Section: Arts

Review: Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department nothing new

Taylor Swift’s 11th studio album The Tortured Poets Department was instantly polarizing. It became the first album to garner 1 billion streams in five days and received a broad spectrum of reviews varying from critical acclaim to scathing anonymous critiques. While die-hard fans embraced Taylor’s new album as her best yet, many critics argued that Taylor is at her artistic tipping point. As a post-2020 Swiftie who was converted by her escapist albums folklore and evermore, I fall in between these two extremes. Tortured Poets is a bloated regurgitation of Taylor’s usual soundscapes and yet a stunningly vulnerable plunge into her most unattractive vices. 

Tortured Poets was marketed badly and this partially caused the negative reception. Coupling the amount of not-so-subtle Easter eggs that Taylor dropped with the enormity of her media exposure in 2023 and 2024, it was impossible to escape the relentless buzz that surrounded the album for weeks. From a gimmicky library pop-up in Los Angeles to QR codes spelling out a lyric that fans could hear if they waited just a few days, the effect was try-hard and exhausting. Then just two hours after she released her 16-track album on April 19, Taylor surprised the world with a double album called The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, unleashing an additional 15 songs and making the album’s runtime over two hours. Critics and Swifties who stayed up till midnight to listen to the original album were overwhelmed and fatigued by another full hour of content to listen to. There was simply not enough time to digest and sit with the original Tortured Poets album.

Another reason for the album’s poor reception was that the general soundscape of Tortured Poets felt reminiscent of Taylor’s 10th studio album Midnights, which was commercially a success but critically reviewed. The ’80s synth-pop that producer Jack Antonoff brought to Midnights was found on Tortured Poets as well, only at a slower tempo and interspersed with minimalist Aaron Dessner tracks that sounded like underproduced vault tracks off folklore and evermore. Musically, Tortured Poets is nothing different from Taylor’s past work. While many prefer Dessner’s work with Taylor to Antonoff, the production on some of The Anthology tracks sounded like the background music Apple Photo uses to auto-generate slideshows. As someone who hoped she would challenge herself on her next album, this was a disappointment. And given how similar Tortured Poets sounds to her earlier work, the value of releasing an additional 15 tracks at such short notice was truly undermined. If Taylor isn’t willing to cut some of her songs from the final album, then she should have at least waited to release The Anthology until a few weeks passed and people had time to sit with the original 16 songs. 

Despite production similarities to Midnights, on the whole I think Tortured Poets is a far superior album. While Tortured Poets suffers from a lack of editing, the highs on the original 16-track album far surpass the highs on the original edition of Midnights (the 3am Edition containing some of the best songs on that project). Whereas Midnights felt glossy and superficial at times (“Lavender Haze,” “Bejeweled”), Tortured Poets is a brutally self-conscious album that takes lyrical risks never seen on a Taylor album until now. Take for example Tortured Poets’ “But Daddy I Love Him,” an inverted “Love Story” that takes a vicious stab at Taylor’s most psychotic fans who are “vipers dressed in empath’s clothing.” As a recovering “pathological people pleaser,” criticizing her own fan base in an intentionally melodramatic, petulant song that references “The Little Mermaid” is truly daring for her. One of my favorite songs on the album (and increasingly one of my favorite Taylor songs of all time), “loml” is brimming with gorgeous, stripped-back lyricism. In just a few lines such as “You shit-talked me under the table / Talking rings and talking cradles / I wish I could un-recall / How we almost had it all,” Taylor captured the raw, reeling grief that she experienced over a heartbreak. Songs like “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” expose how depressed and distraught she felt during the Eras Tour, despite her dazzling and seemingly tireless performance on stage. 

Tortured Poets isn’t Taylor’s best album. Nor is it among her best. But she hasn’t reached her creative tipping point. With the Eras tour continuing and two more albums to re-release, Taylor can afford (and literally afford) to truly take her time with the next album. Hiring a different producer who will push her musically and question some of her clunkier lines will ensure that her relentless creativity flourishes without coming at the cost of quality. Taylor may always be a tortured poet, but she can’t remain an unedited one.

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