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Review: ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ shines at its best, but crashes at its worst

Liza Sheehy

When the clock struck midnight April 19, the world listened to Taylor Swift’s 11th studio album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” for the first time. 

Two hours later, fans listened to the album for the first time again, in the form of a surprise double album called “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.

The album, which has been long-awaited since its announcement at the 2024 Grammy Awards in February, consists of 31 tracks — 16 on the original album and an additional 15 on “The Anthology.” At their strongest, these songs are incredible examples of lyricism and musicianship.

Swift has a reputation for delivering intense, powerful bridges, and she followed through with “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived.” In the song, she asked the subject why they hurt her the way they did, wondering if it was an act of deception all along — “Were you writing a book? Were you a sleeper cell spy? / In fifty years, will this all be declassified?” As the instruments grow in power alongside Swift’s vocals, the titular “smallest man” is torn to shreds.

Swift is also known for her track fives, which she considers to be her most vulnerable and emotional songs. In the newest fifth track, “So Long, London,” Swift sings about a woman seemingly waiting for a wedding that never came to be, saying “You swore you loved me, but where were the clues? / I died on the altar waiting for the proof.” Along with an enchanting introduction emulating the sounds of wedding bells, the song also includes callbacks to “You’re Losing Me,” a “Midnights: From the Vault” song with references to marriage. The emotionally-devastating track five feeds into rumors that Swift’s relationship with Joe Alwyn ended because he didn’t want to marry her.

With the release of her new album, Swift just might’ve released the best collaboration of her career. Featuring indie rock band Florence + the Machine, “Florida!!!” masterfully combines the two artists’ capabilities. When singing together, Swift’s lighter and higher registers beautifully mesh with the lower and richer register of the band’s lead singer, Florence Welch. Along with some of the most exciting instrumentation of the album, “Florida!!!” is one of the most enveloping listens of Swift’s latest endeavor.

Despite these highs, there are various points throughout where the album leans toward the “tortured” side of its name rather than the “poets” side.

The sixth track, “But Daddy I Love Him,” rubs off on the listener in one of the worst ways possible. In the song, Swift seemingly tells her critics she couldn’t care less about their thoughts on her lover — “I’d rather burn my whole life down / Than listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning,” she angrily tells the listener. 

The problem with this song, however, arises with the lover’s identity — most likely Matty Healy. Last spring, Swift was rumored to be dating The 1975’s leading man, and fans were not happy. Many raised concerns regarding Healy’s previous racist and misogynistic behavior; however, “But Daddy I Love Him” makes it seem as if the backlash was just baseless hate. Because of this, the song reads worse with each listen.

Additionally, on the track “imgonnagetyouback,” the lyrics bear a strong resemblance to “get him back!” by Olivia Rodrigo. In the song, Swift expresses indecision regarding her feelings toward a past lover, saying “Whether I’m going to be your wife or / Gonna smash up your bike, I haven’t decided yet / But I’m gonna get you back,” similarly to how Rodrigo did in her song. Given the speculation about Swift threatening legal action against Rodrigo for similarities between “Cruel Summer” and “deja vu,” the similarities between the two songs reflect poorly on Swift.

One of the glaring issues with “The Tortured Poets Department” — for the first half, at least — is that the production sounds strikingly similar to that of Swift’s 2022 album “Midnights.” The first half is mostly produced by Jack Antonoff — well-known music producer, Swift’s long-time collaborator and lover of synthesizers, or synths. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with the use of synths, the duo’s frequent use of the instrument is becoming an issue. With the excessive use of synths, it increases the chances of Swift’s new songs sounding like her older ones.

When “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” was released last October, one of its main criticisms was that the vault tracks sounded as if they could’ve been on “Midnights” — the same thing happened with “The Tortured Poets Department.”

The double album is proof that Swift needs to step away from the synths and try something new. In “The Anthology,” Aaron Dessner, another one of Swift’s frequent collaborators, produced the majority of the tracks, and it is clear they differ from her past albums. Despite having slower tracks akin to those on “folklore” and “evermore,” many of the bonus tracks feel more stripped down and intimate, giving it a different feel from its predecessors. The same cannot be said for the first half of the album.

Although it’s clear Swift has found a sound she and many of her fans love with “The Tortured Poets Department,” it’s only a matter of time before the general public grows tired of it. She needs to step out of the comfort zone she’s found herself in and create an album that feels innovative and new in order to keep her sound fresh.

About the Contributors
Laura Emde
Laura Emde, Deputy Lifestyle Editor
Laura Emde is a third-year media and screen studies and journalism major with a minor in music industry. She is one of the current deputy lifestyle editors and has previously been a part of The News as a social media team member, copy editor and staff writer. She says to stream "Speak Now (Taylor's Version)."
Liza Sheehy
Liza Sheehy, Design Editor
Liza Sheehy is a third-year history, culture, and law major with a minor in Spanish and journalism studies. She is currently serving as deputy design editor for The News. Liza is originally from Baltimore, Maryland and has been designing for The News since spring 2022.
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