharing, it rarely feels like it gives me some real painstaking detail or, you know, growth or deeper understanding or whatever.

Alex: But, Kaelen, I think you're right — although the lyrics provide the wtf moments, it's really the production and (lack of) hooks that hold the album back. I feel like Taylor has sung every single one of these melodies before. Think of a song like "Getaway Car" — that's kinda silly and melodramatic and overwrought, but holy fuck that chorus just soars. She and Antonoff are chasing that dragon.

Kaelen Bell: Tom Breihan really hit the nail on the head when he said the "lore" (which is what we're calling basic tabloid facts that are easily found) has totally outweighed the songs themselves. She's so focused on leaving Easter eggs and writing herself into metaphor spirals that she seems to have forgotten to make the songs interesting. Her toplines have always been recognizable, but now they feel truly recycled. Just long, loping run-on sentences that never reach any peaks or valleys.

Alex: Normally I don't think of good pop songs as having a "topline," because I think of that as an EDM technique for essentially adding a lyric/melody to an already-finished beat. But these are absolutely "topline" melodies — just a perfunctory vocal on top of a "vibe."

Megan: She's become like a background, vibes-based music maker as opposed to writing hits. She sings everything in generally the same little cadence and it's so hard to tell these songs apart, especially when there are this many of them. It's like a TikTok snippet of her singing something that could be anything. And it sounds pretty and it's inoffensive and it works with whatever little video clip you want to post.

The Highlights

Alex: Okay, we're all being negative, because obviously our hot take is that this album isn't very good. But let's try to be positive for a second: is there anything you're enjoying here? Dig deep, folks.

Kaelen: It's hard to dig deep in such shallow soil!

Alex: lmao.

Kaelen: As boring as the sound is, there are obviously some very pretty and lush sounds happening here. I wish she was chasing a different kind of pretty, but you can't deny how nice some of it sounds. But like, nice in the way synth presets are nice.

Megan: I agree, especially the Dessner stuff on the Anthology side. And, I think, at some points Taylor makes some little winking remarks that glimpse self-awareness — like on the title track, when she sings, "I think some things I never say."

Alex: I don't either of her partnerships with Antonoff or Dessner are quite popping off anymore — but she gets a lot closer here with Dessner. Any time his piano comes in, it sounds really pretty. Anthology essentially sounds like the third folkmore album, and while it's not as good as the other two, it's uniformly nice-sounding, and a couple of the songs are strong. "So High School" and "I Hate It Here" have some cringy lines, but in that way where good country songs kinda get uncomfortably specific and corny. All that stuff about American Pie and getting horny during Grand Theft Auto. That's getting into a level of vivid storytelling that I find compelling — and is distinctly missing from, say, the title track and its stupid typewriter thing.

Megan: I just saw a photo of Matty Healy carrying a Louis Vuitton bag allegedly with the typewriter in it and my God, if that isn't the most pretentious shit I've ever witnessed.

Alex: I must acknowledge the only part of the album that melodically rises above the boring monochromatic mush: "I Can Do It with a Broken Heart."

Kaelen: That's what's so frustrating! She includes these gems that push against the monotony of all the other songs. If you're capable of these, why do you insist on so much mush?

Megan: Bejewelled Part 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Alex: That beat is super fun, and she does a half-spoken thing that has a lot of personality in it. She and Antonoff brought something to the table there and actually sound like they're having fun.

Megan: I think the "I Can Do It with a Broken Heart" concept is at least mildly interesting too, and makes me think of all of that Eras Tour footage of her crying while performing. Those are the public-eye moments that make me wonder what she's thinking, and it's nice to have her address that rather than like, Swifties "bitching and moaning" about her dating Matty Healy.

"Mud-Tier" Synthpop

Kaelen: I just think of the dynamic range on albums like Red or Speak Now or Lover. Highs and lows! Loud and quiet! Calm and stormy! Where did that go?

Alex: I feel like maybe Taylor has finally found her limit, in terms of her work ethic and prolific output. By my count, this is her eighth album (including the expanded re-recordings) of the 2020s. Like, of course this sounds repetitive and uninspired — she's simply cranking out too much. She sounds like she's running out of ideas, and I'm afraid to say that I'm running out of patience for just-okay Taylor Swift songs.

Kaelen: I would love for her to release an album that feels considered and edited and like a statement of its own. No more hauling out these laundry bags of mud-tier synthpop.

Kaelen: I meant "mid-tier," but "mud-tier" might be even better.

Megan: "Mud-tier synthpop" certainly evokes the colours and textures she's painting with these days. Especially when we all know what she's capable of! It's so frustrating. Most of it isn't, like, actually super bad, but even if was, would people let it slide? I think yes. She's become bigger than her own inherent ability at this point.

