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Taylor Swift finds new ways to open up on the sophisticated pop of The Tortured Poets Department

"The Tortured Poets Department"

Release date: 19 April 2024
Taylor Swift The Tortured Poets Department cover
19 April 2024, 05:00 Written by Paul Bridgewater

By leaning into her own brand of diaristic songwriting– and breaking more fourth walls than ever before –Taylor Swift has delivered her most cohesive and fascinating record to date with The Tortured Poets Department.

Her eleventh album works through the loss, anger and mess that follows a break-up, with a cast of tortured poets – not just Swift but the men and women in her creative universe - as well as a knowing wink. It’s a through line that comes together pretty well – I can’t remember a Swift album that felt so locked into its over-arching theme since 1989. Squint and it sometimes feels like a smart update on Red's best moments but it's definitely not a retread. This record’s protagonist is older and her pen is dipped in a sadness that’s both raw and real.

There’s no “You’re So Vain” ambiguity this time around either and TTPD is all the better for it, feeling less like a puzzle box despite the marketing campaign that’s been building over the last few months. Her antagonists here are in plain sight, alongside their glories and transgressions, with their narratives more richly detailed than ever before. Swift’s lyrical coup de grâce has always taken its cues from a John Donne-like hyperbole, even if her execution is often clumsy. The “tattooed golden retriever" of the album’s title track brings a typewriter to Swift’s apartment. “Who uses typewriters anyway?” she asks, later. Even if lines such as “You smoked then ate seven bars of chocolate / We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist” might sound like they’re ripped straight from Wattpad fanfic, she’s never anything less than entertaining.

Swift refutes the record as a confessional: “Tell you something about my good name / It’s mine alone to disgrace” she spits on “But Daddy I Love Him”. This is her claiming her history – warts and all – and it’s the songs exploring her breakup with Joe Alwyn that see her punching her way into the record’s most personal territory: “So Long, London” and “The Alchemy” are etched with the woman-scored spirit of Stevie Nicks’ “Silver Springs”. There’s something incredibly humanising in her mourning and anger too, delivered with a level of detail that we haven’t seen before. It’s a step beyond the short-story songwriting of “All Too Well” that serves to bolster the emotional core of the album.

Nicks looms symbolically over the record. Onstage last August, she credited Swift’s music for helping her get through the death of Fleetwood Mac bandmate Christine McVie. She returns the favour here with a poem – written just days later – that accompanies the record. “She was just flying thru the clouds when he saw her / She was just making her way to the stars when he lost her…” it closes.

Of course it’s too long, like most records in 2024, and some might find the lack of real bangers worrying: mid-point stomper Florence Welch-collab “Florida!!!” comes close but Welch’s voice jars a little alongside Swift’s. “Who's Afraid of Little Old Me?” riffs on the Swift of “Blank Space” and “Reputation” and is the closest we get to the Swift of old.

The Blue Nile’s “Downtown Lights” – a favourite of Matty Healy – is name-checked in the opening lines of “Guilty as Hell”. The Scottish band’s sophisticated pop sound also feels like a reference point for the album’s sonic palette as a whole, which is much more even-handed than on 2022’s Midnights. Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner – back on board again as co-producers and writers – are reigned in here but doing a lot of heavy-lifting work to bring the album's after-hours feel in line with the weight of its subject matter. It's less playful than before but feels like an evolution rather than an adjustment. There's a more textural feel too, edging closer to the muted space of Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher, or Antonoff's work with Lana Del Rey, and it suits Swift well as this point in her career.

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