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Pop CultureApril 22, 2024

What do we make of The Tortured Poets Department?


Our tortured critics department reviews the new Taylor Swift album.

On Friday, Taylor Swift smashed records held by the likes of Taylor Swift and Taylor Swift, when her new album The Tortured Poets Department became the most streamed album on Spotify in a single day. Her 11th album had only been announced two months prior at the Grammys, during which Swift threw up two fingers to symbolise the two years she spent making it. Little did we know that those two fingers actually symbolised a two-part album that would arrive just two hours apart

After spending the weekend soaking up the gargantuan 31-song anthology, The Spinoff’s tortured critics department hereby deliver their verdicts. 

Alex Casey (Senior writer)

Like many, I heard “typewriter” and I got the ick. I listened again, and the ick-cicles started to melt. I listened again, stubborn remnants of ick clung on, but I was too busy perusing the menu for ‘The Black Dog’ pub to notice. Because consuming a new Taylor Swift album is as much a musical experience as it is a binge-watch of the latest season of your favourite TV show. The wholesome romantic lead has been cut (Joe Alwyn), problematic old flames have returned (Matty Healy), and there are still, somehow, scores to settle against old foes (Kim Kardashian). 

That said, the arrival of a whole second part, a mere two hours after the release of the first, feels a little bit like those weaksauce second weddings that happen halfway through Married at First Sight. Your bonds with the original cast have already been forged, your favourites have already been picked, and these new folks all just seem like suspicious producer offcuts. Frankly, I still haven’t connected with the second half and its kooky ensemble cast of first name titles: Chloe, Sam, Sophia, Marcus, Aimee, Cassandra, Peter AND Robin?! OK, Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day!

Songs I do love include: ‘Down Bad’, ‘I Can Do It With a Broken Heart’ and ‘Florida!!!’ – all big grumpy strop bops with crushing lyrics lurking beneath their comparably upbeat vibes (“I cry a lot but I am so productive” is a fave, as is “my friends all smell like weed or little babies”). 2024 is continuing to prove itself as the year that I randomly fall in love with Post Malone (first via Beyonce’s ‘Levii’s Jeans’ and now via ‘Fortnight’) and the fiercely spooky ‘Whose Afraid of Little Old Me’ has set the perfect scene for Reputation (Taylor’s Version) TV to slither into our lives. 

‘But Daddy I Love Him’ and ‘Guilty as Sin’ are other highlights, a hark back to pre-1989 Swift sound complete with all the same headstrong, teenage, love-in-a-hopeless-place themes. What concerns me very, very deeply is that two of my biggest ick songs are the two which appear to be about Travis Kelce (‘The Alchemy’ and ‘So High School’). “When I touch down / Call the amateurs and cut ’em from the team” is not miles away from the joke AI song about Kelce, and I am truly dreading the next album will be 43 tracks of football puns titled The Interception. 

Isaiah Tour (Video editor)

After what felt like hell trying to get tickets to the Eras Tour, then ending up with tickets the week of the concert in Melbourne, I had finally made peace with Taylor Swift and stopped letting her plague my life. However, moments before the release of The Tortured Poets Department I found myself spiralling and even more so when the double album was released. I ended up listening to the album quite a few times in various settings – driving in the car alone in the rain, at the gym, lying with headphones on and a release party at the Tuning Fork.

A frenzied snap from the TTPD listening party. (Photo: Isaiah Tour)

The album is growing on me the more I listen to it but I think it’s going to take me a bit longer compared to her back catalogue to really form a proper opinion. Here are my top picks so far:

  • ‘Guilty as Sin?’: My instant favourite, it feels like it channels the earlier Taylor Swift that I grew up loving and crying to.
  • ‘I Can Do It With a Broken Heart’: Tragic ,yet why do I want to bop? Also, give credit to Taylor who seems to always be working so hard.
  • ‘Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?’: I mean hearing everyone shout that line at Tuning Fork on release night was pretty epic.
  • ‘So High School’: I felt like I was transported to the 90s. It has a different sound to some of the other songs which can feel similar after a while so this was a breath of fresh air. 
  • My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys’: Feels like 1989.

I’m not too sure once the hype settles down if I will continue to listen to the album as a whole – I stopped listening to Midnights in its entirety six months after its release – but I’m keeping myself open. I just hope one day Taylor will go back to her country pop roots.

Madeleine Chapman (Editor) 

I will be haunted until the day I die by these lyrics:

My friends used to play a game
Where we would pick a decade
We wished we could live in instead of this
I’d say the 1830s but without all the racists

This is truly the stuff of middle school talent quest. A lyric so bad I thought someone had made a fake lyric meme when I first saw a screenshot of it. Taylor Swift has just spent months performing sellout arena shows, giving the sport of American Football a much-needed publicity boost, using the Grammys as a marketing ploy for this album and becoming a billionaire. So what is this album for? Clearly not to express some deep artistic vision, given it’s 31 songs long (ridiculous) and contains a lot of lyrics as clunky and embarrassing as “the 1830s but without all the racists.

