In Taylor Swift's 'Tortured Poets,' the torture is in the songwriting

When Taylor Swift announced her new album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” earlier this year at the Grammys, I was equal parts curious and unaffected. Even as a lifelong fan, I wasn’t fond of her previous effort, “Midnights,” cause I found most of it overwhelmingly uninspired – despite it winning Album of the Year.

Nevertheless, Swift’s command over the zeitgeist makes her inescapable, and as a fan of most of her work, I’m bound to engage with her offerings regardless. The quality and acclaim of her previous works made me cling to the futile hope that “Midnights” was just a fluke. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has those days.

That hope died, though, as soon as I saw the album credits.

To my dismay, Swift keeps her usual creative ensemble on “The Tortured Poets Department”: Jack Antonoff, every indie-pop girl’s go-to producer, and Aaron Dessner, of The National fame, who previously worked with her on her “Folklore” and “Evermore,” and “Midnights (3 a.m. Edition).” She also brings on Post Malone and longtime friend Florence Welch as new collaborators.

Swift is known for writing songs based on her own life experiences. This artistic choice has made her synonymous with a certain brand of relatability and bestowed her with scrutiny and acclaim alike. Her fans in particular, “Swifties” for the uninitiated, use this to justify that sometimes unwarranted acclaim and discredit artists who choose a more collaborative approach to creating. “The Tortured Poets Department” further complicates my feelings surrounding the pop star and proves that Swift could benefit greatly from a more communal, creative approach.

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Songwriting on 'Tortured Poets' lost its candor

If someone were to suck the pulsing synths out of “1989,” and the narrative storytelling of “Red” or “Folklore,” you’d be left with “The Tortured Poets Department.” Everything here feels like a shell of something better, and we know she’s capable of much more.

Her usually dynamic lyricism comes off as uncharacteristically juvenile, shallow and pedestrian. “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 / But you awaken with dread,” she sings on the title track.

“I'm so depressed, I act like it's my birthday every day,” she sings on “I Can Do it With a Broken Heart.” “I cry a lot, but I am so productive, it's an art.”

She’ll sometimes jarringly throw in big words to prove her access to a thesaurus (e.g., “sanctimoniously performing soliloquies I'll never see”) but they often land clunky, contrived and even cringe. She seems to have forgone her candid storytelling for something showier, like a student using grammarly to spruce up an already half-witted essay.

The ends remain the same. What made Swift so special was her direct lyrics, compelling storytelling and clever abstractions. Now it seems like she’s trying to shove the flowery metaphors of “Folklore” and “Evermore” into pop sensibilities. It simply doesn’t work.

Melodically, most of the songs sound like diluted, unimaginative versions of songs she’s released before. It’s obvious her mission wasn’t to reinvent the wheel, she doesn’t have to, but her usual ability to bridge lyric and melody seem to have all but disappeared. Maybe Swift, at the apex of her cultural omnipresence, has grown complacent. Perhaps her billionaire status has eaten away at the hunger that once motivated her.

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It’s not all bad, though. Moments of her past brilliance find a way to break through the crest every now and again, especially on “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology,” the second installment of what appears to be a double album, which she released at 2 a.m. on Friday.

“The Black Dog” builds into a heart ache roar as she laments why memories of her don’t mar a lover’s mind while he visits the places they used to share. On “The Albatross,” she makes clever allusions to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), referring to herself as both the saboteur and savior of her past relationships.

As a singer-songwriter, Swift is often perceived as a “singular” artist with her personhood at the center. Much of her discography is akin to intimate diary entries. The fact that she is so singular, often credited as the sole writer on many of her tracks, and her life is so large allows fans to decode her songs like scripture and attach them to moments in her life and relationships.

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The beauty of her older music is that listeners can take her tales of sneaking out late to tap on a lover’s window, her journey out of the woods or the regret that takes her back to a fateful December night and apply them to happenings in their own lives. It’s why I admire “Folklore” and “Evermore” so deeply. The way she blurred the lines between fact and fiction, making it hard to determine when she was chronicling her own life or one she’s concocted, offered universality in its specificity. Now, it seems that her celebrity has eclipsed her.

“The Tortured Poets Department” will undoubtedly be the best-selling album of 2024 and will be nominated, and possibly win, the big awards at next year’s Grammys. The record has been universally praised by publications like Rolling Stone. Her previous album broke almost every record imaginable and won every award. She embarked on one of the most lucrative tours of all time.

By most metrics, she’s the biggest pop star in the world, possibly of all time. Taylor Swift has won.

But so much of the discourse surrounding Swift exists in extremes. Anything less than unabashed praise is shunned. And some of her most ruthless dissenters obviously do so in bad faith. Engaging with any art without nuance is a fruitless endeavor.

She keeps her ink and quill tightly to her chest, but this individualist and self-centered way of creating has led to an uninteresting product, unless you are obsessed with the innards of her personal life. I doubt she’ll ever run out of stories to tell. Life always gives us new inspiration. The trick lies in whether she’ll find interesting ways to tell them.

Kofi Mframa
Kofi Mframa

Nevertheless, I still love Taylor Swift. I went to see the Eras Tour in New York with my best friend. I have countless memories of a younger me belting “Mine” and “Our Song” out of car windows down I-95. I remember the first time I heard “Cruel Summer” in my friend’s bright red Honda Fit and knowing I’d be obsessed with that song forever.

I spent so much of quarantine shattered and painstakingly introspective from the beautiful prose on “Folklore” and “Evermore.” My heart broke with hers on “All Too Well,” first in 2012 and again in 2022. Swift has soundtracked the lives of so many, chronicling the beauty of falling in love and the hurt thereafter. My only wish now is that she’d see beyond herself and relinquish her powerful pen to someone new – someone who could reignite the fire in her.

Kofi Mframa is a music and culture writer and opinion intern at the Louisville Courier Journal. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Taylor Swift's 'Tortured Poets Department' is a lyrical letdown