Review: ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ needs to make layoffs

Photo courtesy of Spotify

By Emma Weidmann | Arts and Life Editor

As much as I wanted to like “The Tortured Poets Department,” Taylor Swift’s 11th album makes me feel like a tortured music journalist. Its high points — and it does have them — can’t save the rest of the 31-track behemoth of an album.

“The Thesaurus Poets Department” — sorry, I mean “The Tortured Poets Department” — is lacking in melody and musicality, and it uses big words to distract you from that fact. It has little of the charm of her best albums, none of the simplicity of her most elegant writing and crumbs of the melodic musicality of her most singable songs.

The decision to make the album a double release, dropping an extra 15 songs three hours after the anticipated 16-song track list was released, gives an impression of quantity over quality. On an album this large, you have to wonder if anything got cut at all. Usually about half of an album would be on the chopping block, but Swift is at a point in her career where she can release eight seconds of literal static and it would top charts, so what’s the point in making any cuts?

I guess I would be more willing to let all of that slide if the album was up to snuff with her other work. Swift’s ability to craft haunting and just plain catchy melodies is something that has made her famous and is one of my favorite things about her discography in general, which I don’t much see at play here. Many of the choruses and verses on these songs hammer one note over and over, and it all just combines to create a sound that is vocally bored and smacks of performed misery.

That being said, songs like “The Black Dog,” “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart” and “Clara Bow” represent a glittering peak of Swift’s songwriting abilities, and they’re exceptions to the critiques that I have about the rest of the record. She’s vulnerable, real and raw, and she’s emotional and philosophical. Unfortunately, this album is not full of songs like these.

At their worst, the lyrics read more like whole sentences than actual verses, and that’s only exacerbated by the strange sing-talking Swift constantly does, awkwardly breaking up a lyric just to make it fit on the beat (“But Daddy I Love Him”). And sometimes, they’re just downright meme-worthy, such as the song “ThanK you aIMee,” where the capitalized letters in the title and throughout the lyrics spell out Kim Kardashian’s name.

For someone who is widely regarded as the poet laureate of teen girlhood and one of the most prolific songwriters of our generation, this strikes me as extremely juvenile writing. I know how good Swift can be, and this just isn’t it.

When I listen to this album, I see Swift on her private jet, thesaurus open and at the ready as she figures out how to shove words like “sanctimonious” and “soliloquies” into the same line (“But Daddy I Love Him”).

I can’t help but cringe, and this is why. Regarding “1989 (Taylor’s Version),” I wrote that Swift is successful at making her fans feel seen and meeting them where they are in their own lives.

“And that is why Swift is relevant, time and again. Though her albums aren’t always perfect, she is successful at meeting her audience where they are. It’s no wonder why something you often hear from Swifties is that ‘she wrote this album just for me.’

While her music is near-universal for the experience of young womanhood, it also adds a new installment into the grand, overarching tale of who Taylor Swift is with each subsequent record. It’s ubiquitous, and it’s also deeply personal.”

But on “TTPD,” Swift is so indulgent in her “tortured poetry” that none of the songs ring ubiquitous. They can’t, as Swift makes extremely specific references to her own music and her own friends, name-dropping producer Jack Antonoff, friend and fellow musician Lucy Dacus and even herself. The extent to which Swift is self-referential on this album leaves it teetering on the edge of egotistical gatekeeping, making it as unlistenable to casual fans as “Avengers: Endgame” was unwatchable for those who hadn’t already seen the past 10 films.

On “But Daddy I Love Him,” Swift says, “I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empaths’ clothing/God save the most judgmental creeps who say they want what’s best for me,” seemingly in reference to her fans harpooning her relationship with Matty Healy online. Well, I have to wonder — doesn’t she, though?

The argument that the most die-hard Swifties make that only a minority of her songs are actually about breakups — and it’s just the few that are that get radio play, giving a false impression of the variety of themes in her music — may actually be only partially true. “TTPD” is 31 tracks almost exclusively about breakups. I can’t fault Swift for writing truthfully about her own life, and this happens to be one of her most vulnerable and candid albums yet. But at what point have we heard the same story again and again?

In her own words, “I think I’ve seen this film before.” Girl meets guy — a bad one, at that. Girl believes she can fix him. Girl is proven wrong. Girl wields hundreds of millions of fans to go on a social media hate campaign against guy and acts innocently unaware while people she claims to have loved are chased with pitchforks in Instagram comment sections, in TikTok videos and even in these former flames’ inboxes.

With this album, Taylor Swift sells her own misery. Without divulging the secret torture of her relationships with Matty Healy and Joe Alwyn and teasing the cute, triumphant moments with Travis Kelce (“The Alchemy”), this album wouldn’t sell as much as it has. The lore of Taylor Swift — who she dates, why they break up — keeps the machine running, not the music itself.