Taylor Swift Embraces Her Messy Era on “The Tortured Poets Department”

Taylor Swift at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards in September 2023
Taylor Swift at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards in September 2023. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Shutterstock (14095570bb)

Taylor Swift’s reign over the music industry is nowhere in sight, and her domination continues with The Tortured Poets Department. This audacious record puts an emotional twist on heartbreak, while also lacking the haunting brilliance of some of her recent releases.

Swift is no stranger to a good breakup album, and many of her previous releases inspired fan theories and wild speculations. That was also the case with The Tortured Poets Department, and many expected it to be inspired by the fallout of her long-term relations with Joe Alwyn, but Swift has given us something else entirely.

The album’s first track, the Post Malone collaboration “Fortnight”, chronicles a brief but powerful relationship that was always doomed to fail, and the rest of Tortured Poets follows a similar formula.

Instead of focusing on a single relationship, Swift explores heartbreak in all its messy stages, walking a fine line between viciousness and vulnerability. Tortured Poets is at its strongest when Swift is ready to bear her soul, and that’s why “So Long, London” stands out as one of its most powerful tracks.

Like many of the best songs on this album and its companion piece The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, this song is produced by Aaron Dessner and not the album’s main producer Jack Antonoff. They had a pretty fruitful creative partnership for years, but Antonoff’s synth-pop tendencies don’t seem to be doing much for Swift’s sound anymore.

This is one of the biggest problems with Tortured Poets, which often sounds like an echo of her previous albums while lacking their best qualities. It has the vindictiveness of Reputation (“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”), the synth-pop sound of Midnights (“My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys”), storytelling strengths of Folklore and Evermore (“Clara Bow”), while still failing to measure up to any of them.

Like most of Swift’s recent albums, Tortured Poets will top the charts, break a few records – maybe even win a Grammy or two. That doesn’t change the fact it’s one of her messiest outputs in recent memory, but it’s fun to see she’s not afraid to step on the dark side, now that she’s got nothing to lose.