Taylor Swift – The Tortured Poets Department

3.5

Taylor Swift’s new album The Tortured Poets Department comes as she is in the midst of another career high, and while it may in hindsight become one of her most important albums, it is unfortunately nowhere close to her best one. Released on April 19, the 16-track album became one with 31 tracks within two short hours due to the release of The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.

There is no doubt The Tortured Poets Department is an album Swift felt like she needed to make, and in some ways, it is the album certain fans needed to hear. As Swift’s fame and stan culture reaches an all-time high, so have the parasocial relationships that follow Swift online. With The Tortured Poets Department, Swift leans into the insatiable lore that surrounds her life, but she also makes a direct and resentful callout to fans who assume they know her.

In the biting lyrics of “But Daddy I Love Him,” Swift sings, “I’ll tell you something ’bout my good name/ It’s mine alone to disgrace/ I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing/ God save the most judgmental creeps/ Who say they want what’s best for me/ Sanctimoniously performing soliloquies I’ll never see.”

Swift’s honest lyrics throughout The Tortured Poets Department explore alcoholism, suicidal ideation, depression, the downsides of fame, and multiple layers of heartbreak. On the one hand, this honest lyricism is enough to leave a listener’s mouth agape in shock, as it goes straight for the heart.

However, it also exposes the main problems of The Tortured Poets Department. The best of Swift’s lyrics in The Tortured Poets Department are cutting, but the album’s production does not really give the lyrics a chance to pack a punch. The muted and repetitive melodies take away Swift’s bite, even if her vocals shine. At times throughout the first 16 tracks, Swift’s lyrics stray from being concise to too wordy, disrupting the flow of the song.

Outside of “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” which is an album highlight, a majority of these issues pop up on songs produced by Jack Antonoff, Swift’s longtime collaborator and friend. Antonoff is a great producer, and Swift is a great singer-songwriter, but The Tortured Poets Department proves these two no longer bring out each other’s creative best.

One could argue that perhaps the lack of production is a creative choice and not a fault of Swift and Antonoff’s collaboration. After all, the album’s lead single “Fortnight” feat. Post Malone is not the most radio-friendly song, but it was selected to be the first single from the album and features a music video with Swift, Post Malone, and Dead Poet’s Society actors Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles.

The problem with this defense is Aaron Dessner, because it is the second Swift album in a row that is seemingly saved by Dessner and Swift’s creative partnership. Just like with Swift’s 2022 album Midnights, the main studio album features a too-uniform synth-pop production and seemingly unedited lyrics, and the songs created by Swift and Dessner on the later-released second edition breathe new life.

Yes, Dessner is credited with five songs on the first album, most notably “So Long, London” and “Florida!!!” feat. Florence and the Machine, and Antonoff have production credits on the 2 a.m. surprise drop. But on the Dessner-produced Anthology tracks, Swift’s lyrics are more concise and poetic, and the production elevates the total package of each song even if none of them grab you as “a hit.”

The songs on The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology improve the first 16 tracks of the main album, but the surprise double album brings up questions too. Could the second half not just be its own separate album? Or could Swift instead just pick the best 16, or even 20, songs from both albums? Are Swift and the people around her losing the ability to decide what stays on the cutting room floor when making a tracklist?

All of this criticism is not to say that The Tortured Poets Department is bad. It’s not, it’s just that even with the album’s vulnerability, it is nothing that Swift has not done before. This means its flaws appear more like emerging patterns for Swift as an artist in the big picture, and make the album take longer to truly click. Buried somewhere in The Tortured Poets Department is catharsis, but its pitfalls keep it from being immediately cathartic.