'The Tortured Poets Department' review: Great sad pop, meditative theatre from Taylor Swift


By AGENCY

'The Tortured Poets Department' reflects the artiste who – at the peak of her powers – has spent the last few years re-recording her life’s work and touring its material. — Republic Records

Who knew what Taylor Swift's latest era would bring? Or even what it would sound like? Would it build off the moodiness of Midnights or the folk of evermore? The country or the '80s pop of her latest re-records? Or its two predecessors in black-and-white covers: the revenge-pop of Reputation and the literary Americana of folklore?

The Tortured Poets Department is an amalgamation of all of the above, reflecting the artist who – at the peak of her powers – has spent the last few years re-recording her life’s work and touring its material, filtered through synth-pop anthems, breakup ballads, provocative and matured considerations.

In moments, her 11th album feels like a bloodletting: A cathartic purge after a major heartbreak delivered through an ascendant vocal run, an elegiac verse, or mobile, synthesized productions that underscore the powers of Swift's storytelling.

And there are surprises. The lead single and opener Fortnight is 1989 grown up – and features Post Malone. It might seem like a funny pairing, but it's a long time coming: Since at least 2018, Swift's fans have known of her love for Malone's Better Now.

But Daddy I Love Him is the return of country Taylor, in some ways – fairytale songwriting, a full band chorus, a plucky acoustic guitar riff, and a cheeky lyrical reversal: "But Daddy I love him / I'm having his baby / No, I'm not / But you should see your faces". (Babies appear on Florida!!! and the bonus track The Manuscript as well.)

The fictitious Fresh Out The Slammer begins with a really pretty psych guitar tone that disappears beneath wind-blown production; the new wave-adjacent My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys brings back Barbie: "I felt more when we played pretend than with all the Kens / 'Cause he took me out of my box."

Even before Florence Welch kicks off her verse in Florida!!!, the chorus' explosive repetition of the song title hits hard with nostalgic 2010s indie rock, perhaps an alt-universe Swiftian take on Sufjan Stevens' Illinois.

As another title states, So Long, London, indeed.

It would be a disservice to read Swift's songs as purely diaristic, but that track – the fifth on this album, which her fans typically peg as the most devastating slot on each album – evokes striking parallels to her relationship with a certain English actor she split with in 2023. Place it next to a sleepy love ode like The Alchemy, with its references to touchdown and cutting someone from the team and well ... art imitates life.

Revenge is still a pervasive theme. But where the reprisal anthems on Midnights were vindictive, on The Tortured Poets Department, there are new complexities: Who's Afraid of Little Old Me? combines the musical ambitiousness of evermore and folklore - and adds a resounding bass on the bridge - with sensibilities ripped from the weapons-drawn, obstinate Reputation. But here, Swift mostly trades victimhood for self-assurance, warts and all.

"Who's afraid of little old me?" she sings. "You should be," she responds.

And yet, The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived may be her most biting song to date: "You didn’t measure up in any measure of a man," she sings atop propulsive piano. "I’ll forget you, but I won’t ever forgive," she describes her target, likely the same tattooed golden retriever, a jejune description, mentioned in the title track.

Missteps are few, found in other mawkish lyrics and songs like Down Bad and Guilty as Sin? that falter when placed next to the album's more meditative pop moments.

Elsewhere, Swift holds up a mirror to her melodrama and melancholy – she's crying at the gym, don't tell her about sad, is she allowed to cry? She died inside, she thinks you might want her dead; she thinks she might just die. She listens to the voices that tell her "Lights, camera, bitch, smile / Even when you want to die," as she sings on I Can Do It With A Broken Heart, a song about her own performances – onstage and as a public figure.

"I'm miserable and nobody even knows!" she laughs at the end of the song before sighing, "Try and come for my job".

Clara Bow enters the pantheon of great final tracks on a Swift album. The title refers to the 1920s silent film star who burned fast and bright – an early It girl and Hollywood sex symbol subject to vitriolic gossip, a victim of easy, everyday misogyny amplified by celebrity. Once Bow's harsh Brooklyn accent was heard in the talkies, it was rumoured, her career was over.

In life, Bow later attempted suicide and was sent to an asylum – the same institution that appears on Who's Afraid of Little Old Me?. Clara Bow works as an allegory and a cautionary tale for Swift, the same way Stevie Nicks' Mabel Normand – another tragic silent film star – functioned for the Fleetwood Mac star.

Nicks appears in Clara Bow, too: "You look like Stevie Nicks in ’75 / The hair and lips / Crowd goes wild".

Later, Swift turns the camera inward, and the song ends with her singing, "You look like Taylor Swift in this light / We’re loving it / You’ve got edge / She never did". The album ends there, on what could be read as self-deprecation but stings more like frustrating self-awareness.

Swift sings about a tortured poet, but she is one, too. And isn't it great that she's allowed herself the creative license? — AP

8 10

Summary:

A meditative portrait of a tortured poet

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