Album Review: Taylor Swift – The Tortured Poets Department

[Self-released; 2024]

To uncoil the wild little everything 
inside this now, which I am crouching to fit into. 
Three forty seven a.m. in the dooryard. 
Providence. Resolve. Alcohol. 
I am afraid of my dreams. 

– excerpt from “Mild Peril”, Molly Brodak

After a number of turbulent years, I often return to Molly Brodak, the poet who took her life in 2020, days before the first lockdown went into effect. Her writing is deeply moving in its simple but evocative imagery, which reflects on the intense inner turmoil and turbulent life that she endured. It persists not because Brodak was depressed, but because she was able to convey her longing and wrestling without the veil of egocentrism or narcissism. The authenticity of her writing impacts me more than that of so many current writers that are much more successful, who focus on urban language or mundane observations, yet those writers seem to gather so many more rewards and many more awards by role-playing text message conversations or reproducing grocery store lists. Success, this shows, has more to do with popularity contests than actual quality.

This is a lesson that Taylor Swift has grappled with for years now. As documented in her writing, her interviews and documentary Miss Americana, Swift sees herself as an over-achiever, an outsider who wants to both be the most popular kid in school, but also sit with the cool, hip kids. As I observed in my review of Midnights, she longs to be Laura Palmer (the homecoming queen who hangs with the heartthrob bad boys), but passes by the insight that every homecoming queen has her BOB that ultimately consumes her – if you thought these sort of stories have a happy ending, you’ve not been paying attention!

Swift last navigated this dissonance by resorting to the image of Carrie burning down her hometown in “You’re On Your Own, Kid”. The codified messaging of the deeply personal Folklore and Evermore seemed to be out in the open, all the clues evident and transparent to pick apart. So it came with a strange bereavement when Swift announced in no unclear terms that The Tortured Poets Department would be, finally, her most honest, unedited, uncensored work.

Now finally, two months later, after ‘keeping this secret’ for two years, the great work is finished and released, in this writer’s hands in form of the ‘Black Dog’ limited special edition vinyl, and the record is… complicated. Well, here goes, one more tequila shot to start the journey – let’s do it for the content, shall we?

The Tortured Poets Department is Taylor Swift’s most difficult and least accessible work, a deeply inconsistent collection of 16 bittersweet songs in the soft synth-shade of the bonus ‘vault’-tracks at the tail end of 1989 (Taylor’s Version). It is deeply torn and filled with contradictions, often evident within the same song-framework, leading to a myriad of disappointments and fixations, hype and bafflement. In that, it manages to both sound like so many other Taylor Swift records, but is also like no other one.

Reviewing it – or scoring it – is not easy at all, evident through the reactions of both Swifties and the wider public sphere that sit on all shades of the critical spectrum: there seem to be as many admirers of the record as there are haters, everywhere, no matter if superfan or staunch critic. But there is a starting point, in the titular declaration: the artist, for the first time ever, unchained.

The interesting resolution of this proposition is that much of Swift’s revelations are no surprises. The self-declaration as ‘tortured poet’ is, in essence, sarcastic. Swift is aware – and casually playing – with her occasional self-seriousness, much like she did a decade ago in the video for “Shake It Off”. Yes, she examines her life and inner workings with clinical precision, but can also scoff at her own process.

Still, as mentioned above, the contradictions of her self-perception are curious. On the album’s opener, “Fortnight” (not “Fortnite”), she opens with the admission of being a high-functioning alcoholic – but this struggle has been evident to any fan who observed how, since Reputation, images of alcohol, drinking and bars have made recurring appearances in her writing, not to mention the drinking-contest Swift had with herself in the “Anti-Hero” music video (which ends in vomiting). “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” has Swift postulate that she is “miserable and no one even knows” – but fans had pointed out the often dead serious and sad tone of interpersonal relationship struggles throughout Lover, Folklore and Evermore for years. Talking about these topics was considered taboo even in the innermost fan circles and if publicised shot down by the artist herself or her representatives. If anything, it finally reveals what so many had long suspected: that Swift is a narrator of her public image, and that not everything that is broadcast aligns (also something Swift often pointed out in interviews). There’s nothing wrong with this, and most public personas do this anyway, but it reframes the focus of how Swift has, at times, been idealised and had her words taken as gospel, when she herself discouraged people to accept everything which they think they perceive… while still armouring herself to combat public curiosity.

