Courtesy of Beth Garrabrant

Cathartic, raw and tortured indeed — Taylor Swift is brutally honest in her 11th studio album “The Tortured Poets Department,” and not in a good way. 

Released on the night of April 19, “The Tortured Poets Department” provides a look into Swift’s deepest inner thoughts, self-described as “an anthology of new works that reflect events, opinions and sentiments from a fleeting and fatalistic moment in time…,” complete with a gothic, poetic noir aesthetic. 

Between her mega-successful The Eras Tour, the media frenzy surrounding her relationship with Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce and her recent Album Of The Year win for “Midnights” at the 66th Grammy Awards, Swift might be one of the most recognizable artists on the planet. Every album release breaks records, and this one is no exception — it became the first album in Spotify history to have over 300 million streams in a single day, and broke similar streaming records on other platforms. 

Yet, unlike her previous albums, “The Tortured Poets Department” takes itself way too seriously to the point of unbearable pretension. Throughout the album, Swift heavily relies on metaphorical writing and convoluted references that take away from the main themes. It’s as if she’s trying too hard to prove her well-deserved songwriter status, despite having already proved it in her past work. “You smokеd, then ate seven bars of chocolate / We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist / I scratch your head, you fall asleep / Like a tattooed golden retriever” from the title track is a huge lyrical downgrade, and frankly just weird (however, I would like to note that this verse might do more for Puth’s career than his own marketing team).  

The album took on a gothic, poetic noir aesthetic. (Courtesy of Beth Garrabrant)

Her excessive use of references acts as an unconvincing claim that Swift is just like us. As hard as she tries, the endearing quality of Swift’s old work is gone. She is no longer the relatable girl next door in “Fearless,” the naive 20-something from “Red,” a struggling New Yorker in “1989” or a heartbroken “Lover” girl. Which is understandable — Swift is quite literally on top of the world, and deservedly so. Yet, this status is accompanied with a level of disconnect from the audience she writes for. 

This points to another weakness — Swift’s humor. A lot of the songs are jokes, and only some of them land. Case in point: “But Daddy I Love Him” is so fantastical, it’s entertaining to see Swift indulge in that side of delusion. It’s impossible not to smile as she belts, “‘I’m havin’ his baby’ / No, I’m not, but you should see your faces.” However, “Down Bad” is simply a travesty (or a Travis Kelce) in songwriting. “Down bad, crying at the gym / Everything comes out teenage petulance” is such a millennial misguided attempt at relatability; it comes off as odd. There were other rhymes that could’ve been used instead of “crying at the gym:” crying over him, miss him like a sin, thinking about him … the list goes on. Swift’s version is a weird combination of lyrical poetry and modern terminology, a good representation of the album’s lack of direction. 

Oftentimes, the verses read like word vomit, a string of discombobulated thoughts, late night notes app poetry or delirious diary entries attempting to hit a word count.

The lyrical style of the album attempts to herald back to Swift’s “folklore” and its sister album, “evermore.” Yet, instead of being their third sibling, “The Tortured Poets Department” is more of a distant cousin, twice-removed. Certain songs are truly poetic, such as “So Long, London.” “And you say I abandoned the ship / But I was going down with it / My white-knuckle dying grip / Holding tight to your quiet resentment” is a heartbreaking depiction of a relationship coming to an end, an alleged nod to her six-year relationship with British actor, Joe Alwyn. Despite being set to a dance beat, “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” explores Swift’s emotional state during the North American leg of The Eras Tour, which kicked off when news about her and Alwyn hit the tabloids. Swift cheerfully sings, “Breaking down, I hit the floor / All the piеces of me shatterеd as the crowd was chanting, ‘More,’” a candid and humorous reveal of struggle and mania.

But oftentimes, the verses read like word vomit, a string of discombobulated thoughts, late night notes app poetry or delirious diary entries attempting to hit a word count. “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” offers a compelling look inside Swift’s inner thoughts, but the writing is so melodramatic it’s overbearing. The chorus is difficult to get through without a confused laugh as Swift tries to sound threatening while singing,“So I lеap from the gallows and I levitate down your street / Crash the party like a record scratch as I scream / ‘Who’s afraid of little old me?’” Leap? Levitate? Really? It’s almost as if Swift prioritized quantity over quality when developing the concept, sacrificing actual poeticism in hope that the staggering mass of the album would give the appearance of complexity. 

Producer and long-time collaborator of Swift’s, Jack Antonoff, leaves his signature synthesizer sound on “The Tortured Poets Department,” which contributes to its overall detriment. While the pair have created strong tracks in the past (specifically 2017’s “reputation”), the Antonoff-sound is now worn and overused. His once unique sound is now repetitive due to their frequent work together, and combined with Swift’s wordy lyrics, the over-produced tracks make for a messy experience. There is a heavy reliance on electronic additions and vocal overlays, preventing the album from standing out and developing its own cohesive sound. The sonic themes are laced with confusion and misplacement, and are not helped by Jehovah’s Witness and “Mr. Steal Your Girl” add-ins.

