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Album review: ‘THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT’ is chaired by sultry slang, melodramatic monotony

Taylor Swift clutches her torso as she lays across pillows and sheets on the cover of “THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT.” The 2023 TIME Person of the Year released her 11th studio album, which included a surprise follow-up anthology late into the night. (Courtesy of Republic Records)

“THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT”

Taylor Swift

Republic Records

April 19

By Olivia Simons

April 19, 2024 4:09 p.m.

This post was updated April 21 at 11:37 p.m.

While the poet may be tortured, the poems themselves exude both monotony and melodrama.

Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift dropped her 11th studio album Friday in the form of a surprise double album “THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT: THE ANTHOLOGY.” The album explores the singer’s experiences with prior relationships while weaving themes of addiction, manipulation, parenthood and family through the 31-song marathon. The first 16 songs, which were released two hours before the second album and dubbed simply “THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT,” give insight into Swift’s personal life and continue building on the sounds of her last album, “Midnights,” but fail to deliver the sonic variety or depth of prior lyric-forward works such as “folklore” or “evermore.”

The album opens with Swift’s collaboration with Post Malone titled “Fortnight.” While Swift had praised Post Malone’s lyricism and ability to create a catchy melody before the track’s release, she relegated his vocals mostly to the background of the track, reminiscent of Lana Del Rey’s fleeting guest appearance on “Snow On The Beach” from “Midnights.” The track quickly introduces Swift’s discussions of addiction, death, and on-and-off relationships present throughout the album. It’s a slow, slightly building track that presents the album as instrumentally laid back but lyrically heavy. Swift has not been known for selecting the strongest pieces on her albums as singles, and this trend continues with her selection of “Fortnight” to represent “THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT.”

The next few tracks nearly identify Swift’s ex-partners by name while using metaphors and allusions to describe issues in a romantic relationship, such as self-sabotaging and emotionally manipulative behaviors. The title track “The Tortured Poets Department” fails to provide a truly exciting moment to differentiate itself from “Fortnight,” which follows into the third track, “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys.”

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Swift oscillates between timeless references in her lyrics and what are almost hard-to-listen-to references to modern pop culture expressions. “Down Bad” starts off with space metaphors and futuristic synth riffs but transitions into Swift describing herself as “down bad, cryin’ at the gym,” immediately pulling the listener out of any sense of fantasy with the unfortunate use of slang and curse words littered throughout the song.

The wordsmith fails to write a song worthy of the vocal prowess of guest vocalist Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine in their collaboration “Florida!!!” Just as Swift did with Paramore lead vocalist Hayley Williams on “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)” track “Castles Crumbling,” she did not give Welch the chance to truly shine vocally, putting into question Swift’s decision to include the artists on these songs. Welch’s verse remains hauntingly beautiful and interesting, benefiting the track with contrast between Swift and Welch’s particularly distinct vocals.

While “Midnights” also faced criticism for production similarities across each song, “THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT” suffers even more from monotonous and occasionally awkward production. The latter album’s tone compliments a songwriter who has matured and looked back on her relationships. However, the synth-pop numbers lack intrigue, and the lyrics leave something to be desired from the seemingly great deal of source material Swift draws from. “Guilty as Sin?” succeeds production-wise until the transition from bridge into final chorus, where the song goes quiet and then picks up with the chorus’ lyrics while gradually reincorporating the instrumentals in a clunky, jumbled moment that leads into a less-than-satisfying final hook.

The next track, “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” helps save the album’s monotony with a quietly powerful crescendo centered on Swift nearly yelling the track title at the media, which she likens to a circus and herself to a caged animal. The lyric, “You wouldn’t last an hour in the asylum where they raised me,” hearkens back to several references to hospitalization for mental health or addiction issues as she continually alludes to struggles she faced growing up in a world of constant critical media attention.

“I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)” is almost a triumph but lacks the oomph and intrigue to move it to that level. It’s a sultry, country-folk track with a catchy hook and Western imagery that details a woman’s conviction that only she can help her problematic partner. The production is a bit lacking and could have benefited from stronger background vocals and a richer mix of bass or banjo to round out the song’s sound and twang.

[Related: Album review: Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights’ concept becomes lost in experimental synth haze]

“loml,” on the other hand, succeeds because of its simplicity. The entire song consists of Swift’s soft vocals and a simple repeating piano tune to support lyrics describing Swift and her partner in a purgatory between marriage and death. Swift then injects the album with a dose of almost off-putting bubblegum pop synth in “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.” The sound and lyrics, particularly the line “I cry a lot, but I am so productive, it’s an art,” sound too simple and straightforward compared to Swift’s prior work and efforts to show not tell when songwriting.

“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” builds at a massively satisfying rate, slow through the first few verses and choruses and later pulsing drums, violins and background vocals that propel Swift into declaring “And you deserve prison, but you won’t get time.” She then concludes the song with “And I’ll forget you, but I’ll never forgive / The smallest man who ever lived.” It’s the album’s sure-fire standout track and could have rounded out the original track list without the last two songs.

On their own, the songs of “THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT” provide listeners with a synth-pop look behind the curtain into Swift’s experiences with relationships and addiction. As a whole, however, the album’s songs struggle to differentiate themselves from each other, and many tracks could be sorted into an easy listening playlist rather than works that can grab and keep a listener’s attention.

Swift’s “THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT” promised drama and sultriness in its marketing, but it instead packed synth and slang into over an hour of repetition.

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Olivia Simons | Quad editor
Simons is the 2023-2024 Quad editor and a Sports senior staffer on the women's tennis beat. She was previously the 2022-2023 managing editor, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's tennis, men's tennis, swim and dive and rowing beats and a reporter on the baseball and women's tennis beats. She is also a fourth-year student from Oakland, California.
Simons is the 2023-2024 Quad editor and a Sports senior staffer on the women's tennis beat. She was previously the 2022-2023 managing editor, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's tennis, men's tennis, swim and dive and rowing beats and a reporter on the baseball and women's tennis beats. She is also a fourth-year student from Oakland, California.
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