Review Summary: SOme aWfully dull musIc aNd a Gargantuan runtime

You look like Taylor Swift
In this light, we're lovin' it

Taylor Swift kicks off the final verse of "Clara Bow", the last track on the standard edition of The Tortured Poets Department, by citing herself as the great contemporary icon, whom the song's addressee, an imagined future-star, must imitate and transcend to claim her destiny. Putting aside the infamously tight-fisted approach Swift has taken to real-life perceived imitators (hang in there, O.Rod), a mic drop like this has been practically inevitable ever since TIME declared her the 'main character of the world.' An artist who reckons with herself as ostensibly as Swift could hardly fail to engage with her latest tier of superstardom on-record, but rather than hubris, self-fixation, or the obligatory self-deprecatory afterthought (you've got edge; [but I] never did), the song's most revealing assertion lies in the sheer scope of its narration: no longer is it sufficient for Swift, one of the most ebulliently self-centred voices in pop since at least 2017's Reputation, merely to dictate the optics of her own platform and mythologise her legacy in advance — she has now reached the point where she is the only one authorised to spell out the terms of her own obsolescence.

It's one of many points on The Tortured Poets Department that underscore Swift's long-standing, commercially vindicated fixation on constructing and controlling her own story – to borrow once more from TIME (this time by way of television maestro Shonda Rhimes), Swift 'controls narrative not only in her work, but in her life [...] it used to feel like people were taking shots at her. Now it feels like she’s providing the narrative—so there aren’t any shots to be taken.' There's a further truth to this, one which permeates the whole record and is more than likely to be the first impression to creep over its final notes, namely that those 'shots' and the way Swift held off against them were accompanied by a meaningful set of stakes, whether on Reputation's do-or-die kickback against the tide of public opinion, or the war she has sustained against record executive Scooter Braun, re-recording her own versions of material to which he owns the masters and dedicating the occasional episode of parodic mayhem to him on Midnights: the newly-ascendent Swift finds herself at the top of the ladder with little to do but punch down when confrontation is on the cards, and, try as she might to fashion her present era around a one-woman resurrection of Tumblr come to light the way for the church of #darkacademia, the bulk of these songs are simply too short of imagination, personability, and – unprecedented heights of superstardom be damned – source material to sustain a record as hell-bent on exfoliating the every pore of its creator as The Tortured Poets Department.

The upshot proves more dead skin than fresh sheen: the bulk of topics here will be instantly familiar to Swift's returning audience, especially on the album's first side. We meet the inevitable boydemons ("My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys", "The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived", "I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)") and know to recognise them for the coconut shy they provide rather than the threat they pose; we do our time with heartbreak ("Down Bad", "So Long, London", "loml"); we're treated to starry-eyed odes to her present beau ("The Alchemy", "So High School"); we even have a late-game smattering of grudge songs ("thanK you aIMee", "Cassandra"), on which Swift's poignant acknowledgement of the ambivalent role that her detractors have played in her lemonade-making…

I built a legacy that you can't undo
but when I count the scars, there's a moment of truth
that there wouldn't be this if there hadn't been you

…is largely undercut by the ennui of realising that both songs are rehashings of her old-as-time-itself feud with arch-nemesis Kim Kardashian. One reads such lines as so they filled my cell with snakes, I regret to say (a less than subtle reference to the emoji to which Swift lost a year of her career), and imagines her chambers today packed with motionless, relentlessly-flogged horses.

These songs in particular are so focused on the he-said-she-said minutiae (But you told Lucy you'd kill yourself if I ever leave / and I had said that to Jack about you, so I felt seen / everyone we know understands why it's meant to be), and, with a couple of notable exceptions, are so reluctant to defer any of their songwriting burdens to a strong hook, dynamic structure, striking chord progression or ear-catching production, that it's a genuine struggle to pin down an appeal beyond their role in Swift's ever-expanding autobiography – you're either invested already, or you ain't. One recalls Swift's 2020 interview with Zane Lowe, where she outlined the creative spring she'd experienced writing Folklore and Evermore, the pandemic albums that saw her express her sentiments more subtly across a range of character-led, third-person narratives, remarking on how the diarist songwriting she'd built her name on had become unsustainable for its adjacency to gossip fodder. Affording Midnights a rather generous pass as a past-leaning memoir rather than a present-oriented diary, The Tortured Poets Department reeks of diarism like little else in Swift's discography, yet struggles to find the same sympathetic footing for her experiences as once came so naturally to her (line up "So Long, London" alongside a track like "Getaway Car" and tell me Swift is an artist who would once ever have been caught dead tying up a keynote relationship with such a dreary post-mortem). Swift has spent years using Easter eggs and hidden messages in her promotional and lyrical content to condition her fanbase into treating detail and depth as interchangeable (or at least interchangeably gratifying), and the results of her more-is-more ethos on a songwriting level have never seemed so overbearing.

