Taylor Swift’s lyricism shines in ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

Taylor Swift released her highly anticipated 11th studio album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” on April 19, 2024. Two hours after its release, Swift added another 15 new songs — “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology” — delighting fans with 30 new tracks. A week after its release, the record was the most streamed and topped the Billboard 200.

At the height of her career, “The Tortured Poets Department” follows Swift’s 2023 billion-dollar Eras Tour and 2022 release of “Midnights,” all while dealing with the breakup of a six-year relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn. Invoking a “folklore” and “evermore” style, Swift details her complex and chaotic feelings in poetic lyrics under a sonic pop backdrop. Despite the album’s initial success, it has received mixed reviews about its production quality, the number of songs and the originality of the work. However, while “The Tortured Poets Department” may not be her best album, Swift’s soul-bearing, vulnerable lyrics — which also update fans on the current status of her life — are the connection people are finding to this album.

“Fortnight,” featuring Post Malone, sets the album’s tumultuous mood with its unfiltered and tormented lyrics. Singing about a previous relationship in which both lovers have moved on and married other people, Swift’s anger is palpable when she says, “I love you, it’s ruining my life / I touched you for only a fortnight.” Malone’s vibrato vocals mix well with Swift’s dark lull, making the song one of the best on the album. 

The fifth track, “So Long, London,” lives up to Swift’s previous Track 5 songs, known to be the most heartbreaking and emotionally wrenching on her albums — including tracks like “All Too Well,” “Dear John” and “The Archer.” Swift opens the song by singing “So Long, London” in a haunting echo similar to church bells, presumingly alluding to the struggles she experienced during her relationship with Joe Alwyn. The lyric “And I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free” is gutting with its honesty and poignancy. However, “So Long, London” is overall filled with respectful acceptance about the end of the much-documented romance. “So long, London / Stitches undone / Two graves, one gun / You’ll find someone,” are Swift’s final words about the six-year relationship.

And it wouldn’t be a Taylor Swift album if there was not one song that paired depressing lyrics with an upbeat pop sound. “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” pokes fun at the experience of feeling heart-broken, yet having to continue with life and work — “I’m so depressed, I act like it’s my birthday every day / I’m so obsessed with him, but he avoids me like the plague.” 

However, as listeners venture down the tracklist, the production becomes repetitive, with most songs sharing the same pop-sync sounds, light drum machine beats and sonic melodies. While Swift’s intense lyricism prevents listeners from skipping songs or giving up entirely by track 20, her long-time producer, Jack Antonoff, who has worked with Swift since “1989,” is receiving much backlash for the lackluster production in the record’s first half. Many fans believe that Swift should have instead collaborated with Aaron Dessner, a member of The National, for the entire album as it would have improved the overall quality. 

While the first 15 tracks have some standout songs, the second half, or “The Anthology,” is by far the more creative part of the album. Dessner’s production of songs such as “Clara Bow,” “Peter,” “thanK you AlMee,” “The Prophecy” and “I Look Into People’s Windows” relies on dynamic tempos and acoustic instruments that perfectly suit Swift’s storytelling lyrics. 

Since rerecording her stolen albums, Swift has not held back in releasing content for her fans. While “vault songs” incentivize Swifties to buy “Taylor’s Version” of her earlier albums, the quality of the work has them hungering for more. However, in “The Tortured Poets Department,” the quantity doesn’t necessarily make up for the quality. A better approach would have been for Swift to release the album’s 15 most qualifying and representative songs on April 19 and then release the other 15 songs a few months later in a deluxe edition.  

In all, “The Tortured Poets Department” is not an album for the casual Taylor Swift listener. Listeners must be well-versed in “Taylor Lore,” including her previous romances, celebrity feuds and early career history, to understand and decode her lyrics. In the song “The Tortured Poets Department,” Swift references an incident with Matty Healy, with whom she was reported to have been in a relationship, “At dinner, you take my ring off my middle finger / And put it on the one people put wedding rings on / And that’s the closest I’ve come to my heart exploding.” These raw and painful lyrics will resonate with those who have followed Swift’s relationship with Alwyn closely for years, assuming that he was “the one” and the two would eventually marry. While her openness and vulnerability connect Swift to millions of fans, decoding lyrics and clue-hunting may not appeal to those who prefer her happier and more upbeat songs.

Verdict: Unlike Swift’s previous albums, “The Tortured Poets Department” will likely not be a traditionally appealing or critically lauded album. But, Swifties are a loyal fanbase and will look past this record’s shortcomings as Swift’s imaginative and clever lyricism connects her to fans.

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