So much for the overall modus that the album commits to, but what does it sound like? Well, the 16 tracks seem evenly split in the middle. The first half mostly commits to a soft focus, 80s synth-pop texture that fits into the mould of aforementioned 1989 TV vault songs and some of Midnights‘ bonus tracks – a slow moving, mid-tempo collection that is hard to be euphoric about.

“Fortnight” chooses a hushed tone and resembles the iconic Drive needle drop “A Real Hero”. It’s an odd choice for lead single, but thankfully a strong music video boosts the mood, and the lyrics are quite good. Yes, Swift’s naked revelation of struggling with alcohol is commendable, but there’s also other pretty good writing here: “And for a fortnight there, we were forever / Run into you sometimes, ask about the weather / Now you’re in my backyard, turned into good neighbors / Your wife waters flowers, I wanna kill her”. Post Malone guests, but his pleasant organ remains flavourless.

The title-track follows: a reflection on Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”, it lacks an engaging hook, and also features an instantly memed-to-death faux pas line: “You smokеd, then ate seven bars of chocolate / We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist / I scratch your head, you fall asleep / Like a tattooed golden retriever”. Other writers already focused on why the Puth line is so bizarre, so I’d rather circle in on an earlier line: “You left your typewriter at my apartment / Straight from the tortured poets department / I think some things I never say / Like, “Who uses typewriters anyway?”” It’s an interesting one, because it highlights Swift’s suspicion towards hipster fetishism: why use something as archaic as an outdated machine to write? The answer is, of course, because the engagement with tangible physicality – clanking metal and smearing ink that can’t be erased – induces a process that, in itself, reflects a struggle, a form of meditation and acceptance of flaws. This is the same lurid energy that Dylan Thomas and Patti Smith exude with their art, which Swift namedrops here, concluding: “You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel / We’rе modern idiots”. She’s self-mocking, but possibly she should aspire to enter the creative streamline of those two and their peers – they’re not great poets because they were tortured, but because they abandoned the pretence of wanting to be popular, and committed to forms of meditation to birth complicated art.

But then, the song could possibly just be a light hearted nod to her friendship with Phoebe Bridgers (who is definitely friendlier with the namechecked Lucy Dacus than Matty Healy, has a song called “Dylan Thomas” and apparently praised Puth on her radio program) and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

“Down Bad” is not much to sing home about – a bit of a Midnights leftover that plays with alien abduction imagery, it won’t communicate strong emotions. It also showcases an issue with Swift’s lyricism throughout Department: quite often, the musician picks a topic for a song (here: Alien abductions) and then creates metaphor-chains meant to describe the situation, leaving very little room to breathe. In the past, this approach was a little airier (“My Tears Ricochet” is a positive example), here it can feel claustrophobic, as the central emotions shift to the side behind the metaphorical alignments.

Thankfully “Down Bad” is enveloped by the two strongest songs of this first half. “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” has a singalong refrain that plays with up-and-down movements, Swift exploring her vocal range throughout and a nifty reference to the Barbie movie. Ostensibly written about Matty Healy, the song could as well be about the difficult working relationships Swift had with men who built her up just to try and take her down, rinse repeat. It’s a genuinely strong, punchy track.

“So Long London” is even better, opening with a choir and diving into a pretty, bubbling minimalist Aaron Dessner production. It’s no mystery anymore that every fifth track of a Swift album is the heart of the project, so it’s no surprise that the song addresses the split with longtime partner Joe Alwyn. It allows Swift to deliver some very emotional moments, her voice expressing anger and grief, and some of the best lines of the record: “You swore that you loved me, but where were the clues? / I died on the altar waitin’ for the proof / You sacrificed us to the gods of your bluest days / And I’m just getting color back into my face / I’m just mad as hell ’cause I loved this place for / So long, London.” Revisiting the track, it hits all the harder with each consecutive time, especially with how Swift discusses embracing a partner that struggles with depression and seems emotionally distant. These topics were on full display throughout Evermore and Folklore, once more revealing that these songs were much more personal than initially marketed, which connects “So Long, London” emotionally to those narratives and has it rise to their ranks.

