Taylor Swift’s New Album, ‘The Tortured Poets Department,’ Could Use an Editor: Review

By Equipo
4 Min Read

That song, though, is one of the album’s best — a thunderous collaboration with the pop sorceress Florence Welch, who blows in like a gust of fresh air and allows Swift to harness a more theatrical and dynamic aesthetic. “Guilty as Sin?,” another lovely entry, is the rare Antonoff production that frames Swift’s voice not in rigid electronics but in a ’90s soft-rock atmosphere. On these tracks in particular, crisp Swiftian images emerge: an imagined lover’s “messy top-lip kiss,” 30-something friends who “all smell like weed or little babies.”

It would not be a Swift album without an overheated and disproportionately scaled revenge song, and there is a doozy here called “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?,” which bristles with indignation over a grand, booming palette. Given the enormous cultural power that Swift wields, and the fact that she has played dexterously with humor and irony elsewhere in her catalog, it’s surprising she doesn’t deliver this one with a (needed) wink.

Plenty of great artists are driven by feelings of being underestimated, and have had to find new targets for their ire once they become too successful to convincingly claim underdog status. Beyoncé, who has reached a similar moment in her career, has opted to look outward. On her recently released “Cowboy Carter,” she takes aim at the racist traditionalists lingering in the music industry and the idea of genre as a means of confinement or limitation.

Swift’s new project remains fixed on her internal world. The villains of “The Tortured Poets Department” are a few less famous exes and, on the unexpectedly venomous “But Daddy I Love Him,” the “wine moms” and “Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday best” who cluck their tongues at our narrator’s dating decisions. (Some might speculate that these are actually shots at her own fans.) “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” is probably the most satisfyingly vicious breakup song Swift has written since “All Too Well,” but it is predicated on a power imbalance that goes unquestioned. Is a clash between the smallest man and the biggest woman in the world a fair fight?

That’s a knotty question Swift might have been more keen to untangle on “Midnights,” an uneven LP that nonetheless found Swift asking deeper and more challenging questions about gender, power and adult womanhood than she does here. It is to the detriment of “The Tortured Poets Department” that a certain starry-eyed fascination with fairy tales has crept back into Swift’s lyricism. It is almost singularly focused on the salvation of romantic love; I tried to keep a tally of how many songs yearningly reference wedding rings and ran out of fingers. By the end, this perspective makes the album feel a bit hermetic, lacking the depth and taut structure of her best work.

Swift has been promoting this poetry-themed album with hand-typed lyrics, sponsored library installations and even an epilogue written in verse. A palpable love of language and a fascination with the ways words lock together in rhyme certainly courses through Swift’s writing. But poetry is not a marketing strategy or even an aesthetic — it’s a whole way of looking at the world and its language, turning them both upside down in search of new meanings and possibilities. It is also an art form in which, quite often and counter to the governing principle of Swift’s current empire, less is more.

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