Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department' Is Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

BY Alex HudsonPublished Apr 22, 2024


Taylor Swift has self-mythologized her career arc as a series of "Eras," where each of her albums has its own unique aesthetic — a sound, thematic concerns and a distinguishing visual style. But with her Eras Tour still ongoing, she has broken her own pattern, defying her "Eras" structure with an album that recycles familiar ideas that were better when she did them before.

"I know I'm just repeating mysеlf," she sings on "My Boy Only Breaks His Favourite Toys," yet another mid-tempo synthpop plodder made with her usual collaborator, producer Jack Antonoff. She knows it, we all know it.

Superficially, The Tortured Poets Department is presented as a raw-hearted response to the turmoil of Swift's romantic life in the past few years — the breakup of her six-year relationship with Joe Alwyn, which was quickly followed by a whirlwind romance with smug edgelord Matty Healy that was met with near-universal scorn from critics and fans alike.

That's the idea, at least. Swift herself has leaned into the notion that this is her most emotionally open album yet, posting tweets about her outpouring of "tortured poetry" and telling a concert audience, "I have never had an album where I needed songwriting more."

Maybe that feels true for Swift, but it's an idea not always borne out in TTPD's lyrics, which carefully dole out brief references to exes before retreating back into overwrought mixed metaphors without ever getting too vulnerable or specific. While Swift's best breakup songs have chronicled relationships with piercing detail — a forgotten scarf held onto out of sentimentality, half-drunk memories of a summer spent twisted in bedsheets — these ones mistake verbosity for poetry.

"So I leap from the gallows and I levitate down your street," she sings on "Who's Afraid of Little Old Me?" — a vibey, dramatic ballad that broadly addresses rumours about her personal life and is about her breakup with Alwyn and/or possibly Healy. The very next line is about a record scratch at a party; then getting grazed by a bullet; a toothless animal; "my house with all the cobwebs"; some talk of narcotics.

This is how much of Tortured Poets goes, with olde-tyme-y figurative language in place of her typically keen emotional reflection, and allusions to Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas gesturing toward unearned literary loftiness.

Swift very accurately describes her emotional state as "teenage petulance" on "Down Bad" (yet another polite-sounding bit of synthpop fluff). This sort of clumsy, juvenile melodrama can be quite charming when it comes from an overly earnest adolescent with a thesaurus in one hand and a tear-stained journal in the other; a professional musician, especially the world's most famous one, doesn't get quite as much leeway.

The mawkishness might be fine if it was matched in the music. Many a great pop song has been a bit over-the-top, after all. Listening to The Tortured Poets Department, I'm reminded of reputation's "Getaway Car" and its goofy opening line, "It was the best of times, the worst of crimes" — except that song, crucially, pays off in an absolutely gigantic chorus that's worthy of Swift's lyrical theatrics.

But on TTPD, Swift's high-flown language is never reflected in the arrangements, as Swift and Antonoff shift into an even lower gear than they were in during the bleary Midnights. Drum machines tap along with the conviction of beats to study/relax to, pillowy synth pads cushioning any lyrics that threaten to push past mere pleasantness. The album's first music video is for the Post Malone-featuring "Fortnight," and I'm genuinely shocked that a seasoned hit-maker like Swift could possibly consider such a dreary, unmemorable song to be a single. Don't worry, fellow fair-weather fans — this song absolutely will not be replacing the five-year-old "Cruel Summer" on radio playlists.

In the 16 songs that make up the main album (produced mostly by Antonoff), only the giddy bubblegum club beat and sing-speak sass of "I Can Do It with a Broken Heart" stands out. It's the only moment when the idea of "trying something new" seems to have occurred to Swift.

The album, the expanded version of which clocks in at more than two hours, is interminably long. But, like similarly exhausting recent albums by Drake and Justin Timberlake, the problem isn't inconsistency; this isn't one of those overlong albums that could have been streamlined by cutting out the weaker tracks and focusing on the highlights. Rather, the issue is that nearly every song here is a hookless dirge, with even the best moments coming nowhere near Swift's past highlights.

The bonus half of the double album, dubbed The Anthology, fares a little better, as Swift reunites with the National's Aaron Dessner as her primary producer and co-writer (he's also on "loml," which is the closest the main album gets to an affecting breakup postmortem). Just as the first half of TTPD revisits the sound of Midnights, the second half apes the "indie" folk of 2020's folklore and evermore.

While The Anthology falls short of those past heights (and certainly the folkmore albums had nothing as lousy as "The Albatross" hanging around their neck), Swift's partnership with Dessner is less stale than her collaboration with Antonoff. Dessner's resonant piano and nimble acoustic guitar are very pretty, bringing out some liveliness in Swift's pen. "So High School" is vibrantly nostalgic, with cringe-inducing lyrics (rhyming "Aristotle" with "Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto") that are distinctive precisely because they're so uncomfortable. Awkward? Yes of course, but so is teenage romance. "thanK you aIMee" is similarly grounded in relatable emotion, its bully revenge fantasy evoking "Mean" — so long as you can look past the corny jab at Kim Kardashian unsubtly hidden in the title.

Defiant first-half standout "But Daddy I Love Him" dares to be ridiculous, as Swift addresses the outrage surrounding her relationship with Healy, ditching self-seriousness for a silly chorus punchline that genuinely made me laugh the first time I heard it: "I'm having his baby / No, I'm not, but you should see your faces." She's poking fun at the media frenzy that surrounds her, turning anyone who actually gives a shit about her love life into the butt of the joke.

Those moments, where Swift sits inside a feeling long enough for it to be briefly unpleasant, are what's missing from The Tortured Poets Department. This is a breakup album that glosses over pain with tastefully bland synths and antiquated metaphors about poison blood, circuses, quicksand, alchemy and prisons. It takes heartbreak — the most universal form of misery — and turns it into a two-hour, 31-song expanse of antiseptic background music for dinner parties and dental office waiting rooms.

Like the colourless photo of a near-anonymous Swift that adorns the album cover, it casts an artful pose but doesn't have the guts to look the listener in the eye.

(Republic Records)

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