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Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department': Euronews Culture's verdict

Euronews Culture's verdict on 'The Tortured Poets Department'
Euronews Culture's verdict on 'The Tortured Poets Department' Copyright Republic
Copyright Republic
By David Mouriquand
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Taylor Swift’s 11th album has dropped - and Euronews Culture’s resident Swiftie shares his verdict.

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Taylor Swift has released her new album, ‘The Tortured Poets Department’, which dropped at midnight - followed by a “surprise double album” two hours later.

For the sake of sanity, our writer David Mouriquand, a proud but occasionally tortured Swiftie, is keeping it to the original 16 tracks of 'TTPD'.

Here’s his take.

"An uneven but entrancing post-mortem on love and its pitfalls"

The Tortured Poets Department
The Tortured Poets DepartmentRepublic

Time has no meaning and journalistic outlets should just bite the bullet at this point and revamp themselves as “What has Taylor Swift been up to today?”. 

Hardly a day goes by without an article on her relationships; what artists have said about her and how her loyal fanbase consider any criticism a violation of the Geneva Conventions; her net worth; political conspiracies which cast her as a perfidious puppeteer; what album she’s teasing with clues at pop-up events; or which songs could be covert easter eggs referring to one of her past relationships. And we here at Euronews Culture are as guilty as the rest of them in contributing to this infernal recurring loop which blurs the very concept of life’s tempo.

Ever since 2019’s ‘Lover’, we’ve had a new Taylor album every year – if you include the "Taylor’s Version" re-recordings. In some cases, like 2021 and 2023, we’ve had two. It’s verging on overkill at this point. I say this as an out and proud Swifty who has tickets for the European leg of her Eras Tour, someone who frequently (to the ear-bleeding delight of my patient colleagues) breaks out into demented cries of “TayTay all daaaaay” at the most inopportune of moments.

And now comes her newest album in a seemingly endless conveyor belt of musical output, a restless work ethic that was awe-inspiring in its business savvy at first, but now feels like a bloody exhausting capitalistic monopoly that lionises the cultural conversation and everyone that dares stand in its way. Even the overly strategic way ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ was announced didn’t sit well with me, as she decided to use her 13th Grammy win to proclaim the 11th studio album was on its way - thereby ensuring that all thunder was stolen from everyone else that night, and that everything the internet could talk about was 'TTPD'. If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? I’ve stopped wondering. Now, I mull over the following: If Taylor doesn’t get her daily dose of ubiquity, does she fear she might cease to exist? And how is this more a reflection on our times and modern fandom rather than on the artist herself?

But enough about the inner workings of the rotting fruit bowl I brazenly label a brain and onto ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ itself – a title seemingly in reference to the WhatsApp group Taylor’s ex Joe Alwyn shares with fellow actors Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal – the latter of whom was previously engaged to Taylor’s friend (and kick-ass artist) Phoebe Bridgers.

As previously stated, the world is already Swift’s but it’s not enough – and to make matters less The TayTay Relevancy and more The TayTay Supremacy, the singer couldn’t refrain from making her 11th LP a stealth double album. Instead of, you know, just releasing a new album and appreciating that double albums are for sociopaths - unless you're The Beatles, Pink Floyd or The Smashing Pumpkins. ('Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness', that is - not 'Atum'.)

Yes, there are now 15 more tracks on top of the announced 16, with the whole endeavour spilling over two hours in length. For the sake of sanity, I only focus on the original set of songs – as I simply don’t possess the emotional bandwidth to take in 31 songs in one sitting. Plus, what is now being dauntlessly referred to as ‘The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology’ just means that there’ll be countless versions of the record being sold in various iterations, thereby proving William Eyelash – sorry, Billie Eilish – right when she called out wasteful artists who indulge in the practice of making all sorts of different vinyl and packing - “which ups the sales and ups the numbers and gets them more money...” Yet again bolstering that feeling of corporate machinations overshadowing artistic value. And yet again making me digress from the music itself.

The Tortured Poets Department
The Tortured Poets DepartmentRepublic

Putting aside the daunting and overtaxing lore (I couldn’t give a tinker’s fig about which song is actually a dig at Matt Healy or Joe Alwyn, much like I prefer to listen to ‘Style’ or ‘All Too Well’ without thinking about them as missiles aimed at Harry Styles and Jake Gyllenhaal), 'The Tortured Poets Department' is rather good.

