Taylor Swift - The Tortured Poets Department album review: underwhelming and clunky

Taylor Swift - The Tortured Poets Department album review: underwhelming and clunky

While Taylor Swift has long occupied the top tier of pop, she’s now a titan of the genre, and with the arrival of The Tortured Poets Department this morning, she is easily the most successful singer in the world.

And when it comes to the art of carving out a personal mythology through music, nobody can match Swift right now. Over the course of almost 20 years, she has steadily forged a complex language of symbols, motifs, and numerology in her songwriting, and her songs often feel like puzzles packed with personal revelations, just ready to be cracked. So the arrival of a new album – and a surprise second installment of extra tracks two hours later, turning it into an “anthology” – is not just a chance to get acquainted with a new batch of potential pop bangers; it’s also the chance for dedicated Swifties to put on their deerstalkers and start excavating the lyrics for clues.

At the time of her last release, Midnights in 2022, she seemed happily coupled up with the actor Joe Alwyn, but plenty has changed since; namely, the ending of that relationship, a subsequent fling with The 1975’s Matty Healy, and now her relationship with Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce. In other words, there’s plenty to get into here.

When it comes to the art of carving out a personal mythology through music, nobody can match Swift

As you’d expect, all of these loose threads inevitably feed into The Tortured Poets Department. Several familiar references to real people pop up throughout the record (if the cigarette-smoking, Dylan Thomas-obsessed typewriter enthusiast on the title-track isn’t at least partially based on Healy, I’ll eat my library card), but the majority of the saddest, most affecting moments concern the ending of her six-year relationship with Alwyn.

Throughout, the album seemingly flits between these two relationships. The consistent production of the 16-track starting point — which mostly retreads the path of Midnights’ cool, restrained synth-pop — serves as a steady, if predictable, backdrop. The album’s lyrical voice, meanwhile, is much less cohesive. On Healy, Swift is resoundingly defensive. But Daddy I Love Him, named after a line from Disney’s 1989 (of course!) film The Little Mermaid, casts those who disapproved of their brief relationship as puritanical pearl-clutchers, or “elders” convening down at City Hall.

 (PR Handout)
(PR Handout)

On Swift’s more paired back surprise drop of bonus tracks, which brings already-announced bonus tracks The Manuscript, The Bolter, The Black Dog and The Albatross into the fold (previously, they were available as limited edition vinyl versions), things head in a much more intimate, acoustic-led direction, though it is driven by the same blend of rage, sadness, and wit. “Whether I'm gonna be your wife, or gonna smash up your bike, I haven't decided yet” she says on Anthology addition imgonnagetyouback.

Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus, also a surprise anthology addition, is even more brutal in its appraisal. “You saw my bones out with somebody new, who seemed like he would've bullied you in school,” she bites, “and you just watched it happen.”

Sometimes, though, her one-liners feel like they’ve been spewed out of a satirical Beat poem generator. For instance, the title-track’s clumsy cadence. “You smoked, and then ate seven bars of chocolate,” she sings, “We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist. I scratch your head, you fall asleep, like a tattooed Golden Retriever”. Somebody call the RSPCA!

On My Boy Breaks His Favourite Toys, a clunky reference to “all the Kens” feels hollow and opportunistic post the blockbuster Barbie movie, and while Down Bad features plenty of snappy, 1989-styled gloss, its chorus is also broadly underwhelming. “Now I’m down bad crying at the gym.”

This jars tonally with more imaginative, fantastical moments, such as on Fortnight. On the Post Malone-featuring opener (which would hit just as hard without him) Swift channels melodrama, playing a jilted Miss Havisham character glaring over a white picket fence at an ex’s imagined new happy life. “Now you’re in my backyard, turned into good neighbours,” she snarls, “your wife waters flowers, I wanna kill her.”

Elsewhere, like on the devastatingly simple LOML, the wit falls away to reveal something far plainer and sadder; there’s little decoding needed to figure out what unnavigable chasm caused a lengthy relationship to end. “You shit-talked me under the table,” she sings over spare, echoing piano, “talking rings and talking cradles, wish I could un-recall how we almost had it all.”

So Long, London — which emerges from choral bursts into frantic, humming synthesisers — is equally cutting. “I left all I knew, you left me at the house by the Heath,” Swift sings, detailing her realisation that the love couldn’t be resuscitated before calmly letting rip with the most stinging line of all. “And I’m pissed off, you let me give you all that youth for free.”

Sometimes, her one-liners feel like they’ve been spewed out of a satirical Beat poem generator

Both of these stand-out tracks are produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who last collaborated with Swift on her 2020 albums Folklore and Evermore, and feels slightly underused here. Their sparse, uneasy songs about time slipping away into bottomless gulfs are genuinely affecting, but also jar with Swift and Jack Antonoff’s thumping, shimmering pop elsewhere on the album.

As well as serving as a post-mortem on love, The Tortured Poets Department also bears similarities with 2017’s Reputation; though it has none of the harshness, it gives a more subtle version of its knack for pantomime villainy, and also examines Swift’s complex relationship with fame. The bright and bizarre Florida!!! features a theatrical guest verse from Florence and The Machine, who gamely takes things in a meta direction (“Is that a bad thing to say in a song?”) as Swift rolls her eyes at public speculation. “They said I was a cheat, I guess it must be true,” she shrugs.

Though Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me occasionally suffers from clunky, weighed down abstraction, its most self-aware zingers cut like a knife. “I’m always drunk on my own tears, isn’t that what they all said? That I’ll sue you if you step on my lawn. That I’m fearsome, and I’m wretched, and I’m wrong. Put narcotics into all of my songs, and that’s why you’re still singing along.”

 (PR Handout)
(PR Handout)

On the album’s closer Clara Bow, Swift jokingly foists a self-comparison onto her eventual successor. “You look like Taylor Swift in this light....” she sings. “You’ve got edge, she never did.”

And on anthology track thanK you aIMee (is that a Kardashian reference in the weirdly-styled title?) she is even more pointedly defiant: “I wrote a thousand songs that you find uncool,” she says, “I built a legacy which you can't undo.”

Dissecting heartbreak, and the complications of trying to navigate it in the glare of public scrutiny, may well make for ripe songwriting fuel, but as an idea, it is nothing new. And sonically, The Tortured Poets Department feels like ground that has already been trodden.

Its glacial, artfully restrained synth-pop frames the storytelling well, but will come as no surprise. That said, the way that Swift approaches the difficult and intensely complicated topic of fertility is both moving and refreshing.

I’m ultimately left wishing there was much more of this frankness. There are no doubt countless lyrical puzzles here, waiting to be unpicked, but The Tortured Poets Department is at its most potent when it does away with all of the arch devices and spells it out plainly.

The Tortured Poets Department is out now