Tender but long-winded, The Tortured Poets Department would shine brighter if abridged, not anthologized

May 9, 2024

Courtesy of Taylor Swift (Beth Garrabrant)

“All’s fair in love and poetry.” 

Taylor Swift ominously teased the above line on social media after announcing her eleventh studio album, The Tortured Poets Department (TTPD), during her 2024 Grammys acceptance speech. Cheekily referencing the adage “all’s fair in love and war,” this album fittingly sees Swift let all of her thoughts run loose without regard for consequence.

Unfiltered, vulnerable, and vengeful, each song feels as though it was written on a typewriter, Swift’s raw emotions etched in permanent ink without substantial revision. At its best, this stream-of-consciousness style lends itself to devastating emotional palpability. At its worst, ironically unpoetic lyrics begging for a second look slip through the cracks, tainting otherwise earworm-y moments. Regarding the initial 16-track release, TTPD has a fair share of shimmering standouts that have only improved with time. However, the addition of the anthology tracks significantly watered down the record; the project would have preserved its original shine had Swift and her team abided by another familiar truism: “Less is more.”

The album opens with “Fortnight (feat. Post Malone),” the album’s only single release. While a fine song in its own right, the track fails to build the momentum desired for a strong opener and severely underutilizes Malone’s suave hip-hop flair. Swift sings in a low, humming timbre—a tone we rarely hear from her, but also one that doesn’t lend itself the strength necessary to make up for barely-there instrumentals. Malone, who delivers a solid performance with the space given, is relegated to backing vocals for most of the track, as was Lana Del Rey on the initial version of “Snow On The Beach” from Midnights (2022). We don’t really hear him until the final reprise, which also happens to be the most melodically dynamic the track gets; it’s a shame that his outro wasn’t employed as the chorus. 

Though definitely bloated, TTPD has no shortage of gems. After a slower start, Swift gains momentum with adjoining power duo “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” and “Down Bad.” Slithering angst abounds across these two tracks; after losing a “cosmic love,” Swift’s sorrow has driven her to adolescent hallmarks like “teenage petulance” and playing pretend “down at the sandlot.” Rooted in brooding yet bubbling Antonoffian production reminiscent of the synth-saturated moments on Midnights, these tracks are intoxicating—there’s no need to prune the branches here. 

Another flawless three-track run begins directly at the original album’s midpoint. Following a long-awaited jailbreak detailed in “Fresh Out The Slammer,” “Florida!!! (feat. Florence + The Machine)” embraces the lush life. The red velvet batter richness of Florence Welch’s voice mingles with Swift’s sultry lower register over a thrumming pulse to a mesmerizing effect. Their crooning cadences glide through every sizzling verse before surmounting in the pounding chorus, complete with three percussive punches mirrored within the exclamation points of the track’s title. With addictive vocals and instrumentation alike, “Florida!!!” really is “one hell of a drug.” 

Though TTPD is a eulogy to heartbreak, Swift doesn’t paint herself entirely as the victim. “Guilty As Sin?” serves as her self-interrogation of whether she can claim innocence if her thoughts, despite never having acted on them, are guilty. She opens with the excuse that “My boredom’s bone deep,” so her thoughts run wild: “What if he’s written ‘mine’ on my upper thigh / Only in my mind?” The chorus melody is simple and lighthearted but has a rhythm so achingly catchy that it demands to be belted out by the listener. Like “False God,” off Lover (2019), the bridge makes use of extensive religious imagery, playing into the concept of sin: she begrudges that “They’re gonna crucify me anyway,” so “What if the way you hold me / Is actually what’s holy?” She’s stuck in a purgatory of longing that’s its own torture, wondering if she can be “guilty as sin” without “ever touching his skin.”

Contrary to its meek, questioning title, “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” is an audacious reclamation of confidence. Anthemic and atmospheric, Swift’s frustration simmers to a blood-boiling fury. This riotous chorus boasts some of the strongest lyrical content from the entire album: “Crash the party like a record scratch as I scream” and “I was tame, I was gentle ’til the circus life made me mean / Don’t you worry, folks, we took out all her teeth.” An eerier take on the mournful rage of “my tears ricochet,” this haunting track feels tailor-made (Taylor-made?) for the witching hour. Answers to the song’s central question echo like church bells in the chorus’s chilly wake: “You should be.” 

Despite her resounding revival, Swift cannot entirely evade her pervasive malaise. The lamenting lullaby “loml”—standing for “loss of  my life” in a gut-wrenching deviation from the standard abbreviation—is a somber tune anchored by a simple piano. A swan song to a transformative, mercurial love, vivid lyrics like “who’s gonna stop us from waltzing back into rekindled flames if we know the steps anyway” are sure to leave even the most stoic among us a little teary-eyed. 