I have genuinely loved the lyricism of Swift’s music but this album has made me wonder if she’s quite literally run out of experiences. Now, her lyrics lack any specificity (despite every song having a whole lot of lore built in), and sound like ChatGPT was tasked with writing a Taylor Swift-esque ballad. I’d much rather just listen to the source material (her previous albums).

Perhaps the thrill of releasing “Taylor’s versions” of her early albums, with bonus tracks and acoustic versions, has led Swift to believe that simply releasing songs-that-sound-like-her-other-songs will keep her on top. And unfortunately she’s probably right. The first half of this album is available on vinyl. In four different versions. Sale price: $96.

PS: Please, for the love god, get Jack Anton-off these albums.

Milla (14 year-old Swiftie)

When I first heard the first album, I didn’t really like it because I couldn’t distinguish one song from the other. Now, after a few days of listening to it, it’s growing on me. I think because I streamed it all at once, that meant I didn’t have time to think about each song in its own way. My favourite songs are ‘Florida!!!’ (I love Florence and The Machine) and ‘Clara Bow’, and I also love ‘I Can Do It With a Broken Heart’. I like the vibe and the vocals, even though the song has a really sad meaning. One of my favourite lines is “​​little did you know, your home’s really only a town you’re just a guest in” from ‘Florida!!!’. My least favourite song is ‘Down Bad’, even though a lot of people like it – it’s a bit repetitive. It’s a rainy-day, moody album and emotional as hell. 

Stewart Sowman-Lund (News reporter) 

Listening to a Taylor Swift album is a bit like being a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To enjoy the latest instalment, you need to be deeply familiar with the back catalogue. To the uninitiated, diving into the Tortured Poets Department (and its surprise follow-up release) would be like tuning into Wandavision without realising it was going to be one big eight-episode easter egg wrapped up to look all flashy. TTPD is so dense with stories familiar to super fans of her work, but I can’t imagine understanding any of it if you weren’t already a fan. That’s fine, in a way, considering she’s the most famous person on the planet and pretty much everyone is already invested – but after the more subdued work of albums like Folklore, I was hoping that TTPD was going to be a similar reset. Instead, we have an album that sort of feels like Midnights Part Two. 

There are a few standouts, especially in the first half of the album. ‘Florida!!!’ featuring Florence and the Machine is loud and messy, and feels like something new for Swift. ‘So Long, London’, given the coveted track five slot reserved for Swift’s most personal and often heartbreaking works, is a personal favourite. There are several others I really enjoyed on my first listen, but I can’t remember their names because they all started to blend into one big Jack Antonoff blur. That’s the difficulty that comes from having an album that is (objectively) way too long (31 songs!!!). 

While there was something exhilarating about getting off a plane on Friday to learn that a second tranche of songs had been surprise dropped while I was in the air, I can’t help but think that Swift’s prolificness dampens the impact of the album’s best work. Dua Lipa recently revealed she wrote almost 100 songs for her new album, before whittling it down to just 11. TTPD would be a better album if Swift had also been more dutiful in selecting the tracklist, allowing the strongest dozen-or-so songs to stand tall. As released, TTPD is a worthy addition to Swift’s canon – just one that needed an edit.

Duncan Greive (Founder)

This is what lies beyond Peak Taylor – the sound of the Taylor bubble bursting. Like any markets-based phenomenon, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing here – but that a few years of introspection is required to rebuild. The albums’ issues don’t change the dazzling commercial and creative achievements of the last few years – but do show that there is a limit, even for someone so prodigiously talented. 

I was cautiously warming to Tortured Poets at its original duration – enjoying the Drive soundtrack synth pads of ‘Fortnight’, and the catharsis of But ‘Daddy I Love Him’ – then an already overlong album suddenly doubled in length. It’s delivering Taylor’s Version in realtime, without the time to really absorb the original core and vision. 

I can’t help but think about the hunger and craft that went into the Fearless-Speak Now-Red run, and imagine the way these songs had to have been written and recorded squeezed alongside the Eras tour – rightly or wrongly, there just isn’t that sense of a product honed relentlessly until it gleams. I basically buy Lindsay Zoladz’ theory of the album entirely – I think Taylor and Jack Antonoff need to be put in time out from each other. 

The sonic palette they’re operating in is over-familiar, the whispery hush conveys not emotion but indifference. I desperately want her to make a pop-rock guitar album again, to get out of this slow, almost dirge-y rut. I will never not love Taylor Swift, and there are a number of interesting songs here, which will no doubt grow on me over time. But as Zoladz says, “great poets know how to condense, or at least how to edit”. Historically it was among Swift’s greatest skills – unfortunately it seems to have deserted her now.

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