Not to imply that low-stakes, max-capital Swift can't be sympathetic or engaging or forge a new angle – but the plethora of tired tropes on display puts extra onus on the innovations The Tortured Poets Department does make. Foremost among these is a newly claustrophobic engagement with fame that emerges as an all too secondary theme compared to the album's celebrity B-reel. The aforementioned "Clara Bow" may strike some as overbearingly self-conscious, but it offers a fair snapshot of viewing oneself as a replaceable product whose fragile dreams are all too vulnerable to media moguls and their conveyor belt for young female talent, a topic Swift is particularly well-equipped to approach (even if her comments on the matter in TIME are arguably more incisive and sympathetic than her take on it as a songwriter). The album highlight "I Can Do It With A Broken Heart" - for my money the most infectious thing she's recorded since "Cruel Summer" - goes one step further, plainly acknowledging the limits of her facade as a professional entertainer and offering a glimpse at the struggle of camouflaging personal hardships while grinnin' like I'm winnin' for the rest of the world to see. The meticulously-poised weight of monosyllabic emphasis in the song's pre-chorus (Lights, camera, bitch, smile) conveys genuine stress, its fat-free delivery clearly distinct against the many overwritten sections of the album ("loml" and "How Did It End?" earn particular eyerolls here). The syllable-for-syllable tightrope-walk Swift takes brings to mind several of the most enduring verses in contemporary pop — one thinks of Lorde on "Ribs", Rina Sawayama on "Akasaka Sad", Ariana Grande on "NASA", and yeule on "Inferno". She finds herself in excellent company as such.

The Tortured Poets Department has perks beyond this track and its parent theme: the album's second side is dominated by Swift's ongoing partnership with producer Aaron Dessner, leaning into acoustic pop arrangements to spotlight some of Swift's stronger songwriting in her Folklore / Evermore vein of storytelling (even if she herself is more overtly in the protagonist's shoes this time around, third-person or otherwise). Take how "The Albatross" uses a straightforward but strong chorus hook to a support the exploration of a satisfying central metaphor (where Swift is aligned with the solitary titular bird, excluded from stable relationships by the proportions of her fame[=wingspan]), or "I Hate It Here", a lovely piece that runs on exactly the kind of refined sequence of arpeggiations that Dessner once patented on the likes of The National's "Green Gloves": for those hoping to clear the air and hear Swift touch base with the core principles of her craft without bending over backwards to feed the #narrative, the second side proves somewhat smoother sailing than the first.

While it is reassuring to hear that such moments can still come naturally to her, an unnerving proportion of the record lands as affected and contrived, as though its verse and stylisation have been generatively produced to hit imaginary targets for an audience Swift + co. can barely keep step with. To put this into perspective, an entire generation has been born and (almost) grown up since Fearless, yet Swift's primary demographic remains young women and - especially? - teenage girls in need of a healthy precedent to accept their anxieties and uncertainties as inner truths. Good! The ascension of positive role models such as Swift has been necessitated beyond any doubt by '00s mainstream's bald exploitation of young women's insecurities – but, contrary to previous efforts, Swift often sounds less herself than ever in her attempts to bridge the ever-growing gap between herself and her younger audience on The Tortured Poets Department. The cracks here show in a variety of forms, be they inane expletives that land way more in-step with the perceived attitude demanded by pop vogue than with the heart of what any artist has ever had to say for themselves personally (No-fucking-body), a true Tortured Poet slew of the kind of verse that only emerges from and (convince me otherwise) is only truly enjoyed by inexperienced young writers whose standpoint has little traction beyond the word 'precocious' (a virtue conveniently extolled throughout the record!), or the ft. Post Malone attached like an inter-generational punchline to the end of the bafflingly vapid opener "Fortnight".

