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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Review: ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ is long, complicated and beautiful

At 31 songs, the length of the double album will ultimately allow it to grow despite the initial blurring of songs and reliance on synth-pop sound.

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“You look like Taylor Swift / In this light, we’re lovin’ it / You’ve got edge, she never did / The future’s bright, dazzling.”

In these lyrics, which come from the closing song of Taylor Swift’s 12th album “The Tortured Poets Department,”  Swift realizes her influence in the music industry. “Clara Bow” feels reminiscent of past Swift songs like “Nothing New” and “Mirrorball,” lamenting the pressures of growing up and now living in the spotlight. This time, however, she acknowledges how often new popular music stars are described as “the new Taylor Swift.” In her new era, Swift exudes a natural and honest vulnerability that characterizes the rest of the album.   

Released amidst the success of her rerecording of past albums, her billion-dollar Eras tour and the release of her latest, Grammy award-winning album, “Midnights,” “Tortured Poets” comes at a time of emotional complexity for Swift as she is at a new height of fame while also grappling with the end of her six year relationship. It makes sense, then, that she would lean into the vulnerability and honesty that her lyrics have always captured. Since its announcement, the album was marketed as intimate poetry — hence the title.

The genre-bending Swift has remained in her current synth-pop lull for a long time, at least since “Midnights.” So, while I do enjoy this album, I hope that the next one adds more variety to her sound. Specifically,  I was hoping for “Tortured Poets” to be more orchestral, with cello and violins — or, at least for some songs to show an inkling of her musical prowess with the guitar or piano.

Some people have attributed Swift’s current sound to producers Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, arguing that Antonoff in particular is the reason for Swift’s reliance on synth-pop. This, however, is not necessarily the case. Antonoff and Dessner both produced vault tracks from “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” and “Red (Taylor’s Version)” which included significantly more instrumentation — guitar and drums, specifically. While Antonoff’s production may have been part of Swift’s lean toward a synth-heavy soundscape, it was ultimately her decision to keep it. 

While not all artists are expected to change their sound as frequently as Swift has in recent years, the expectations surrounding this album were quite different from the results. When Florence + The Machine and Post Malone were announced as featured artists on the album, fans began speculating that its tone would be more like “folklore” and “evermore” — or perhaps a new sound altogether. Although it doesn’t quite creep all the way into Florence + The Machine’s realm of mystic storytelling, “Tortured Poets” fits somewhere between Swift’s previous “folklore,” “evermore” and “Midnights.” Where this album fell short was in my expectation that “Tortured Poets” would sound different from “Midnights,” so the synth took me — and some other fans I talked to — by surprise.

One of the strengths of the album, for me, was “Florida!!! (feat. Florence + The Machine),” which showed me that “Tortured Poets” could have been stronger with more depth. Some of the songs began to blur together because of the relatively consistent synth beats — along with the album’s two-hour runtime since it’s really a collection of two albums with 31 songs, titled “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.” 

Two examples of where variety helps Swift in this album are “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” and “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.” The slight instrumental variety in these tracks makes a world of difference in how they stand out against the rest. In “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” Swift calls to her experience on the Eras tour by including sounds that could have come from her ear monitors during her sets, a unique and powerful use of synthetic sounds. “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”, on the other hand, sounds more distant from the lulling synth eras. The combination of Swift’s screams and the drum interludes offer a glimpse into the sonic variety that could have given life to more of the album. 

Swift’s lyrics in “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” further enhance the album’s musical complexity. There are faint strings and drums underscoring the track, which heighten the lyrics. When Swift begins the bridge with the line “Were you sent by someone who wanted me dead?” her desperation is intensified by the instrumentals. Synth has a way of dulling the emotionality of Swift’s lyrics. So, while her words are powerful — even poetic, one could say — they stand out when Swift incorporates instrumentation. 

With that being said, the anthology — or the second half of the album — holds three of my personal favorite tracks: “The Black Dog,” “Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus” and “I Hate It Here.” I think that “I Hate It Here” specifically calls to a part of the Dartmouth experience with the lyrics: “Quick, quick, tell me something awful / Like you are a poet trapped inside the body of a finance guy.” Here, Swift’s specificity strikes something so unique yet so hilariously common.

Honestly, one of my favorite ways to listen to this album is in combination with The 1975’s album “Being Funny in a Foreign Language,” specifically “About You” and “When We Are Together.” Mash ups on TikTok with “Guilty as Sin” and “About You” have already emerged, likely encouraged by Swift’s songs referring to lead singer Matty Healey, who Swift may have briefly dated after splitting with Joe Alwyn. 

While I’ve heard the sentiment that “Tortured Poets” is “so long, it’s daunting” — and even the New York Times said that the album “needs editing” — I believe that the length of the album ultimately works in Swift’s favor. It allows “Tortured Poets” to continue growing. For one, in a music cycle where artists often release singles or shorter-length EPs, this double album is an exciting pivot against the trend. People will either have more of the album to hang onto or move on from it slower. 

So, while it’s difficult to write about an album that feels larger than life in both anticipation and length, “Tortured Poets” sits at an interesting place in my mind. While I love many of the lyrics and the vulnerability, I think it could have benefited greatly from more musical variety. Still, “What do you think of the new Taylor Swift album?” is an icebreaker I have already heard on campus twice this week — it’s dominating the cultural conversation. With that established anticipation, I believe its length will only continue to give the album life in a great way by allowing listeners to digest the album slowly and continue to find solace in the intimate lyrics. 

Rating: ★★★★☆

Elle Muller

Elle Muller is a ’24 from Tucson, Arizona. She is double majoring in English and creative writing & theatre. At The Dartmouth, she served as the news executive editor for the 180th Directorate. Before that, she wrote and edited for Arts. In addition to writing, Elle is involved with dance and theatre at Dartmouth.