Kaelen: That's the thing: this is all very pretty and perfectly capable music. But we — the general public, and especially her actual fans — deserve more! The [redacted] of the world will try to tell you this is a generational masterpiece. It's nothing of the sort, but she's one of the few working who's clearly capable of that sort of thing.

Alex: Megan, I remember us once talking about how good her imagery is. The examples we talked about at the time were dancing in the kitchen in the refrigerator light and "meet me behind the mall." Relatable, vivid moments that were as cinematic as a movie scene. Notably, none of the moments we talked about were, like, floating above the gallows or whatever olde tyme funicular-ass imagery she's going for here.

Megan: Wishful thinking and artistic legacy can't make something better than it is. She gets a certain level of merit given to her work at a baseline level — her good name! — and she has certainly earned it, but it's enabling all of this. So is her work ethic, I think; it got her here, and now it's pushing her to be so prolific that she's sacrificing making anything with real staying power.

Alex: In the past, she has spoken about writing poetic songs with a quill. I feel like she wrote these songs while riding a penny-farthing bicycle while wearing a monocle.

Megan: No more dancing 'round the kitchen in the refrigerator light; she's down bad, crying at the gym.

Alex: Does she know what down bad means? I genuinely want her to clarify

Megan: Speaking of genuinely not knowing the actual significance of something, why are there so many references to Florida?

Kaelen: She's in her snowbird era. I just want a Taylor Swift album where the overly effusive fan reactions don't feel like I'm being pranked. I want to believe the story we've been sold about her!

The Final Word: "Birthing More to Ass"

Alex: I don't think I can spend much more of this day listening to 31 Taylor Swift songs. I need a palate cleanser of Tei Shi and Cloud Nothings and Cadence Weapon. But before we go: anything to add? Final words before the Swifties doxx us and put our social security numbers up on the dark web?

Megan: I haven't finished The Anthology yet. I intend on getting through this thing because I ain't a quitter, but am looking forward to getting to the end — which is really sad. I'm trying to think back on my younger, English major self, and whether I would have been more excited about this Wattpad-ass aesthetic and collection of over 30 songs to digest in one single day while I scrolled Tumblr or whatever. And yeah, maybe. But I also don't think it's unbelievable that I would still feel exhausted and overwhelmed by this towering double album that sounds so samey (albeit pleasant). There are so many lyrics, and sifting through them for an arresting line or image feels like an equally mountainous task. Shouldn't this be more fun, even if it's about heartbreak?

Kaelen: I have birthing more to ass.

Kaelen: omfg.

Kaelen: Leave that as is.

Alex: It took me a solid 20 seconds to figure out what you were trying to type. But honestly, it's more evocative and poetic than this album.

Megan: Guys, I still haven't had more coffee yet, I'm not okay.

Alex: Megan, good for you for committing to finishing that Anthology side as well. I know it's a big task, but you've been training for this moment. There's at least something of a reward for people who do manage to finish this gruelling ultramarathon of an album: "The Manuscript" is pretty nice! "They compared their licenses / He said, 'I'm not a donor but / I'd give you my heart if you needed it'" is a nice contribution to the "Checking your label... Just as I thought, made in heaven" genre of bad pickup lines. And I think "Now and then I reread the manuscript / But the story isn't mine anymore" is a great closing lyric for an album as self-mythologizing as this one. Death of the artist 'n' all that.

Megan: On that note, I also liked the way "Clara Bow" ended. "You look like Taylor Swift," and, "You've got edge, she never did."

Alex: My final word is that, as a music critic, I've noticed a pattern where a beloved artist releases a kinda bad album, but no one has the guts to admit that it's bad. And then it's on the next one where people are finally ready to acknowledge it. It happened with Arcade Fire: Reflektor was bloated and kinda sucked, but everyone pretended it was good for a while — then we were perfectly primed to acknowledge that Everything Now is bad. Same kinda thing here: Midnights simply isn't on the level of her past work, but no one really said it (I suspect for fear of incurring the Swifties' wrath). Now, people are a little more emboldened to acknowledge her missteps, and this album is gonna be the one to separate ride-or-die Swifties from the fair-weather fans. I am, clearly, in the latter category.

Kaelen: I now have one more thing to add — I think Reflektor is good.

Alex: Okay, I'm going to edit together this conversation now and post it. And I'll take all of Kaelen's quotes out because he has proven himself untrustworthy and unreliable. I'll leave in the "birthing more to ass" comment, though.

Megan: It's going to end up on Taylor's next album, just you wait.

Alex: "Vipers and snarling dogs have their final scoundrel's laugh / At my gilded penitentiary with birthing more to ass."

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