Dillon Nittoli | Taylor Swift’s latest album is more tortured poetry than music.

Photo credit: Rolling Stones

The songwriter’s latest anthology has gone a little too lyrical for its own good.

By Dillon Nittoli

As the most listened-to artist of 2023, Taylor Swift’s latest album The Tortured Poets Department was one of the most anticipated musical projects of 2024. Following her dominant night at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards, where she received her record-breaking 4th Album of the Year award for Midnights, the announcement of a brand new album during her Album of the Year speech came as a surprise to fans and the public alike. Many of whom were expecting the announcement of a Taylor’s Version re-release of her hit 2017 album, Reputation. This surprise announcement readied Taylor’s millions of fans for a new chance to break the records of her previous era, Midnights, after the unprecedented success of her sixth concert tour, the Eras Tour. And break those records they did, with more than 300 million streams in its first day alone, Swifties around the world helped The Tortured Poets Department to nearly double the previous record for most album streams in a day (Midnights with 184.7 million streams). But do these incredible stream counts reflect the overall quality of this album in comparison to her existing catalog? I think not.

Taylor Swift has a very particular sound associated with her. Since her partnership with producer Jack Antonoff, Swift’s signature wordiness and calming, “poppy” instrumentation have been a staple in her past three albums: Midnights, Evermore, and Folklore. Swift’s transition away from the quintessential pop sound of 1989 has garnered her a more mature fanbase that relishes in her meaningful songwriting. From my first listen of The Tortured Poets Department, I recognized the dense, poetic songwriting that was meant to serve as a service to these fans; however, I found most of the verses to be too dense with meaningful lyrics to fully reflect upon what I heard. When I listen to music, I enjoy the gaps between dense and meaningful verses as they allow me to breathe and appreciate the song I am listening to. Almost all of the songs in her massive 31-song complete album, The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology have too many charged lyrics one after another for my taste, making many of the songs sound less like a song and more like a poem. I believe there is a stark difference between songwriting and poetry when it comes to enjoyable music, a difference I unfortunately did not observe in Swift’s latest work.

As I reflected upon the 31 songs that I heard before drafting this review, I realized that I was having a hard time understanding what many of the songs on The Tortured Poets Department were trying to convey from a first listen alone. The poetic approach Swift was surely going for sounded to me, a member of her casual audience, like a train of thought rather than a song, negatively impacting the listenability of most of the songs from the album. This challenging nature of The Tortured Poets Department for a casual listener exhibits to me that there is likely a lack of pull for the general public toward listening to the album. For her younger fans, like my 11 and 7-year-old cousins, I don’t see a great deal of sonic appeal, unlike most of her previous productions. 

Swift is known for making use of wordplay throughout her songs, an aspect of her songwriting that her fans and the general public eat up. In The Tortured Poets Department, she utilizes this witty wordplay so much that the novelty is diminished, frequently leaving the listener weary and irritated instead of stimulated. Additionally, her tendency to simple, line-to-line rhyming is employed ad-nauseum, making her often serious lyrics take on an immature value. While I found much of her lyricism to be insightful, verses like “We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist” from the title track, “Fortnight” and “I’d say the 1830s but without all the racists” from “I Hate It Here” felt immature and made me stop and think, “did she really just say that?”

The lyricism for The Tortured Poets Department had some problems but was overall quite serviceable. When it comes to production, however, the problems that I have are more consequential and all have a common denominator: Jack Antonoff. I find Antonoff’s production for Swift and even for other artists like Lana Del Rey to be lackluster and devoid of creativity. Due to the poetic and wordy lyricism Swift employed in the The Tortured Poets Department, the lack of variation in Antonoff’s production between songs often left me confused as to when one song ended and when another began. Antonoff and Swift clearly heeded the praise the general public and Swifties alike continue to shower upon Folklore and Evermore when creating The Tortured Poets Department; however, Antonoff’s instrumentals ended up sounding like a watered down 1989, dragging down some of Swift’s stronger tracks. “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” being the best example of this.

For fans of Swift’s softer, less instrumentally complex songs, I can see the strong appeal of this album; however, as someone who appreciates unique instrumentation in pop music, much of this album is a miss for me. I strongly believe that the instrumental factor of a song is just as, if not more important than the lyrical factor; after all, a song without instrumentation is just a glorified poem and isn’t really listenable for most people. Antonoff’s increasingly safe style of production for Swift works commercially, as seen with The Tortured Poets Department’s meteoric jump to being the best selling album of 2024, but leaves out musical flavor and neglects to challenge Swift artistically.

Further driving home this point against Antonoff’s production is the intra-album comparison with songs produced by Aaron Dessner. In relation to the songs produced with Antonoff (Including: Fortnight, Down Bad, Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me, I Can Do It with a Broken Heart), those produced by Dessner (Including: The Manuscript, How Did It End?, The Albatross, So Long London) were more musically cohesive and enjoyable to a casual listener; however, they still showed little musical variation. In general, the musical production for The Tortured Poets Department mirrored the music video for title track, “Fortnight,” black, white, and a little bland. 

While I have a great deal of criticism for The Tortured Poets Department, I can see the album appealing to a wide audience that enjoys wordy, thoughtful music; of which I am admittedly not an avid listener. With a love of interesting instrumentation in all kinds of music, there are plenty of Swift’s past albums that can stimulate my musical taste. Perhaps my lukewarm reception of The Tortured Poets Department is an indication that I am stuck in the past where Max Martin and Taylor Swift were churning out timeless classics like “Wildest Dreams,” “…Ready For It,” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” and have become disconnected from the modern music scene. Nevertheless, Swift’s lyricism in The Tortured Poets Department was visibly not all that it could have been and what we know she is capable of. Coupling this with Antonoff’s lackluster production, The Tortured Poets Department proved to be a letdown for a casual listener of Taylor Swift like myself. 

Dillon Nittoli is a rising junior in the College studying Biology from New York. Dillon is also the Copy Editor for The Pennsylvania Post. His email is dnittoli@sas.upenn.edu 

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