To round this off, Lana del Rey, who has never had any issues scoring Gen-Z resonance with her zany disaffections and self-aware Americana pastiche, has graduated with this album from Swift's bosom buddy to her chief muse. Though this is hardly a fresh influence – one immediately recalls the fatalistic tones and widescreen sepia Swift channelled on "Wildest Dreams" – it has never been as prominent or as obsequious an imitation as it is here. In particular, "Fresh Out the Slammer" and "Florida!!!" play out as citations of citations, suffocating in the same endless, vacant-eyed pretty babys and one hell of a drugs del Rey has already diluted and copypasted a hundred times over from Joni Mitchell and her favourite Nabokov reader's digests: the jailbird trappings of the former and drugged-up sextasy of the latter belie narrative worlds Swift is simply too clean to inhabit, least of all when they're trumpeted by a such dead-on-arrival clunker of a chorus as "Florida!!!"'s. Swift's forte has always been the earnest, emotionally direct attitude that underpinned her songwriting: this borrowed disaffectation suits her not one bit, least of all on the faux-narcotic slurred delivery she slathers over a Lana-coded love=drug metaphor in the final lines of a song as otherwise effervescent and personally charged as "The Alchemy".

Leaving these foibles for what they are, I can delay going to town on the actual music no longer. I've put this off so long in part because Swift's lyric-first, mode of first-person songwriting generally rewards substantive rather than aesthetic engagement —but mainly because the production here is dull beyond all snoring fuck. If Aaron Dessner offers a refreshing acoustic complement to Swift's increasingly contorted writing (if occasionally enabling her drabber side), then her returning collaborator Jack Antonoff mercilessly amplifies her most stifling, self-important tendencies with an still-more-airless reprise of the synthetic palette he used throughout Midnights. One can call out exceptions – the bubbly synths and bright beats on "I Can Do It With A Broken Heart", "My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys"'s resonate clatter, "The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived"'s passable take on the kind of cathartic denouement templated on Billie Eilish's far superior "Happier Than Ever" – but the bulk of the songs on the first side are anaemic to a fault. Though this was already clear on Midnights, Antonoff's long-standing partnership with Swift has grown turgid and now borders on outright sour, each enabling the worst impulses of the other, which for him involves comatose stylings and minimalist gesticulations that to do little more than showcase his increasingly limp grasp on a tepid zeitgeist (all the more so if his latest effort as Bleachers is anything to go by), while for her, it is more about setting up a path of least resistance towards being the loudest voice in the room — and so if I've harped on endlessly about how Swift moulds this record around her voice and narrative, it's because we're very rarely given anywhere else to look.

Thanks in particular to this double-bind, The Tortured Poets Department is too pulseless to inspire anything at all — and so when Swift does lay down the occasional track with colour in her cheeks, the results tend to tower over the rest of the album regardless of any visible issues they bear. Practically every one of its greatest highlights is a glaring case-in-point for one or another of its recurrent flaws, yet transcends them through sheer pep and conviction: "I Can Do It With A Broken Heart"'s lyricism is as crass as the worst of them (I'm so depressed I act like it's my birthday every day), yet its energy and sympathetic angle well and truly shakes this off; the title-track goes further still with some most embarrassing lines of the whole package (one can hardly think of a less dignified means for poor Charlie Puth to become a bigger artist), but the resplendent swoon of its chorus is one of Swift's most inspired hooks in years, undeniably magnetic despite her self-sabotage. Endgame highlight "The Bolter" is one of the most verbose and thematically indulgent of the album's self-mythologies, yet Swift has an uncommon spring in her step for it, and both "Guilty as Sin?" and "Imgonnagetyouback" are so crammed with familiar hooks, inflections and lyrical tropes that they could be interchanged freely between any Taylor Swift record since Red, yet they're such an invigorating showcase of her fundamentals that they'd be an asset wherever you placed them. These songs' perceived innovations and Achilles heels are moot: they all possess a spark that is all too lacking across the rest of the record, and that alone is enough to qualify as a defining highlight on this tracklist.

Where does that leave us with the increasingly joyless shell of professionalism and interminably effusive autobiography that comprise the Taylor Swift experience and have now been venerated to the point of public service? Do we hold Swift herself responsible for rising to the incessant mass demand for her to speak as much of her truth as her legion of fans has spare hours to devote to it, or do we pan out and blame this album's excesses and nothingnesses on how, much like her old nemesis Kanye West, she's evidently run out of people who will give her meaningful pushback when she most needs it? The Tortured Poets Department earns a shrug and an increasingly uninterested "time will tell" from me — the most honest response possible for this kind of saturation-over-stakes mess.


* * * * *


READS

TIME feature: time.com/6342806/person-of-the-year-2023-taylor-swift/

Zane Lowe interview, 2022 (diarism commentary from 2:30): www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOORBL2C2oo

Also recommended:

Laura Snapes on Taylor Swift and clickbait: www.theguardian.com/music/2024/mar/13/from-emily-dickinson-to-joe-alwyn-taylor-swift-is-a-master-of-misleading-messaging

Taylor Swift's commentary on songwriting in her acceptance speech at the NSAI, 2022: www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/music-news/taylor-swift-songwriting-process-nashville-speech-1235224700/

Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff's infamous anathematisation of 'brainless' pop, 2014: www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKUXVO4AxMc



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user ratings (185)
2.3
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other reviews of this album
Shamus248 CONTRIBUTOR (1)
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Cuz the haterz gonna hate hate hate hate hate and the Sputters gonna neg neg neg neg neg...