“Fresh Out The Slammer” is its chronological follow-up, and reveals a darker side of Swift. Throughout Department, images of prisons, hospitals and asylums abound, suggesting Swift felt trapped and policed. Here she in no uncertain terms alludes that after splitting from Alwyn, she approached Healy, whom she had a brief tryst with when moving to New York a decade ago. While the lyrics here aren’t bad, they certainly are emotionally revealing, so I’d rather let them speak for themselves: “Gray and blue and fights and tunnels / Handcuffed to the spell I was under / For just one hour of sunshine / Years of labor, locks, and ceilings / In the shade of how he was feeling / But it’s gonna be alright, I did my time” – “My friends tried, but I wouldn’t hear it / Watch me daily disappearing / For just one glimpse of his smile / All those nights, he kept me goin’ / Swirled you into all of my poems / Now we’re at the starting line, I did my time”. The line “Swirled you into all of my poems” is likely to send fans down an analytical rabbit hole (were “the 1” and “Maroon” both about Healy, wine stained lips and all?), while the overall imagery of being isolated echoes “Bejeweled”. 

A twist on Swift’s country palette, “Fresh Out The Slammer” is breezy and a nice listen, all sensual anticipation of rebound-sex. The two remaining tracks of the first half are hard hitters, but don’t really manage to come together. “But Daddy I Love Him” does provide a very juicy address of Swift, as she butts heads with overzealous fans. This seems to be a reaction to a public letter that begged Swift to distance herself from Healy, who prominently made a bit of a donkey of himself during their tryst, as evident in a certain racist joke I don’t think anyone reading this hasn’t heard about. Swift’s response to the open letter draws blood: “I’ll tell you something right now / I’d rather burn my whole life down / Than listen to one more second of all this bitchin’ and moanin’ / I’ll tell you something ’bout my good name / It’s mine alone to disgrace / I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing”. Even if the composition (an electrified country song at heart) itself isn’t among Swift’s most memorable ones, the lyrics are so outrageously cheeky and confrontational that it’s sure to stay with many people. Swift has repeatedly called out overzealous fans and discouraged parasocial obsession, stating that she can well defend herself if she thinks she needs to, but this is utterly savage and surely remains in Swift’s canon for a long time.

“Florida!!!”, the hard hitting, theatrical duet with Florence Welsh, seems conceived to do the same, but somehow it seems more plodding than memorable. The heavy drums during the chorus disguise that the verses just feel a little limp. Most notable here is the symbol of Florida that reappears elsewhere on the record, which Swift explained as an image of escapism, associated with criminals who flee and hide out in the sunshine state.

A bit mixed, the first half makes way for the much stronger second half of Department. “Guilty As Sin” is a moody, guitar-led track that has Swift revisit religious imagery (always an indicator of her especially strong songs) and focus on a brief affair that she keeps revisiting in fantasy and songs (“In lowercase, inside a vault” – is she referring to the lower case-type on Folklore?). The sensual guitar work almost frames it akin to a lost Smashing Pumpkins b-side, ca. Mellon Collie, while the lush vocal performance is seductive. The track also prominently references The Blue Nile’s “The Downtown Lights”, which The 1975 sampled, and Matty Healy named as his favourite band, clarifying who Swift is longing for here.

The two intimate ballads in this half are quite effective, too. “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)” discusses Healy’s bad boy appeal and explores sexual innuendo through outlaw metaphors, while the instrumentation is minimal and suggestive. “loml” reduces the palette even further to piano and voice to make way for a lengthy narrative. One of possibly just two songs about Alwyn on the album (for real, who knows with Swift…), it features some of the project’s strongest lines, my personal favourite being: “Oh, what a valiant roar / What a bland goodbye / The coward claimed he was a lion / I’m combing through the braids of lies”.

