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The Viking Vanguard

The student news site of Puyallup High School

The Viking Vanguard

The student news site of Puyallup High School

The Viking Vanguard

“Tortured Poets”: Musically Stale, Lyrically Refreshed

On her newest album, Taylor Swift sticks to a safe musical harbor but dives deeper into her own psyche for songwriting.

Coming as a surprise to many, Taylor Swift announced her 11th studio album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” in February after winning the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album. But what came as a bigger surprise after the album debuted on April 19 was the release of 15 more tracks as “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology” two hours later. Lyrically, the two hours of music allows us a look into her emotions in a way that’s more open than we’ve heard before, taking a turn into autobiographical territory. Musically, it’s very similar to earlier albums, and tends to sound stale, especially in the first half. But despite that, her songwriting stands as some of the best presented in pop music today.

The album was written by Swift and her frequent collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, with Antonoff co-writing much of the first half, and Dessner working with Swift on much of the second half. The first batch of songs released has a very similar synth-pop sound to “Midnights,” while the second half leans more towards the folk sound of “Folklore” and “Evermore.” During an Eras Tour performance in Melbourne, Swift claimed “I’ve never had an album where I needed songwriting more than I needed it on Tortured Poets.” The music presented reflects that statement, with a look into her mind as she processes the end of a long relationship and the “temporary insanity” of a manic rebound, as she says in a prologue poem included with the physical editions.

Most of the songs seem to focus on the end of her romance with actor Joe Alwyn and the brief, much-scrutinized relationship with singer Matty Healy that followed. “So Long, London,” with lyrics like “And you say I abandoned the ship/But I was going down with it/My white-knuckle dying grip/Holding tight to your quiet resentment,” tells us of the last days of a long relationship that eventually ran aground. “But Daddy I Love Him” takes shots at people who criticized her time with Healy, saying “I’d rather burn my whole life down/Than listen to one more second of all this bitchin’ and moanin’/I’ll tell you something ’bout my good name/It’s mine alone to disgrace/I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing.” Here, the lyrics are more autobiographical and soul-searching, which started with “Midnights.” You can hear the influence of Lana Del Rey on some lines, especially on “Clara Bow,” where the singer namedrops silent film star Clara Bow and singer Stevie Nicks.

While the lyrical content is alternately biting and raw, the musical side of things is more of a disappointment. The first half, save for a few songs, has a sound that’s largely the same as 2022’s “Midnights.” After two full albums of Antonoff’s drum machines and synthesizers, their musical partnership is starting to sound lethargic, and I can’t name more than two musical moments in the first half (the drum hits before the chorus in “Florida!!!” and the bass riff in “Clara Bow”) that stuck in my head.

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On the back half, Dessner’s folk-pop takes over, with more interesting musical hooks and a more varied sound, though one that is still similar to “Folklore” and “Evermore.” It’s this side of the album that has some of the best songs of Swift’s career, including “The Black Dog,” “The Albatross,” “I Look in People’s Windows” and “The Prophecy.” Throughout the whole album, Swift’s vocals sound the best they’ve ever been, with a maturity that matches the emotionally raw songs.

The sheer amount of songs, over two hours’ worth, inevitably leads to some situations in which Swift could’ve used an editor. While “Fortnight” features Post Malone and is the lead single, the song itself falls into a similar situation to 2022’s “Snow on the Beach (feat. Lana Del Rey)” where we don’t hear Post Malone that much, as he’s largely reduced to background vocals like Del Rey was. While “The Alchemy” is the only song on the original album to explicitly reference Travis Kelce, the clunky football metaphors stand out negatively against her defter lyricism on many other songs.

In the title track “The Tortured Poets Department,” Swift sings the nonsensical lines “You smokеd, then ate seven bars of chocolate/We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist/I scratch your head, you fall asleep/Like a tattooed golden retriever.” Like the infamous “sexy baby” line in “Anti-Hero,” they completely take me out of what would’ve been an otherwise enjoyable song. On the additional tracks, “thanK you aIMee” is a scathing track aimed at Kim Kardashian that feels out of place with the themes present throughout the rest of the album.

At the end of the day, those issues don’t define an album that is likely to be regarded as one of Swift’s best. While it’s a little overlong and a change in sound would’ve been nice, the songwriting is alternatively poignant and biting, with vocals that match a more mature Swift.

“The Tortured Poets Department” is available now on all streaming platforms.

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About the Contributor
Ethan Barker
Ethan Barker, ACE Editor
Ethan Barker is the ACE (Arts, Culture and Entertainment) Editor for the Viking Vanguard student newspaper at Puyallup High School. This year, which will be his second with the Vanguard and his junior year of high school, he hopes to improve his interviewing skills and work with the editorial team to investigate issues facing students. He consistently turns out reviews of blockbuster movies and shows, along with feature stories that focus on unique people and places. In addition to these, he enjoys playing guitar, swimming for PHS and his club team and reading the closest book he can get his hands on.

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