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Taylor Swift: The Tortured Poets Department review — heartbreak inspires anguish, anger and a career highlight

Taylor Swift: The Tortured Poets Department review — heartbreak inspires anguish, anger and a career highlight

In her eleventh album, Taylor Swift’s style progresses through 16 tracks that span from delightfully cheesy to emotionally intense.

In what some refer to as the “Swiftverse” or the “Swiftularity,” the typical norms of pop stardom are disregarded. Here, conventional rules seem to be nonexistent, with time appearing reversible and gravity having no effect. Old songs are recreated as near-identical versions, and even immense wealth doesn’t prevent relatability. A mediocre album about nighttime experiences can transform into the top-selling album in the US for 2022 and the second highest seller in 2023.

While “Midnights” enjoyed considerable success in the Swift universe, it doesn’t stand among Taylor Swift’s top albums. There was a noticeable decline in her usual lyrical standards, and the storytelling felt somewhat like an exercise in thematic exploration typical of a creative writing class. Swift’s intense work schedule, with four albums released in three years and preparations for the highly successful Eras Tour, may have contributed to this. Despite its commercial and cultural achievements, “Midnights” hinted at the possibility of shortcomings. Could this have marked Taylor’s peak, the Swiftverse reaching its maximum expansion?

The lengthy title of Taylor Swift’s latest album prompts curiosity. Unlike her previous ten albums, which were typically single-word titles, apart from her 2006 debut “Taylor Swift” and 2010’s “Speak Now,” “The Tortured Poets Department” stands out as a verbose choice, bordering on the banal. The album sees Swift collaborating with her frequent co-producer and co-songwriter, Jack Antonoff, who has garnered mixed reactions from some fans for his perceived tendency to infuse her music with a tasteful yet uninspired electronic sound. Another regular collaborator, Aaron Dessner of indie band The National, also contributes to the album’s production and songwriting.

The album comprises a total of 16 songs, with an additional four bonus tracks featured in other editions. All songwriting and recording seem to have occurred amidst Taylor Swift’s busy schedule with her Eras Tour, commencing its European leg in May. However, there’s no feeling of overwhelm this time around. “The Tortured Poets Department” showcases superior writing compared to “Midnights” and features Swift’s characteristic charm and skillful performance behind the microphone.

This album revolves around the theme of heartbreak, serving as Taylor Swift’s breakup record. The real-life context behind the songs is the conclusion of her six-year relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn. This personal experience clearly influenced the standout track “So Long, London,” which is considered a highlight of her career. Co-written with Dessner, the song begins with Swift’s vocals layered over each other, evoking the ringing bells of London. She then proceeds to narrate the gradual unraveling of a love story with a mix of sorrow and restrained anger, set against a hauntingly cold electronic backdrop illuminated by a soft glow.

In contrast to the cheerful and somewhat cheesy “London Boy” from her 2019 album “Lover,” Taylor Swift’s new album portrays a doomed attachment to a brooding and emotionally reserved man. This departure from the London-centric theme is emphasized by songs that consciously lean towards American themes. For example, in “Fresh Out the Slammer,” Swift expresses her return home to someone who sees her as the epitome of his American dreams. “But Daddy I Love Him” presents an entertainingly melodramatic story of romantic scandal in a small town, set against a backdrop of country-pop reminiscent of Swift’s earlier work.

The theme of heartbreak persists in “Down Bad,” a irresistibly catchy ballad with a smooth melody that contrasts with verses detailing a moment of emotional breakdown in a gym. Swift sings with clear articulation, expressing sentiments of teenage petulance and defiance, declaring “Forget it if I can’t have him.” The tone shifts in “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” a charmingly cheesy song where Taylor praises herself for persevering through the Eras Tour despite her pain. The breakup inspires a poignant couplet: “He promised to love me forever, but that forever turned out to be too short.”

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These instances may prompt dedicated fans to interpret the album as Taylor Swift’s veiled autobiography, especially considering her penchant for puzzles and hidden messages. However, trying to decipher the subject of “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived,” a subtly cutting piano piece, overlooks the album’s true intention. These songs serve as instances of role-playing within a carefully crafted album by a singer-songwriter whose performances resemble acting more than they do personal memoirs.

Taylor Swift’s vocals resemble monologues, characterized by impeccably timed changes in speed, tone, and emphasis. The music serves as her platform, with dynamic shifts carefully measured, such as the sudden bursts of drumming in “Florida!!!” featuring Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine. While some moments may feel formulaic, as seen in “The Alchemy,” elsewhere the album successfully combines intricately layered textures, swelling melodies, and Swift’s unique voice. This represents her evolved signature style, embodying the distinctive sound of the Swift universe.

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