Arts and Entertainment

Taylor’s Tortured Listener’s Department

The Tortured Poets Department fails spectacularly in trying, with its recycled ideas and sounds that become dated from release.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Chuer Zhong

During the pandemic, Taylor Swift nurtured her art without the presumption of appeasing an audience. As revealed in a 2020 Apple Music interview, in the end, she had more than enough songs for two albums. However, Taylor Swift’s prolificity as a songwriter during the pandemic didn’t dilute the potency of her pen—quite the contrary. Folklore (2020) strings together an hour-long collection of meditative ballads that become greater than the sum of its songs. Amidst fictional tales of a quaint American countryside, Folklore’s thematic line of contrition and loneliness stood out because of how it mirrored pandemic isolation. Her ability to exercise her artistry during this period of uncertainty was hailed by her fans as a testament to her brilliance, and it’s not hard to see why. From Swift’s cutting lyricism (“They told me all my cages were mental / so I got wasted like all my potential”) to Folklore’s engaging take on feminine rage, she seemed set for a rich artistic renaissance. However, unlike her millions of fans stuck at home, she was in her mansion pondering over poetry on her Notes app. She’s producing carbon dioxide like a flying smokestack. After the record-shattering commercial success of her Eras Tour—which boosted the US economy by $5.7 billion—the distance between Swift and her fans grew almost at the rate of her success, creating a larger-than-life Taylor, seemingly too big to fail. This attitude culminates in her latest record, The Tortured Poets Department

The most jarring impediment to this album, by far, is its production. Jack Antonoff is a production icon; his virtuosity is utilized in a range of modern pop classics, such as Lorde’s Melodrama (2017) and Lana Del Rey’s Norman [EXPLETIVE] Rockwell (2019). He’s worked with Swift for over a decade on some of her most pivotal records, such as 1989 (2014) and Folklore (2020). Midnights (2023) represented a very noticeable decline in quality, as Antonoff gave Swift some of the driest ‘80s production of the style’s recent revival era. On The Tortured Poets Department, he decides to double down on the doom and gloom of Midnights, conjuring track after track of sludge. He drowns Post Malone in autotune on the already static opener “Fortnight,” gives the album drums that sound like garbage-can lids, and backs “But Daddy I Love Him” with the grating theatrics of a heart medication ad, or some coming-of-age teen flick. However, Antonoff alone shouldn’t be blamed for the album’s blunders; instead, his partnership with Swift is culpable. Creative bankruptcy after a decade of unending collaboration is bleak, but inevitable. 

Swift uncharacteristically fumbles her lyricism and struggles to make good on her promise of decent poetry on an album centered around it. Despite the attitude adopted by many netizens that billionaires like her don’t deserve pity, one can’t help but feel sympathy for her severe case of workaholism. Holding a 152-stadium tour in dozens of cities is a spirit-crushing undertaking for even the toughest of workhorses… but someone should tell her to put the pen down and go for a walk. If she doesn’t take the downtime to evolve, fans will continually be fed lyrics like “Now I’m down bad crying at the gym,” “You know how to ball, I know Aristotle … Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto,” or “We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist” (no we absolutely did not). Some could argue that the juvenile lyrics are intentionally immature and actually paint the youthful excitement Swift’s partner makes her feel. But ultimately, it lacks the finesse or charm that was once so distinctly characteristic of her music—did a different Swift write “Lover” or “Paper Rings”? It doesn’t help that most of the glue that sticks this album together is Matty Healy, lead singer of The 1975 (and internet public enemy number one). “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)” paints Healy as the broken partner and Swift as the fixer while on “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” Swift reuses the same idea, this time with corny wordplay involving toys: “I felt more when we played pretend / Than with all the Kens / Cause he took me out of my box.” There’s limited emotional nuance on these tracks, since Swift always ends up the victim—even on “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can),” there’s an audience watching, “sh[aking] their heads,” as Swift defends a toxic relationship with no telling sign of irony or self-reflection. 

The only true flash of greatness appears on the twelfth track, “Loml.” Swift mourns a haunted relationship, singing “Our field of dreams engulfed in fire / Your arson’s match, your somber eyes / And I’ll still see it until I die.” She switches “love of my life” to “loss of my life” at the very end—it’s the kind of songwriting and conceptual thinking that earned Swift her renown. It’s just unfortunate that it took 40 minutes to get there.  

The official album is an hour long, but Swift, ever the capitalist queen, dropped another hour of music only two hours after the original’s release. Streaming services incentivize longer albums, so it makes sense from a business perspective. Sadly, The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology falls short of memorable (at least for the right reasons) and is at times even more derivative than the official album. “Imgonnagetyouback” copies the same wordplay from Olivia Rodrigo’s “Get Him Back!” and does so with much less panache; “thanK you aIMee” literally spells out her stale beef with Kim Kardashian, wrapped in a strange metaphor of schoolyard bullies that’s exasperatingly immature; “So High School” contains that infamous “Grand Theft Auto” line. Thanks to production by Aaron Dessner on the deluxe, the sounds are generally much smoother and lush, and Swift sounds at least human, not the reverb-heavy Taylor-bot manufactured by Antonoff.

Though critical discourse of this album appears to be split, only a die-hard Swiftie could truly love this album. Swift has become the Marvel Studios of the music industry, with easter eggs that fans must comb through, extended and ever-enlarging storylines, business ventures that come at the cost of the art, and commercial success that seems too big ever to fall. Hopefully, she’s able to take some of the negative reception of this album as a call to take a break—the ever-widening Taylor-sized hole in the ozone shouldn’t be her lasting legacy as a musician. The Tortured Poets Department doesn’t feel like a representation of her artistry, but rather a negative side-effect of workaholism.