Features include American rapper Post Malone on “Fortnight,” which is the opening track and album’s main single, and English rock band Florence + The Machine on “Florida!!!” On “Fortnight,” Swift and Malone’s voices compliment each other well enough, but the song is relatively forgettable in the vast 31 song tracklist. It spends the entire 3 minutes and 48 seconds building up to something big, with very little payoff. 

“Florida!!!” is the exact opposite. It’s an epic and bold feat, a clear stand-out on the album. Florence Welch’s vocal talents are used perfectly, showcasing her impressive range, while Swift employs her signature breathy delicateness as the perfect contrast. 

Two hours after the initial release, Swift revealed that it is a double album, dropping 15 additional songs for “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.” The second part is a slight improvement from its predecessor. Created mainly with “folklore” and “evermore” producer Aaron Dessner, “The Anthology” has a gentler, more instrumental-based sound, a better fit for Swift’s introspective songwriting. Yet it suffers from a different ailment than the first part — the sound is too cohesive to the point of uniformity. Opposed to the overwhelming indecision that plagued the first part’s sound, the tracks in “The Anthology” are unable to distinguish themselves from each other. 

Swift’s songwriting is known for its timeless element. In her past work, she has been lauded for her ability to put words to the unspeakable feelings brought on by universal emotions. Now, she relies too heavily on contemporary references in a cheap effort to connect with her audience. Even the stronger songs on the album suffer from these attempts at relatability. “So High School” is a catchy 90s-rock-esque track, a much-appreciated demonstration of Swift’s songwriting abilities and return to her classic sound. Yet, it is still tainted by the odd referential quality of the album. “Truth, dare, spin bottles / You know how to ball, I know Aristotle” is fun and unserious (two things that Swift excels at), but is immediately followed by “Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto.” “Grand Theft Auto” doesn’t belong in a Taylor Swift song.

The titles of certain songs also feel out-of-touch, specifically “Down Bad,” “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)” and “loml.” There should not be cringey references to Generation Z terminology in an album titled “The Tortured Poets Department.”

“The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology” consisted of 15 additional songs, and was surprise-released two hours after the initial album drop. (Courtesy of Beth Garrabrant)

“The Tortured Poets Department” doesn’t know what it is, despite Swift’s insistence that each song is a work of “tortured poetry.” At its core, she provides an exclusive look into her mysterious and heavily-speculated life, speaking her truth. But, these self-expressions are buried under overly descriptive tangents and incongruous allusions. Additionally, the sheer amount of songs negatively affects the album’s impact. There was no need for a 31-track album. The good songs are solid entries in her illustrious discography. The bad songs are the worst of her career. And the mediocre songs are completely forgettable. 

Swift has reached a point in her career where she can create mediocrity and still achieve some level of success.

The album’s shortfallings are not entirely Swift’s fault. In fact, she is simply catering to her audience, a common thread in her career. Swift lives her life like an open book, and in “The Tortured Poets Department,” she gives an unabridged look into her world. The songs act as self-explanation, as if she’s apologizing for the actions that have garnered public attention and scrutiny. This might be an error on Swift’s part — her commitment to honesty is often her downfall. However, it raises an interesting critique on the relationship between the artist and the fans. How far is too far when it comes to speculation and hypothesizing about another individual’s life? Did the fans push her to this level of unnecessary self-divulgence?

Upon third, fourth, sixth listen, the album grows on you — almost. Perhaps it’s a form of auditory Stockholm syndrome that places you in the mindset of Swift herself, trapped in the Tortured Poets Department and strangely enjoying your time there. But the moment you step out of the department and re-familiarize yourself with her old work, the truth is clear: Swift has reached a point in her career where she can create mediocrity and still achieve some level of success. If she were to release an album of static, it would break multiple streaming records, dominate the charts and be labeled as “underrated” by the Swifties (and probably win Album Of The Year as well).

“The Tortured Poets Department” does not tarnish Swift’s reputation or erase her influence. At her level of fame and prominence, it is instead a small blemish on an otherwise impeccable career. Perhaps the album will be a retroactive hit 20 years in the future. Critics might look back on this era and marvel at the self-revelatory, pop culture-heavy lyrics. Or perhaps the convoluted nature of the album was purposeful — maybe she doesn’t want people to fully understand. Maybe the album was created for Swift herself, a therapeutic form of coping with the past two years in ways only a truly tortured poet would understand.

Rating: 4/10

This appeared in the April 25 printed version of the Daily Nexus