“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” is its twin, this time focusing on Healy with a no-holds barrage of verbal fists, Swift’s voice distorting in anger when she hits the bridge. “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart” might well be a new Wohlmacher-theme-song, thanks to the incredible Swiftian refrain of “I’m so depressed I act like it’s my birthday / Every day” over manic “I Just Can’t Get Enough”-style synths. It’s so unabashedly unhinged and manic that it’s pure joy, exactly the tea that draws Swifties to her when her modus goes for clowning. Absolutely great and a lock for second single.

Musically, the two most engaging songs come right at the end. Closer “Clara Bow” is a simple guitar-led ballad, all nocturnal glow and emotive vocals, which has Swift postulate that each generation of female artists is compared to their predecessors. Its gorgeous melody and urgent pre-chorus really make it one of her best tracks, just as the instrumentation of “The Alchemy” is one of the better R&B-influenced Swift tracks. Laid back and elegant, it’s a nice listen – sadly, the metaphor-chain here (filled to the brim with football imagery) holds some of the weaker writing, but it can’t really sour the mood of the composition.

“Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” sadly doesn’t quite come together in either composition – which feels both too theatric and lo-fi at the same time – or lyric. Swift portrays herself under the gallows and without teeth, which is odd considering the respect and adoration she’s gotten from press and audiences. “I wanna snarl and show you just how disturbed this has made me / You wouldn’t last an hour in the asylum where they raised me”, she snarls, and while I appreciate the unhinged emotion on display, the pathos of the dramatic composition just can’t fit into the framework of the larger record.

The Tortured Poets Department shifts between very enjoyable moments and somewhat clumsy writing, between bitter reflection and depressed resignation. Perhaps she indeed was gunning for a work such as The Blue Nile’s Hats – which is name-checked twice on “Guilty as Sin” – or Death In June’s Brown Book: ruminative, nocturnal synth-folk pieces that glow with deep esoteric spirituality, embracing melancholy as aesthetics.

When I had my first post-release listening session with fellow travellers of the Swift canon, it was surprising how many of them used terms such as “exhausting” and “ponderous” to describe the release – and a few days into its release, it still seems to divide even hardcore Swifties, possibly heralding a civil war within the fandom. It is odd for Swift, given how good she has been at crafting stories and compositions that stand out, just how low key the album feels, just as with some of the aforementioned metaphor-chains overstaying their novelty. I would not call Department rushed at all, instead it at times can feel laborious and unedited. I previously pointed out the cognitive dissonances of “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”, and it’s possible that just like with this song, the whole of the record represents an inner monologue that she presents without forcing aesthetic changes onto it.

As a whole, the album just somewhat floats by. Tracks have to be picked individually to really reveal their strengths, which makes revisiting Department rewarding, but most casual listeners might just not feel the vibe and not give the record a second chance, further dividing the response to it. But then the record shows a maturation of the singer and willingness to abandon mainstream bangers. 

I also want to say that the Black Dog edition which I acquired on vinyl is now surely one of the most gorgeous releases I own! Many critics harp on about how Swift’s numerous limited edition cover variants are a bit disrespectful to collecting fans who clamour to get them all, but in this case, the high price is rewarded. Not only is the artwork gorgeous, the release includes a booklet within the gatefold jacket that holds beautiful portrait photos of Swift, with the lyrics reproduced in gorgeous typography. It comes across as a luxurious artwork all of its own that merits ownership, a true collectors item!

Sadly, none of this make it any easier for me to rate the entire affair. I enjoy much of the album, but some of it – and by now this seems to form as a bit of a consensus – is among Swift’s weaker material. So instead of trying to come up with a score, or toss a coin randomly into the air, I will feed this text now to our newly acquired BPM-O-METER-AI supercomputer that mechanically mathematically meanders through my words to find the right score. Let’s see, red and blue… buttons… and right… no, left lever… OK this should work, here goes, the score of The Tortured Poets Department is…





I think there’s been a glitch…

SURPRISE! Two hours post-release, Swift revealed that The Tortured Poets Department is a secret double album of 31 songs. Well, that’s kind of unexpected, though it explains all the peace-sign-imagery of two raised fingers and cryptic repetition of 3131313131 in promo posters, which people read as 13. Well, strap in dear readers, and my kind hearted editor, for we are not done at all.

