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Album review: ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ is a deeply personal and reflective high point of Taylor Swift’s career

Illustration by Akhila Nadimpalli

Taylor Swift has truly reached peak notoriety and fame throughout the past two years. Since 2022, she’s released one new album (“Midnights”), re-recorded two albums (“Speak Now” and “1989”) and started the record-breaking Eras Tour.

The latest addition, released on Friday, April 19, to Swift’s lengthy discography is the heartbreakingly hilarious “The Tortured Poets Department.”

The 11th studio album takes the listener through the past two years of her life. It’s an immersive diary of some of her most raw and real moments. Aided by Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, two of her closest friends and collaborators, the album holds some of her darkest (and ironically humorous) lyrics and most experimental production.

Throughout the 31 tracks (Swift released a second disc called “The Anthology” with 16 more songs at 2 a.m. on Friday in typical Swift fashion), she reflects on past relationships, notably her 6-year relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn and a fling with lead singer of The 1975 Matty Healy. But it’s more than just a break up album. She isn’t grieving the relationships but more so grieving the moments and the life that she won’t get back.

She also reveals that while productive and busy, the past few years have been very difficult emotionally and have led to extreme stress.

“All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting ‘More!’ / I was grinning like I’m winning / I was hitting my marks / ‘Cause I can do it with a broken heart,” Swift sings on “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.” In the sonically invigorating yet lyrically depressing song (a true Swift classic), she reflects on performing during her tour after a painful breakup. Her inner-ear monitor from the Eras Tour seemingly counts her in before the pre-chorus.

Aside from “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” another song that stood out to me was “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”

The pounding and building production feels like a combination of “Reputation” and “Midnights.” Swift highlights the media’s perception of her and how she’s been forced to have thicker skin. “I was tame, I was gentle ‘til the circus life made me mean / ’Don’t you worry folks we took out all her teeth’ / Who’s afraid of little old me? / You should be,” she remarks.

One of my favorites from “The Anthology” tracks is “The Black Dog,” a ballad about a past relationship and losing the person you love. The song starts with “And your location, you forgot to turn it off / And so I watch as you walk / Into some bar called the Black Dog.” Swift’s storytelling and ability to have a song build are really highlighted in this song and the album as a whole.

Another favorite from “The Anthology” is “So High School,” a love song for Swift’s partner Travis Kelce, tight-end for the Kansas City Chiefs. “I feel so high school every time I look at you / I wanna find you in a crowd just to hide from you,” she says of Kelce.

Swift had two features on her album: Post Malone and Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine. “Fortnight” featuring Malone opened the album and also got a music video starring the pair. “Florida!!!” featuring Welch is a fiery combination of indie, pop and rock (and one of my favorites of the album, partly because of my long standing love for Welch’s music).

While the initial release was produced mostly by Antonoff, who notably has a more synth-pop sound, “The Anthology” tracks were produced by Dessner, who has more of a folk and indie sound.

While both discs have tracks that I love, I have to say my preference is with the initial release.

While Antonoff’s production style is controversial (mainly just for sounding too similar to previous works, which is a critique that I do occasionally agree with), I think the experimental indie pop sound was nice for the first half. Like I mentioned earlier, some of the productions remind me of “Reputation,” “Midnights” and even a bit of “Red,” which makes sense considering Antonoff worked on the first two. Regardless of production, his songwriting ability especially paired with Swift is amazing.

I found that the second half (which is still spectacular) was much better suited for Dessner’s style with tracks more reminiscent of “folklore” and “evermore.” Specifically with songs like “The Prophecy,” “Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus” and “So High School,” Dessner’s production style and songwriting skills shine.

The reception of the new album has been pretty split. Pitchfork gave “The Tortured Poets Department” a 6.6 and “The Anthology” a 6, while the Rolling Stone gave it “instant classic” certification. Fans have taken to social media to discuss their thoughts, with the general consensus either being that it’s too long and repetitive or one of her best bodies of work to date.

I welcome any and all opinions, and I understand that Swift’s music isn’t for everyone. But as a long-time listener, I think that this is one of my favorite albums of hers. It was deeply personal and raw. Her wit made me laugh, her songwriting made me cry and it all felt very cathartic.

The album isn’t easy to digest and it most definitely won’t be for everyone, which is alright. All I ask is that you give it a try with an open mind and remember that everyone is allowed to their own personal music taste.

You’ll find me listening to “The Tortured Poets Department” until further notice; there’s quite a lot still left to uncover.

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