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‘The Tortured Poets Department’ is indeed tortuous

Taylor Swift // Courtesy
Swift’s 11th album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” was a mixed bag for critics.

Shortly before the release of her new album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” Taylor Swift’s marketing team set up a temporary “library” in a shopping mall. The installation consisted of faux-aged sheets of paper bearing typed lyrics from the record. At the bottom of each of these scraps was a prominent Spotify logo.

The entire installation was an exercise in contradictions: a library in one of the country’s busiest centers of commerce, a hypermodern company’s logo printed under text that evokes analog type.

The album is marred by contradictions, too. It’s a highly autobiographical, ostensibly emotional record, but at times, it’s hard to tell whether or not Swift and her co-writers are taking it seriously.

Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner’s production is bizarre and excessive, riddled with cartoonish ethereal effects and distant-sounding snare hits that wouldn’t be out of place on a New Order single. Furthermore, it’s often difficult to determine whether Swift’s lyrics are intentionally overwrought, winkingly self-aware or just plain bad.

The song “Florida!!!” is the best example of the record’s tonal confusion. It’s mostly humorous, I guess — its chorus is ridiculous, and most of the lyrics read like jokes.

Florence Welch’s verse on “Florida!!!,” on the other hand, is the kind of emotionally raw and authentic performance that I expected from the album’s art and overall concept. Her verse could have worked in another song, but it leaves “Florida!!!” feeling unbalanced and confused.

Many of the songs are like this: they’re predominantly serious or humorous but have incongruous elements thrown in seemingly at random.

Another issue with the album’s potential self-awareness is that Swift isn’t exactly known for being an ironist. Her success is built on hyper-earnest, confessional lyrics. Even if Swift wishes to escape that paradigm with this record, her efforts are undercut by her detours away from playful lyrics back into earnestness.

One may argue that my focus on Swift’s extratextual persona is unnecessary and that I should evaluate the album based solely on her music. The album, however, is very much concerned with these extratextual factors.

“The Tortured Poets Department” is entirely composed of songs about Swift’s romantic relationships and her relationship with the public. It, therefore, becomes impossible and pointless to extricate the album from that context.

The best song on the album, and also the only one that’s funny, is “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.” Its Postal Service-esque intro, gleeful overproduction and histrionic vocals are effective.

“Clara Bow” is also decent. It sounds like Swift trying to emulate a Black Country, New Road song, and the lyrics are conceptually interesting and capably executed. These two songs are too little too late to save the record, though.

Swift clearly invested an incredible amount of effort and emotion to make this project; I just wish she’d done so in a way that actually worked. She tried to make her “Blood on the Tracks” but ended up with her “Self Portrait.”

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Thomas Merzlak
Thomas Merzlak, TimeOut Editor
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