First of all, it’s noteworthy that the claim that this is a double album is, ermh, a little malarkey? Unlike what Deerhunter did with Microcastle, the second batch doesn’t come as a second ‘hidden’ disc, but is only accessible on streaming – possibly good, considering how many people would have fainted or spoiled the surprise when copies shipped early.

Moreover, the second ‘disc’ of 15 songs feels more like an album all of its own, stylistically removed from the first 16 tracks. Most of it is subtle, acoustic folk, with occasional detours, and a cosmology all of its own. While revisiting some topics of the main release, it strikes as the more mature and thought out release, with a more organic and dynamic path. Including the four edition-specific bonus tracks, it is actually focusing on poetic lyricism and Aaron Dessner’s collaborative brilliance. If listened to on its own, it quickly positions itself as a darker counterpart to Folklore, both aesthetically and thematically.

“The Black Dog” is an immediate post-industrial track (something I’m surprised finds a spot in Swift’s catalogue), exploding in blaring shocks during the chorus. The central narrative – Swift following her ex-boyfriend via his mobile GPS that he forgot to turn off – might identify the titular black dog as the Grimm from Harry Potter books, a dark omen that ends up misinterpreted. Is the protagonist avenger or protector when her ex hooks up with a much younger girl?

“I Look In People’s Windows” turns the perspective around, as this time Swift finds herself gazing longingly into the living quarters of strangers, constantly on edge that she might catch the gaze of her lost lover, randomly, to find one last moment of connection. The heartbreaking lyrics are further accentuated by the gorgeous composition, which could be a Sufjan Stevens track, ca. Carrie & Lowell. “The Prophecy” has shades of Javelin, and has Swift bow once more to religious imagery: “And it was written / I got cursed like Eve got bitten / Oh, was it punishment? / Pad around when I get home / I guess a lesser woman would’ve lost hope / A greater woman wouldn’t beg / But I looked to the sky and said / Please / I’ve been on my knees / Change the prophecy”. It’s a fantastic track, all religious anxiety and deeply felt emotional resonance.

In general, the growth of Swift as lyricist is on full display on the second ‘disc’. Take these lines from “Peter”: “Lost to the Lost Boys chapter of your life / Forgive me, Peter, please know that I tried / To hold on to the days when you were mine / But the woman who sits by the window / Has turned out the light”. Revisiting the “Peter losing Wendy” line from “Cardigan”, Swift explores the idea of inhabiting Peter Pan instead of just jogging through metaphor-chains.

In the painfully pretty “Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus”, she completely abandons symbolism for cohesive, emotional writing, while Dessner’s guitar rises and falls: “Could it be enough to just float in your orbit? / Can we watch our phantoms like watching wild horses? / Cooler in theory, but not if you force it to be / It just didn’t happen”. One of Swift’s best tracks (period), the song also seemingly rips open a massive mystery in the singer’s catalogue, reconnecting past characters of the last couple albums to… Matty Healy. In the lines “you have some kids with an internet starlet / Will that make your memory fade from this scarlet maroon?” seems to hint at Healy’s relationship to instagram sensation Gabriette,while the drop of “Maroon” links to the song that connects rosé to “the 1”. This is of course all speculation, but will keep Swift-analysts up all night, and shows how far reaching her lyrical cosmos can be.

“How Did It End?” feels like a coda to Lana Del Rey’s “Thunder”, with Swift imagining herself in the constant present of spies and interlopers. Sounding weary and paranoid, Swift resigns her fate to her observers: “Say it once again with feeling / How the death rattle breathing / Silenced as the soul was leaving / The deflation of our dreaming / Leaving me bereft and reeling / My beloved ghost and me / Sitting in a tree / D-Y-I-N-G”. There’s also the genuinely pretty “Cassandra”, which collects gothic imagery of crumbling houses and forlorn towers as Swift imagines herself as the victim of a witch hunt. The limited edition bonus tracks “The Manuscript”, “The Bolter” and “The Albatross” don’t necessarily stand out in the whole, but they’re thoroughly pleasant, enjoyable ballads, perfectly enjoyable in their own right – fans will especially gravitate towards the bookend-tone of “The Manuscript”, as it seems like Swift autobiographically closing up the story of her past.