It sounds like a mix of her vivid but typical ripped-from-the-diary lyrics and the synthy pop production of her previous album, 'Midnights'. Mood wise, it combines the intimacy of 'Folklore' and 'Evermore', and functions as the darker counterpart to her album ‘Lover’, which was a sunnier and more optimistic record about love. Also like 'Midnights', there are no obvious bangers like ‘Shake It Off’ or ‘Cruel Summer’, but rather some synthy 80s inflections that work best on an emotional level when co-writer and producer Aaron Dessner is at the helm, and verge on predictable, 'Midnights' B-sides when its Jack Antonoff’s turn.

So, sonically, it's not a leap forward or even a stylistic shift; lyrically, however, there’s messy fun to be had.

Messy because it’s a bit of a chaotic album (the dreadful ‘I Can Do It With A Broken Heart’ followed by the far better ‘The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived’ is whiplash inducing), and overlong for sure. But then again, that last complaint can be extended to a lot of Taylor’s albums (‘1989’ aside – not an ounce of fat on that one). However, the fact ‘TTPD’ doesn’t follow a tidy narrative somehow works, as emotions are messy and relationships even more so at times. Considering this is a breakup album that is about processing tangled feelings, the cluttery feeling is almost by design.

There’s denial (‘The Alchemy’); anger (‘The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived’; ‘So Long, London’); bargaining (‘Guilty As Sin?’); depression (‘Down Bad’; ‘Loml’); acceptance (‘Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me’)... And the sixth stage of grief: living in Florida (‘Florida!!!’)

Also present are the ‘fuck's, as there’s a lot more profanity peppered around the place than I’m used to from my Swift albums. 

No complaints here. Just fucking observing.

The humour throughout works wonders, with the excellent ‘But Daddy I Love Him’ (a clear reference to The Little Mermaid) and 'Florida!!!' (with a twin lead vocal with Florence Welch from Florence + The Machine, who fares better than a barely existent Post Malone on opener 'Fortnight') leading the charge when it comes to well-placed comical lines. Part of the appeal is how these moments of self-aware levity often merge with more serious and at times impactful ones (“ I’d rather burn my whole life down / Than listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning / I’ll tell you something about my good name / It’s mine alone to disgrace ”). The titular track also has some great lyrical moments, with the query “ Who uses typewriters anyway? ”, the delightful “ You’re not Dylan Thomas / I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea hotel / We’re modern idiots ” and “ At dinner you take my ring off my middle finger and put it on the one people put wedding rings on / And that’s the closest I’ve come to my heart exploding ”. 

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The less said about the “ I’ll scratch your head, you fall asleep / Like a tattooed golden retriever ”, the better. Plus, the RSPCA would doubtlessly have words.

First and second listen favourites are ‘The Tortured Poets Department’, ‘Down Bad’, ‘But Daddy I Love Him’, ‘Floirda!!!’, ‘loml’, and album closer ‘Clara Bow’. That last track references the US 1920s "It Girl", and delves into the pitfalls of men dictating where the spotlight should shine in the entertainment industry. It ends with the following outro: “You look like Taylor Swift / In this light, we’re loving it / You’ve got edge, she never did / The future’s bright, dazzling.”

Once again, a moment of self-awareness with regards to public perception and how she views herself – something also present in ‘But Daddy I Love Him’ (“ I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing / God save the most judgmental creeps who say they want what’s best for me / Sanctimoniously performing soliloquies I’ll never see ”). But also a reminder that even when Taylor dips into the formulaic on certain tracks in her uneven but entrancing post-mortem on love and its pitfalls, she doesn’t have to worry about her future. It’s bright - dazzling. The slow-burn growers of 'The Tortured Poets Department' are more than enough to a) re-assert her dominance with an album superior to 'Midnights' and b) keep an occasionally tortured Swiftie like me on side, despite my reservations regarding the cultural stranglehold she has through her hyperproductivity and bellyaching about how we all need to take a fistful of chill pills already.

Well done, Taylor. You can do it with a broken heart. I can keep doing it with the occasional bout of hesitancy.

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