Album Reviews

Taylor Swift – The Tortured Poets Department

(Republic) UK release date: 19 April 2024


The star of her generation’s 11th album has much to enjoy, yet she could benefit from some new lenses through which to view the world

Taylor Swift - The Tortured Poets Department Has there been a cultural phenomenon since Beatlemania that’s reached the heights that Taylor Swift is currently scaling? Michael Jackson, maybe. There’s something about her omnipotence (and omnipresence) that feels like she’s the star of this generation, our generational talent. 

In an obvious sense, Swift’s career has also followed that of the Fab Four too – her albums have become more critically acclaimed (or at least critically studied) and taken more seriously as her songwriting has developed. She’s also stuck with the same team for years, which has helped her body of work cultivate a sense of cohesion from the inside – put simply, there’s nothing on this new album that wouldn’t have fit on any of her previous four.

Midnights aside (it felt, and still feels, like a transitional album), she’s been on a run of good-to-great albums since the very start of her career. The Tortured Poets Department is no different, but it never really threatens to become a ‘great’ record, like Folklore or Red

This is mainly down to the downsides. It’s too long – also not helped by the fact that mere hours after it was released, Swift announced the release of a 15-track ‘sister’ album, The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, which now gives it the feel of a double album without necessarily giving casual listeners the impetus to listen to both parts.

The relative homogeneity of the production – from the beats and the instrumentation to the delivery of the lyrics – could also be a hinge point for those not already wrapped up in Taylormania, as she’s taken a leaf out of collaborator Aaron Dessner’s book and stripped back the production on lots of these tracks until they resemble the sonic equivalent of stainless steel (the main flaw in much of The National’s recent work). Not that the music sounds hollow or lifeless per se, but it certainly feels a few steps removed from the organic, homegrown thrills you’d get from Speak Now or Fearless

There are good things, and many of them. There are quite obvious and very funny jabs at an unnamed tiny man throughout the album – from his love of a horrible joke, to his inability to read a room, to his resistance to changing for the better. Of course, this couldn’t be long-term ex Joe Alwyn, who is treated with the kind of reverence reserved for a true love, but it’s almost certainly Matty Healy, who one might argue deserves everything Taylor sends his way throughout the record as the criticisms appear to be fair. 

The songs themselves range from the good (the surprisingly energetic I Can Do It With A Broken Heart, throwback ballad But Daddy I Love Him, the extra textures of the Florence + The Machine duet, Florida!!!) to the somewhat samey but still enjoyable (So Long, London; the title track; Fresh Out the Slammer), to the unnecessary retreads (Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?, The Alchemy), to the truly rotten (Down Bad – which can’t manage to disguise its hollowness with truly beautiful textures, and I Can Fix Him). The Florence song in particular takes a couple of artistic risks – thunderous beats, and a surprisingly genuine reflection on the horror of ageing. 

The best songs on the album are the Post Malone feature Fortnight, which is unlike anything Swift’s done in recent years – for the better – and Guilty as Sin?, which would be a highlight on any of her records. These are more than welcome diversions from the narrative too, with the Post Malone song opening the album and Guilty as Sin? providing the strongest lyrics of the whole piece, where the speaker questions just how much intimacy they shared with their lover, and how much of it was really an invention of their own mind. 

A fair criticism of the album, as outlined above, is that there are very few moments here that feel different to things she’s done before – and thus artistically necessary – but this is just where Swift is now in her life. This is her style, this is her way of communicating her art to her audience. Imagine if every AC/DC review criticised their unwillingness to diverge from their now-classic sound? It’d be preposterous. So to expect Taylor to be as willing to take risks now, this deep into her career, is just as ridiculous. 

One criticism must be made, however, and that’s on Swift’s reliance on tired lyrical tropes. Ever since Mean (2010), she’s filled her songs with two constant tropes – narrator as victim (often left behind somewhere – in a car, in a house…), or love as [insert metaphor here], which means that it can never be fulfilling because it’s not real.

It’s becoming increasingly hard to take an artist seriously – especially one this wealthy, who has never not known privilege – when, at 34, they plop out lines about their friends either smelling of weed or babies, or the old bait-and-switch of “I’m having a terrible man’s child… Gotcha! Should have seen your face!” 

Swift needs to find new perspectives, or at least some new lenses through which to view the world, because people who aren’t already die-hards would struggle to tell the difference between many of her songs (lyrically) unless they contained the title of the song – and thankfully many of them do. 

Despite all the millions of albums sold, the millions of tickets sold, the billions of dollars and the sheer endless exponential growth of her stardom, she still hasn’t made the album. One gets the sense that she has a true classic in her, somewhere. All great songwriters do. But this isn’t it. 


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