The Tortured Poets Department / The Anthology

Taylor Swift’s music was once much bigger than her. A born storyteller, she gathered up the emotional ephemera of her life and molded it into indelible songs about herself, but also about young women—about their sorrow, their desire, their wit and will. She was the girl next door with the platinum pen, her feelings worth hearing about not simply because they existed but because she turned them into art.

Those days are gone. Swift, pumped up to mythical proportions by discursive oxygen, is bigger than her body of work—no knock against her body of work. She is her own pantheon: a tragic hero and a vindicated villain; an inadvertent antitrust crusader and a one-woman stimulus package; an alleged climate criminal and fixer; The Person of the Year of the Girl. Over the past 13 months, she’s strapped on her spangled bodysuit and performed a Herculean feat three nights a week on the highest-grossing tour of all time, earning her vaunted billion-dollar valuation. Her musical achievements are remarkable. But nobody makes a billion dollars from music alone.

The Tortured Poets Department, Swift’s 11th studio album, senses that widening gap between Taylor Swift the artist and Taylor Swift the phenomenon, and wants to fill it with a firehose of material. The burden of expectation is substantial: This is Swift’s first body of new work since the end of a years-long relationship and a pair of high-profile, whirlwind romances—one of which, with the 1975’s Matty Healy, appears to have provided much of the inspiration here. Fans came to Tortured Poets seeking emotional catharsis, or at least the salacious details. Swift, it seems, wanted the comfort of familiarity. Returning to Jack Antonoff and the National’s Aaron Dessner, her primary songwriting and producing partners of the last several years, Swift picks up threads from Folkmore and Midnights without quite pulling anything loose.

Tortured Poets’ extended Anthology edition runs over two hours, and even in the abridged version, its sense of sprawl creeps down to the song level, where Swift’s writing is, at best, playfully unbridled and, at worst, conspicuously wanting for an editor. The winking title track—a joke about its subjects’ self-seriousness—makes fun of the performance of creative labor, which is funny, given the show that Swift is putting on herself. She piles the metaphors on thick, throws stuff at the wall even after something has stuck, picks up the things that didn’t stick and uses them anyway.

That’s why we end up in “Florida!!!” for no apparent reason; why the dirge “So Long, London” names five different causes of death; why “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” is allowed to work a schoolyard premise until it cracks. But unruliness also produces the wild wonder of “But Daddy I Love Him,” a spiritual descendent of “Love Story” where the protagonists are knocking down castle walls instead of stealing glances in the ballroom. Dessner’s propulsive string arrangement and Swift’s narrative marks keep the song moving even as it stretches towards six minutes, reaching flights of fantasy unlike anything else on this album. Swift is nimble here, heel-turning and cackling through the chorus (“I’m having his baby/No I’m not, but you should see your faces”).

Perhaps she’s after a sort of text painting—an effort to reflect the all-consuming, uncontainable nature of her sordid affair in the shape of the music itself. Perhaps she is playing with scale, drawing a contrast between a relationship’s brevity and its broad impact. “Fortnight,” a lethargic, druggy opener with an oozing Post Malone feature, sets up both the timeline and the stakes: “I love you/It’s ruining my life/I touched you for only a fortnight.” From there, Swift assembles, song by song, an exquisite corpse of a love interest, a “tattooed Golden Retriever” who smokes like a chimney and plays with guns and makes her feel like a kid again and could maybe, possibly, father kids of her own. He is alluring and unreliable. He has a terrible reputation. He is the conduit through which Swift returns to many of the themes that have defined her 2020s output: marriage and commitment; the currency of youth; the cruelty of public opinion.

There is a clear emphasis here on vulnerability; it’s an effort to rub some of the varnish off of Taylor Swift the commercial product and focus on Taylor Swift the tender, unlucky romantic with whom we fell in love so many years ago. No matter her stature, Swift can still reach the everywoman. She is versed in memespeak: “Down Bad” works because of the juxtaposition between its banal hook and its description of “cosmic love”; the corporate girlies will go feral for “I cry a lot but I am so productive” (“I Can Do It With a Broken Heart”). I can even get on board with the outlaw machinations of “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can),” if mostly for the lyrical backflip of its chorus: “They shook their heads saying, ‘God help her’ when I told ’em he’s my man/But your good Lord didn’t need to lift a finger/I can fix him, no really I can.”

