A&E Review

Review: Taylor Swift’s “Tortured Poets Department”  Is Her Ego Trip Album

Swift’s “Tortured Poets Department” Album Cover courtesy of Genius.

Taylor Swift released her newest record on April 19, “The Tortured Poets Department,” (TTPD) a title which received a mix of groans and half-hearted “yays” when it was unveiled at this year’s Grammy Awards. Alluding to her failed relationship with her long-term partner, and addressing all sorts of controversy she’s been embroiled in over the last year, “TTPD” is at its core a break-up album. 

An hour after releasing “TTPD,” Swift released an “Anthology” edition with an extra hour of content. The first hour is a slew of synth-pop ballads cherry-picking from contemporary artists like Lana Del Rey (whose vocal style she rips off extensively on this record), The 1975 and Bleachers, and the second hour is comprised of piano ballads that seem to repeat variations of her own song with Bon Iver, “Exile,” off of “Folklore.”  

But what is she saying on this album? After two hours of content, it appears to be a confessional, diary-like breakup opus, but ultimately it reads like what my friend described as “a musical People Magazine.”

The album opens with the song, “Fortnight,” featuring Post Malone, and it sets the tone for the remainder of the album. It’s layered with heavy dollops of synth-wave lines and is derivative of any “1-hour YouTube Synthwave to study to,” but the track is undeniably well-produced, especially when the second half of the track kicks in with a downpour of complementary synth pads and glitter-coated vocal harmonies. The title of the song makes sense in the context of the lyrics, but on its own seems a little odd. Like, doesn’t she know Fortnite is this silly video game that still boasts 230 million players? 

I don’t have the space to break down every single song on this record, but I think I can summarize what’s not working with this entire project. “TTPD” is clearly meant to boast Swift’s skill as a lyricist, and this is evident through three things: the title, the vocal delivery and the music. 

First, ignoring the lore about her exes’ group chat or whatever, the title speaks for itself: she’s a tortured poet if people think this album is good, and a sarcastic poet if we think it’s bad. Second, with the vocal delivery, Swift has been struggling to write creative melodies ever since “Folklore,” and she’s adopted this spoken-word delivery that abandoned her more mellifluous style. This became painfully evident with the “(Taylor’s Version)” re-recordings. “TTPD,” having abandoned melodies in favor of an almost “free verse” kind of singing, leans heavily into this stripped-down style, probably to accentuate the elementary poetic elements of her songs. 

Third, the music going on beneath the lyrics is devoid of anything attention-grabbing, by that I mean most of the instruments are residing in lower frequencies, creating layers of harmony and accompaniment, but there’s never anything other than her lyrics occupying the foreground.

Keeping those three points in mind, it’s obvious that Swift is emphasizing a focus on the lyrics of this record, but the lyrics just aren’t good, and the titular track has two egregious examples: “you fall asleep, like a tattooed golden retriever” and “we declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist.”  Come on, let’s stop fooling around. 

What adds insult to injury is that it feels as if Swift wrote a lot of these lyrics before she wrote the music, because many of the lyrics don’t fit in the musical phrases. It’s as if she has to break up, stutter and rush through the words to get them to fit. An example from “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys:” “Rivulets descend my plastic smile,” or “I’m queen of sand castles, he destroys, oh, oh.” The lyrics fit into the chorus line like pouring a big bucket of clams into a smaller bucket; the clams are clattering all over the floor and making a mess.  

Now I don’t want to over-generalize. Not all the lyrics are bad and songs like “Down Bad” and “But Daddy I Love Him” have moments where the lyrics do fit well with the music. The lines aren’t mind-blowing, but they do have some allure, and she’s learned how to swear in her music without it seeming forced or performative. In an album this bloated and lacking quality, there’s so little to praise over two hours that it turns into background noise even as I try to actively listen.

A track that makes me sad is “The Alchemy,” which seems to be about her boyfriend, football star Travis Kelce, and she makes a lot of football-based metaphors that were probably written on a notepad at all those Chiefs games. The lyricism feels painfully regressive when compared to the lyrics of her 2008 hit, “Fifteen,” where she sings about life being about more than falling in love with “a boy on the football team.” It’s ironic how she’s become the cheerleader she derides in “You Belong With Me.” 

Swift carries herself with a victim complex across this record, complacent about her fans and the inability to express her feelings of depression and melancholy, but that feels misplaced, given that her fans are the ones who supported the very tour that made her a billionaire. She shifts the blame onto her boyfriend and stardom instead of the industry itself, while she is actively chasing that bag. She wants to have her cake and eat it too, and it all feels uncomfortably cringe-y.  

After watching Swift receive Time Person of the Year, the Grammy for Album of the Year and raise her net worth to a billion dollars, it was only a matter of time until we got the “ego trip album.” Disguised as a break-up album, “TTPD” is just an overindulgent, overinflated, doldrum-dwelling collection of songs that feature Swift attempting to brand herself as a poet without the foresight of hiring a proofreader. 

The only reason this is being lauded by critics and her listeners is because her celebrity status has eclipsed her music and people seem to care more about Taylor Swift as a public figure than the art form she is participating in. Taylor Swift has rarely been a trendsetter with her music, simply a follower, borrowing what is popular and repackaging it like it was her idea, evidenced by the ten-year string of albums piggybacking on popular trends, starting with “1989.” While this might placate the army of followers who worship her, it’s blatantly obvious to anyone chasing innovation, creativity or inventiveness, that her contribution to anything but the commercial evolution of music has been dissatisfactory.