Comments:Add a Comment 
AsleepInTheBack
Staff Reviewer
April 22nd 2024


10289 Comments


We live let’s goooo

Odal
Staff Reviewer
April 22nd 2024


2260 Comments

Album Rating: 1.0

HERE WE GO!!!!!

nol
April 22nd 2024


12280 Comments


Album Rating: -3.0

review longer than the album

nol
April 22nd 2024


12280 Comments


Album Rating: -3.0

Here’s my review: The Lyrics Suck Ass

gryndstone
April 22nd 2024


2776 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0

This is the one

someone
Contributing Reviewer
April 22nd 2024


6726 Comments


I know this is off topic but uhhh nol you managed to rate it -3.0 or is my internet glitching?

AsleepInTheBack
Staff Reviewer
April 22nd 2024


10289 Comments


Bb code innit

Purpl3Spartan
April 22nd 2024


8719 Comments


Yeah he’s just formatting it in his comment lmao

AlexKzillion
April 22nd 2024


17469 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0

lfg

Purpl3Spartan
April 22nd 2024


8719 Comments


TIPS FEDORA! LOOK AT US! WE DID IT AGAIN! WE WROTE ANOTHER LAZY AND BIASED TAY TAY REVIEW!

Justin Bieber Changes 3.0
Taylor Swift Lover 3.3
Folklore 3.2
evermore 2.9


At some point the contrarianism and bias is getting sad. If you dont like the album fine, but at least take effort in writing the review and find more compelling arguments.

"ThE SoUnD iS ThE SaMe As FoLkLoRe Or NoT DiFFeReNt EnOuGh" is simply wrong and laughable. Its Side B project, she could easily fit into the album some scrapped from folklore or half-assed songs and call it a day like many artists are doing these days, but the album is as good in the storytelling department, definitely less melodramatic than folklore, and sonically is richer, more colorful and interesting all around imo. You can tell that every song was made from zero and put a lot of effort into and works well as both side b project and standalone project. Sorry but where is the perspective? How the scoring system works on this site?

So Lover and Changes are better albums than both folklore and evermore? In what way, the lyrics? Storytelling? Musically? Production? How can person look at these records objectively, and decide something like this? And i don't buy the different reviewer aspects, since for example lover and folklore review was written by the same person.

This is just lazy and petty. Its like Taylor Swift needs to do much better and more than other artists, even her peers from mainstream music only because of her name and stardom. She proved herself already releasing Speak Now 10 years ago, and writing & composing entire Speak Now alone from start to finish, now she has more than 50 songs written only by herself, which in mainstream music is something that basically doesnt exist, and even in indie music its not something we very often see. She worked very very hard for her success and its time for some people to deal with it and ditch the bias.

FowlKrietzsche
April 22nd 2024


1231 Comments

Album Rating: 1.5

Ugh magnificent review, if Taylor couldn't conjure a compelling album by cutting every parasocial inch of fat off herself, it is at least good fun that your sublation, in the Zizekian manner of course, is quite delicious

FowlKrietzsche
April 22nd 2024


1231 Comments

Album Rating: 1.5

lol purplespear

Purpl3Spartan
April 22nd 2024


8719 Comments


Found this gem in Johnny’s evermore review thread

Odal
Staff Reviewer
April 22nd 2024


2260 Comments

Album Rating: 1.0

four featured taylor reviews at once......you might not like it, but this is what peak Sputnik looks like. Also want to say, phenomenal review Johnny

MeatSalad
April 22nd 2024


18639 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0

Blessed review, let us now be erased from existence in a wave of Swifty vitriol

PumpBoffBag
Staff Reviewer
April 22nd 2024


1591 Comments

Album Rating: 3.1

Definitely worth the wait. Proud of ya Johnny, this is stellar

nol
April 22nd 2024


12280 Comments


Album Rating: -3.0

“Definitely worth the wait”

This album came out on Friday lmao

tectactoe
April 22nd 2024


7460 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0

today is the day taylor learns she is old enough to cuss

pizzamachine
April 22nd 2024


27363 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0 | Sound Off

Well dun John knee

AmericanFlagAsh
April 22nd 2024


13416 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

Ooooooo boy



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