Swift would have us believe that this album represents an unprecedented level of access to her inner life—an exorcism of her true feelings about a relationship whose general outline is widely recognizable. “I’ve never had an album where I needed songwriting more than I needed it on Tortured Poets,” she told an audience in Melbourne ahead of the release. Remember, though, that she has been using songs to litigate her private affairs with public figures since her breakup with Joe Jonas in 2008. What’s changed is not the intimate writing; it’s the appetite for the minutiae of Swift’s life, and the sheer quantity of material she’s feeding it with. Clues and keywords that might once have been left for the liner notes are littered throughout the lyrics. If you know, you know; if you don’t, please choose from any of the hundreds of explainers.

It’s not Swift’s fault that we’re so obsessed with her, but this album gives the impression that she can’t quite hear herself over the roar of the crowd. Tearjerkers like “So Long, London” and “loml” fall short when every lyric carries equal weight. There’s no hierarchy of tragic detail; these songs fail to distill an overarching emotional truth, tending to smother rather than sting. It would help if Swift were exploring new musical ideas, but she is largely retreading old territory—unsurprising, perhaps, given that the last three years of her life have been consumed by re-recording her old albums and touring her past selves. The new music is colored in familiar shades of Antonoff (sparse drum programming, twinkly synths) and Dessner (suppler, more strings). Songs sound like other songs—“I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” like Midnights’ “Mastermind”; the intro of “So Long, London” like that of Folklore’s “My Tears Ricochet.” Her melodies feel staid, like they are made to fit the music, rather than the other way around.

Also familiar are Swift’s tortured ideas about her own public image. The morbidly sexy Antonoff joint “Guilty as Sin?” has her “drowning in the Blue Nile,” borrowing the backbeat of “The Downtown Lights,” and comparing herself to Jesus, crucified for her trysts. On “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”, the imagery is convoluted: Swift is both a defanged circus animal and a witch who “put narcotics into all of [her] songs.” The Swift of “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” is more fun but still creepy—a glittering zombie under stage lights, smiling as she rots away inside.

Swift the workhorse, Swift the beacon of capitalism, Swift on a never-ending conveyor belt between the stage and the studio. This is the Swift that brings us The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, maximally bloated with 15 (15!) additional songs. Those that stand out mostly do so for the wrong reasons: There’s the one that borrows its premise from Olivia Rodrigo, but executes it less skillfully; the one where Swift dwells on her resentment toward Kim Kardashian; the one with that weird lyric about racism in the 1830s. This data-dump release strategy is not at all unique to Swift; it’s a concession to the modern music economy, which incentivizes artists to batch as many songs as possible, in as many packages as possible, to juice streams and sales. I look back fondly on the more modest tactics of “Our Song,” the last track on Swift’s debut, where she literally sang “play it again” in the final chorus.

If Swift believes that output for its own sake is what she has to offer, she underestimates her gift. Listeners who believe that her every ounce of experience is inherently interesting—because she was the one to have it—misunderstand her as well. Taylor Swift doesn’t need a whole album to tell the story of a relationship; she only needs one song, sometimes even one line. She almost has it in Tortured Poets’ title track, with the tossed-off brilliance of “We’re modern idiots.” She’s nearly there with the vignette, which needs a bit more burnishing, about her man slipping a ring from her middle to her eager left ring finger at dinner. You can see what she’s chasing here: the moment in time that triggers a flash of feeling that lasts forever—the sort of thing people call Swiftian. We’ve been students of Swift’s poetry for years. The lesson of The Tortured Poets Department is not to push through the pain—it’s to take the time to process it.

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Taylor Swift: The Tortured Poets Department