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Album review: Taylor Swift – The Tortured Poets Department – mismatched poeticism

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Taylor Swift has never stopped surprising us. After her consistent release schedule since 2020’s folklore, she has been a powerhouse of the music industry. This album tailed the end of her six-year long relationship with actor Joe Alwyn, and fans expected the lyrics to be full of obvious, yet vague, jabs at Alwyn. Instead, Swift somewhat disappointed Twitter fans by directing most of her lyrics at past fling with Matty Healy, The 1975’s frontman.

Produced by longtime collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, there are many familiar callbacks to Midnights. The synth-pop album is nothing fans haven’t heard before, with focus on the poetic lyrics written by Swift. Certain tracks such ‘loml’ and ‘I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)’ are accompanied by simple, stripped down piano or guitar. Others, like ‘I Can Do It With a Broken Heart’ and ‘Down Bad’ feature a more electric sound, showcasing the clear ‘Jack Antonoff effect’.

The second half of the album, part of the surprise two-part album drop, is mainly produced by Dessner. There are obvious callbacks to both folklore and evermore, with an indie-folk-pop sound. The soft acoustic guitar and piano are hallmark notes of Dessner’s earlier work, especially in tracks like ‘Cassandra’ and ‘Peter’. Swift focuses on self-reflection far more in the second half of the album, creating characters and leaning into her classic story-telling self. It’s comfortable for her; she is a narrator. In Swift’s own words from folklore’s release, she writes from “a stream of consciousness.” It’s real, it’s raw.

However, Swift’s famous poeticism is mismatched throughout most of the tracks. It’s difficult to believe that an artist who can write “Growing up precocious means not growing up at all” can also write “Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto” in the same album. Listening to the album can feel like a rollercoaster, going from crying to cringing every other song. 

With features from Florence Welch and Post Malone, Swift manages to add levels to songs that could not stand on their own. ‘Florida!!!’, featuring Welch, does not do much for Swift, other than show weaknesses in her own voice. Welch is a powerful singer, with a unique and strong range – and unfortunately this reflects poorly on Swift’s own vocals.

Overall, fans are always expecting more from Taylor Swift. Her success in the past few years has been record-breaking, jaw-dropping and hugely inspiring. However, The Tortured Poets Department could be one of Swift’s first misses. The album has some great hits, songs that can hold up in her endless discography, but others certainly will not. When you’ve created a career where fans are always waiting for another album, sometimes the work will feel rushed and unfinished. The Tortured Poets Department is far from perfect, but it has callbacks to a time where Swift’s work was groundbreaking, making it just another nostalgic and mediocre album.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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