Yet there are a few tracks among this second batch that have already become the focus of lots of ridicule, distracting from the better songs – with all the drama and memes and ridicule surrounding them, they stand out like sore thumbs when approaching this second ‘disc’. “thanK you aIMee” is quite clearly directed at Kim Kardashian, as it opens with “When I picture my hometown / There’s a bronze, spray-tanned statue of you / And a plaque underneath it / That threatens to push me down the stairs at our school”. Acidic and bubbly, the country song is elevated in importance by its lyrics, while the instrumentation is on the weaker side of the batch – which also make the somewhat banal synth-pop track “imgonnagetyouback” into an instant skip upon replays.

More memorable, there is “I Hate It Here” which… OK, fine, the line about “the 1830s but without all the racists” is stupid, yes, but the instrumentation is genuinely gorgeous, and Swift’s position in the song is about coming from a deeply privileged background that smothered her growth. In “Down Bad”, she notes “Everything comes out teenage petulance”, sort of reflecting on how immature her lyricism ends up in depression – while this isn’t an excuse, at least it’s self aware of those tendencies, and it could be argued Swift uses those clumsy lines in a way of purging both her immaturity and insecurities by just throwing them out there for everyone to see. When she mentions the “circus life” and “asylum where they raised [her]” in “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”, then maybe a glance at the recently leaked email of her father composed during her ascension to achieved teen artist will explain this better.

And speaking of “teenage petulance”, there’s “So High School”, a throwback at millennial soft rock in the vein of Third Eye Blind and Avril Lavigne, which is filled with clumsy lyrics that already spawned tons of jokes. I read it as her euphoria upon first dating Healy, as new love renders everything just as exciting as transgressing first boundaries in high school, spinning the bottle and sloppily kissing. Still, “You know how to ball, I know Aristotle / Brand-new, full throttle / Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto” is indeed clumsy beyond imagination, although I was more baffled by “I’m watchin’ American Pie with you on a Saturday night / Your friends are around, so be quiet / I’m trying to stifle my sighs”. If anything, the clumsy rhyme scheme that runs through the song almost feels fully intentional, like a meta-attempt to compose a dumb Weezer or Ryan Adams style “let’s booze and bang” vocal for 19 year olds to make out to, and… it kind of works! In the same vein that “Teenage Dirtbag” and Liz Phair’s “H.W.C.” is so enjoyable. Yes, I acknowledge it is a dumb song, but it’s vastly fun! Hey, old habits die screaming after all.

However, this bares the achilles heel of The Tortured Poets Department‘s lyrical core: Swift’s sense of irony and earnestness collides head-on. Throughout, she marches from truly great lyricism that is on par with the very best of her contemporary idols and peers to unfiltered writing that leads to more ridicule on TikTok than engagement with the listener. Musically, the project is also split between deeply engaging material that is her best yet, while the main album at times just seems too homogenous for its own good in locked in mid-tempo and synth-pop.

Aesthetically, the suggestion to have the project be released as two independent albums that came out the same day would have made more sense than to do a surprise drop that isn’t even included on the physical release. Perhaps Swift should have committed to cut it down to 18 songs. So in an experiment, here is the BPM-approved Tortured Phantoms Society, an experimental suggestion at a somewhat shortened listen, for those who were disappointed but feel like they want to give the record a second try. I would certainly argue that within the 31 tracks, Swift’s best album could potentially exist.

As is, it’s still impossible to rate properly. Concentrating on the main record means ignoring the bulk of best songs within the project and having to focus on some of her weaker compositions – and rating them individually wouldn’t fit with Swift’s intention of release. Uniting them both opens up other trap doors, and the runtime of 2 hours 2 minutes is a factor that also plays into it. So here’s a solution: within the logo of the record’s title, the P and D form a disguised Yin and Yang. This aligns with the colour-coding of the main album being white and ‘The Anthology’ picking the black artwork of the ‘Black Dog’ edition. It also fits with the differing aesthetics of synthesizer pop and singer-songwriter folk. So that’s how I rate the record, a united cycle of Yin and Yang, and – as our shiny new AI is broken (blergh!) – I leave the numerical choice to the democratic power of our editorial. In its vast spectrum, The Tortured Poets Department is a unique experience that, even with all its flaws, merits engagement.