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Tortured Poets Department: A Beautiful Confessional Overshadowed by Creative Stagnation

“What do you think Taylor Swift is doing right now?” It's a question I like to ask my friends, usually over a few pints at a bar. Not because I’m an avid fan or possess an unexplained curiosity about her, but simply because I can't help but ponder her existence in contrast to that of a regular person. In the cozy confines of our conversations, my friends and I can talk about anything, reveling in our freedom without having to worry about a total stranger coming up to us and saying that we had made a great mistake dating whoever we dated or worse, a stranger screaming in our faces, claiming that we saved their lives as they work through a hysteria attack.

It's during these moments of ordinary stillness where I think about Taylor Swift and the unfathomable level of exposure she endures. Being the most famous mega star on the planet might seem like it would be rewarding in so many ways yet in Tortured Poet’s Department, Swift makes it abundantly clear, over the course of well over two hours, that she’s not having fun.

The Tortured Poets Department, aka Taylor Swift’s confessional, serves as an anthology showcasing her earnestness in an unprecedented manner. Spanning over two hours, the album delves into various themes, from heartbreak to a distorted sense of self, all the way to the weighty burden of being the most talked-about public figure. Swift portrays these struggles in a Sisyphean fashion, yet amidst the journey, she remains unable to discover a resolution that would set her free from the cages that she finds herself in.

Most people will likely analyze the lyrical content of this record primarily through the lens of heartbreak, given its overarching theme. However, the most intriguing aspect of this album lies in its recurrent themes of imprisonment and suffocation. Throughout TPD, Taylor Swift consistently reminds us that being Taylor Swift™ often feels like being encased in cellophane, slowly losing air as you shine for others. 

In But Daddy I Love Him she sings  I forget how the West was won, I forget if this was ever fun. I just learned these people raise you to cage you.”  In I Can Do It With a Broken Heart, which is one of the saddest songs on the record, contrasting the incredibly upbeat and poppy production, she sings “Breaking down, I hit the floor. All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting, "More", I was grinnin' like I'm winnin'. I was hittin' my marks cause I can do it with a broken heart.” Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me? echoes a similar theme of not having control over your life with the line “I was tame, I was gentle 'til the circus life made me mean "Don't you worry, folks, we took out all her teeth" 

Each song further humanizes Taylor and shows her earnestness in a new light. While it's very easy to empathize with her as she goes through every perceivable mood and emotion that exists in the human spectrum, crying, screaming, and asking “Why?”, besides the humanizing vulnerability that the album offers, it doesn’t quite reach its full potential. A big noticeable drawback is the repetitive nature of her lyrics, which, while heartfelt, becomes monotonous over the course of the album. 

The album feels like its sole purpose was to serve as a vessel for Taylor Swift to unburden herself and repent to whoever is listening. At times, it resembles slam poetry with its wordiness and the desire to have “emotional punchlines” However, the punchlines don't land as they lack Taylor's characteristic lyrical wit. The urgency to be heard overshadows the strength of her pen, resulting in lyrics that feel unrefined and wobbly. Her writing reads as if it has been taken directly from her diary, without being polished or adjusted for depth. The entire record feels like sleepover conversations, amplified by the titular track, 'Tortured Poets Department,' with lines like “You told Lucy you’d kill yourself if I ever leave and I said that to Jack about you, so I felt seen.” While Swifties will undoubtedly indulge themselves in this aspect of the album, for those less immersed in her world who came solely for the music, it may come across as lazy and occasionally sloppy.

Even in songs that reminisces the folk-driven magic of her previous works where she has room to let her lyrical craftsmanship and emotions soar, she doesn't go there, neither with her vocal performance, nor with her writing. Even in a heavily emotional song like 'How Did It End?', Taylor sounds bored. Consequently, the seemingly vulnerable songs lose their convincing edge, resulting in a disjointed listening experience at times. Even tracks like The Tortured Poets Department, But Daddy I Love Him, and The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived, which ostensibly promise emotional depth, ultimately disappoint. Despite their confessional nature, these songs fail to evoke the raw emotion and intensity that one would expect from their themes.

Throughout the record, the production struggles to elevate Swift's artistic expression or contribute anything of substance to her depth. It comes across as lousily assembled, as if it were thrown together as an afterthought to accompany her lyrics. Even in a song like "Florida!!!," which represents a departure from the album's usual sonic direction, we're left hanging. The heavy baroque pop-style drums hint at a buildup towards a climactic, cathartic moment, but the song ends abruptly without ever delivering on that promise. Jack Antonoff’s synth work and monotonous drum machine rhythms sit so unoffensively behind each track that it becomes offensive by nature. The repetitive melody construction further exacerbates this issue, blurring the distinction between tracks to the point where listeners may struggle to differentiate one song from another. It's a jarring realization to find oneself several songs deep into the album without noticing any significant variation or progression. Considering the duo's past collaborations on standout tracks like Out of the Woods, Cruel Summer, mirrorball, August, Getaway Car and many more, it's baffling to witness the stark decline in quality evident in Tortured Poets Department. The album lacks the intricate layers and richness that once characterized their work, instead coming across as uninspired.

When Aaron Dessner takes the wheel of production, the folklore/ evermore inspired numbers come into fruition which would please most listeners who enjoyed those two albums. However, in contrast to folklore and evermore, the acoustic and piano-driven blanket that envelops the songs sounds plain and once again, repetitive. Even though there are some standouts like Peter, The Prophecy and The Bolter, without the lyrical freshness that could redeem the rest of the songs, the second part of the album feels like a unsuccessful remake of folklore and evermore.

Tortured Poet’s Department presents a paradoxical experience—while it offers a beautiful confessional space for Taylor Swift to express her vulnerability, it is ultimately overshadowed by her artistic stagnation. The cluttered nature of the album stifles the potential for standout tracks like So Long, London, Guilty As Sin?, The Albatross, and My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys to truly shine, as they become lost amidst the overwhelming array of songs. Despite the undeniably beautiful vulnerability showcased by Swift, it begins to lose its charm as the album progresses due to repetition and lack of freshness.

It seems as though Swift is merely scratching the surface of her artistic potential, relying heavily on familiar elements that have defined her music in the past. This dependence on the tried and tested not only stifles her growth as an artist but also robs the album of the innovation and creativity it desperately needs.


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