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‘The Tortured Poets Department’ Review: A Brave Exploration of Human Vulnerability

4 Stars

Taylor Swift released "The Tortured Poets Department" on April 19.
Taylor Swift released "The Tortured Poets Department" on April 19. By Courtesy of Taylor Swift/Republic Records
By Anna Moiseieva, Crimson Staff Writer

Taylor Swift is no stranger to autobiographical songwriting and her 11th studio album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” is her most vulnerable work yet. The album is deeply raw and explores themes of grief, heartbreak, escapism, betrayal, and longing. Rife with poetic lyricism accented by Swift’s dynamic vocal tone, the album is a brave exploration through the heavier range of human emotions.

The album is a work Swift felt she needed to create. “It kind of reminded me of why songwriting is something that actually gets me through my life. I’ve never had an album where I’ve needed songwriting more than I’d needed it on ‘Tortured Poets,’” Swift said on tour in Melbourne, Australia.

“Fortnight (feat. Post Malone)” opens the album with mid-tempo synth beats and Swift singing “I was supposed to be sent away / But they forgot to come and get me.” Setting the stage for themes related to mental health, the track goes on to detail the effects of a brief but impactful relationship. Swift continues, “All my mornings are Mondays stuck in an endless February,” aptly describing the monotonous aftermath of heartbreak. Post Malone’s vocals meld beautifully with Swift’s throughout the bridge and outro, and the building synths alongside the drums make the song a compelling start to the album.

The album’s fifth track, “So Long London,” is a touching goodbye to a past love, a final letter before Swift gets closure. Swift’s choral harmonies and the track’s racing beat evoke a swift but difficult departure from the past she laments. The breaths in the backing vocals as Swift sings “Every breath feels like rarest air / when you’re not sure if he wants to be there” is a moment of word painting that represents Swift’s attention to detail when crafting songs. Her openness is accented by the brief dropout of the beat in the last verse, allowing Swift’s lyrics to shine as she says her goodbye.

The production across “The Tortured Poets Department” is certainly cohesive, but at times it lacks sonic distinction. Songs like “Clara Bow,” “So High School,” “Peter,” “The Bolter,” and “Robin” all feature the same hollow starting note in the first three seconds before the main instrumentals come in; the synth-based production tracks like “The Alchemy,” “Guilty As Sin?,” and “imgonnagetyouback” sound like they could be one song; and “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” and “So Long, London” even share almost the same beat. Yet what sets these tracks apart, and what the star of the album is overall, are the stories that Swift tells within the songs.

“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” is Swift’s reproach towards someone who deeply hurt her and in the song she articulates feelings of frustration, anger, and pain with such emotion in the vocals that brings these feelings to life. Starting with a stripped back piano instrumental, the track opens by bringing the listener into an intimate moment with Swift before the synth comes in and Swift’s tone transitions from somber to bitter. The drums are the pinnacle of the track and bring the energy of frustration and fury to match Swift’s potent lyrics when she sings “I would’ve died for your sins, instead I just died inside / and you deserve prison, but you won’t get time.” This cathartic bridge culminates in an outro that affirms “I’ll forget you but I’ll never forgive / the smallest man who ever lived” — an apt resolution to the pain expressed in the song.

The piano ballad “loml” is another track that finds Swift processing a loss. Swift’s vocals are solely accompanied by piano instrumentals, a welcome shift from the array of synth-pop tracks throughout the album. The poetic contrast within Swift’s lyrics, “Oh, what a valiant roar / what a bland goodbye / the coward claimed he was a lion,” features Swift reflecting on the disappointments in a relationship. The final line proclaiming he was the “loss of my life” changes the song’s title, evoking the acronym “love of my life,” to one of loss instead, a subtle but powerful symbol of the potential for loss to taint feelings of love.

Swift explores not only creation as catharsis in “The Tortured Poets Department,” but also creation as a medium between fame and personhood. In addition to devastating love ballads and dramatic tracks about romantic fantasies, the album also examines the public perception of artists, the ever-changing interactions people have with celebrity icons, and the boundary between person and performer.