She picks up the pace and energy on “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” a heartbreak song disguised as a motivational anthem. The lyrics are a look into Swift’s inner psyche during the first leg of The Eras Tour when she was performing the world’s biggest tour while undergoing one of the most intensely scrutinized public breakups. The instrumentals are complemented by the ticking of an in-ear monitor and shouts from a concert crowd, adding to the exhilarating atmosphere. The verses bleed seamlessly into the pre-chorus, which builds with a thrill akin to the bridge of “You’re On Your Own Kid” off Midnights. The drums crescendo as she chants, “I’m a real tough kid / I can handle my shit.” Her confidence faltered “as the crowd was chanting ‘More!’” but Swift picks herself back up, reminding herself that “I can do it with a broken heart.” There’s a sarcastic, bitter undertone hidden behind the blunt language (“I cry a lot, but I am so productive”), cleverly shedding light on the ways in which humor is often used as a coping mechanism for those going through loss. 

Following in the footsteps of Midnights (3am Edition) (2022), Swift released an extended version of TTPD titled THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT: THE ANTHOLOGY at 2 a.m., nearly doubling the tracklist and extending the album’s total length to just over 2 hours.  Unfortunately, while Midnights’ bonus tracks are the highlight of the album, most of THE ANTHOLOGY is forgettable, serving only to taint the original album. These additional songs are not entirely without merit, especially with regard to “The Prophecy,” “imgonnagetyouback,” and “The Black Dog.” However, when compared to the rest of her discography’s stellar lyricism, many of these songs can’t help but feel unpolished. That being said, the original album is not entirely devoid of unusual lyrical content either; though the Bleachers-esque production is admittedly irresistible in the title track, cringe-inducing lyrics such as “I scratch your head, you fall asleep like a tattooed Golden Retriever” left us saying “stop, you’re losing me.” Yet, even when Swift swings and misses on the original installment, things never near the bleakness they do on THE ANTHOLOGY. Most of these songs feel like scraps better left on the chopping block, exemplified by tracks like “So High School,” where she pens the lyric “touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto.” The same can be said for “thanK you aIMee,” where Swift not-so-subtly revisits incredibly stale beef with Kim Kardashian for cheap shock value.

Furthermore, the heavy Jack Antonoff influence on the production reduces the album to an overall repetitive sound. With instrumentals characterized by excessive synth and hi-hat, TTPD is sonically reminiscent of Midnights and the 1989 (Taylor’s Version) (2023) vault tracks. Though the Antonoff-Swift renaissance is still capable of producing bangers—look no further than “Florida!!!” and “Guilty as Sin?”—perhaps their artistic collaboration has become overly formulaic.

The Tortured Poets Department, from tracklist to aesthetic to lyricism, has already caused its fair share of divides. Still, while TTPD has been polarizing, it’s also made its mark as a record to be remembered.

As highlighted in “Clara Bow,” a delicate song that ties up the original release with impeccable finesse, Swift’s name is already etched in music history forevermore. But to ensure her commendable legacy remains intact, we hope she can resist the all-too-tempting impulse to sacrifice quality for the sake of quantity moving forward. Swift can afford to take her time to ensure that each release fully reflects her immense talent. While Swifties are willing to give her considerable grace, spending hours repeatedly listening to an album regardless of our initial lukewarm receptions, chucking 31 new songs of drastically variable quality out into the ether and seeing what sticks is an unsustainable strategy. 

Admittedly, like other sleeper hits in Swift’s discography, some songs we initially wrote off have flourished when given adequate time to marinate. Perhaps her declaration that she’s laced her discography with narcotics in “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” is true—after all, we really are still singing along. But that doesn’t mean every tune strikes a chord; Swift would have been better off sticking with the original 16-song record, the bulk of which do make for a strong tracklist. Ultimately, we want her most polished work—regardless of whether or not “it’s been a long time coming.”

VOICE’S CHOICES: “Florida!!! (feat. Florence + The Machine)”; “Guilty As Sin?”; “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”

Eileen Chen
Eileen is the Halftime Leisure Editor and a sophomore in the College studying political economy. She likes dirty chai lattes, pretty flowers, and making playlists for every minor inconvenience.

Hailey Wharram
Hailey is a junior from Richmond, Virginia studying English, journalism, and film and media studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. When she isn’t writing for The Voice, she loves songwriting, scrupulously updating her Letterboxd profile, and romanticizing her life one Spotify playlist at a time.

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