The mid-tempo track “Clara Bow” details the music industry’s treatment towards rising “it girls” and performers. Swift connects the original “it girl,” Clara Bow, to Stevie Nicks and then later to herself. Swift’s excitement for being “picked like a rose” and chosen to be among the greats transitions to apprehension as Swift is relegated to the past and an upcoming star is told “You look like Taylor Swift / In this light, we’re loving it / you’ve got edge she never did.” Swift grapples with her fame and how the public views celebrities, especially the tendency to compare women in the limelight with their predecessors. Similar to “Nothing New” off “Red (Taylor’s Version),” the track beautifully explores the longevity of fame, this time incorporating the past as opposed to just anxiously worrying about the future.

In “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart” Swift again contends with the enormity of her work, looking inward at the struggle of putting on the best show possible for her fans while managing her personal life. The track’s upbeat production starkly contrasts Swift’s depressing lyrics, cogently depicting the compartmentalization often required when reconciling personal responsibilities and emotional devastation. The counts of “one, two, three, four” in the background of the track immerse the listener into Swift’s world of performance, mimicking the counts she hears in her in-ear monitors while touring. The track stands apart from the rest of the album with its dynamic drums, sparkly synths, and Swift’s personal, steadfast assurance that “I’m a real tough kid / I can handle my shit.” The track manages to make Swift’s personal struggles as one of the biggest currently-performing artists relatable to listeners who are dealing with their own heartbreak whilst continuing on with their educational or professional duties.

Swift’s lyricism is at times clumsy, despite her ability to communicate intricate emotions in a powerful way. In “I Hate It Here” from the 15 additional tracks of “The Anthology” edition of “The Tortured Poets Department,” Swift sings “I’d say the 1830s but without all the racists / and getting married for the highest bid,” making a point about the shortcomings of nostalgia. Despite her clarification later in the verse that “Nostalgia is a mind’s trick / If I’d been there I’d hate it,” Swift’s lyrics here don’t communicate her intention clearly and are easily read as offensive, regardless of her goal with this lyric. However, in other places, her lyricism is purposely uncomfortable to communicate the broader message of the song, like in “So High School” when Swift recounts “touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto.” Swift’s lyrics here carry the maturity level of a high schooler, intentionally portraying her as an immature adult in the midst of young love to communicate how this relationship makes Swift feel young again. Overall, Swift’s lyrics and her vocal tone are at the center of this album, as promised by the title “The Tortured Poets Department,” but this lyricism is simultaneously Swift’s greatest weakness and the crowning jewel of her project.

“The Anthology” adds many beautiful tracks to “The Tortured Poets Department,” from “The Black Dog” which recounts a crushing betrayal and “The Albatross” which compares Swift to the albatross from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” to “The Prophecy” which voices the desire for finally getting a happy ending and “The Manuscript” which details Swift’s attempt at getting over previous relationships.

Swift has released a total of 31 tracks with “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology” and the 15 additional tracks in “The Anthology” add depth and variety to the original album, while giving listeners a deeper glance into Swift’s personal life and expanding the soundscape of the album. Tracks like “The Albatross” sound like they’re straight off “evermore,” and tracks that are unique to “The Tortured Poets Department” like “The Bolter” and “Cassandra,” with their blend of instrumentals and synth production, stand apart from the album’s western-sounding tracks like “Fresh Out The Slammer” and “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can).”

Overall, Swift’s album is a glorious exploration of her emotions that connect listeners to Swift’s experience with her emotive vocal tone and often dynamic production. “The Tortured Poets Department” is one that Swifties are sure to devour, while critics and casual fans are more likely to pick their favorites and exclusively listen to those. The album’s wide array of songs lends itself to a diverse array of consumption and finds Swift more personal than ever. Now, she is ready to move past the feelings that make up this album, reflecting on the past but also looking towards a brighter future.

—Staff writer Anna Moiseieva can be reached at anna.moiseieva@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X at @AMoiseieva.

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