Graeme Thomson

Taylor Swift’s new album is exhausting

The Tortured Poets Department prioritises soap opera over substance

Graeme Thomson has narrated this article for you to listen to.

How to explain the supercharged star power of Taylor Swift? An undeniably gifted artist, Swift’s albums 1989, Folklore and Evermore, in particular, are excellent. She has written a battery of terrific pop songs. She is a generous and skilled performer. To suggest she is overrated is not an insult, therefore, but simply a comment on the absurd critical mass of her popularity, in which every lyric, scrap of artwork, cultural reference and personal tit-bit is weighted with a monumental significance which, it is becoming apparent, does her work few favours.

Anybody listening to Swift’s new album without prior knowledge of the layers of gossipy context surrounding it might well wonder what all the fuss was about. There are perhaps half a dozen decent pop songs, a couple of pleasant piano ballads, a lot of mid-tempo, middling meandering – and words, words, words, crammed into every cranny like a chainsaw running through
a dictionary.

The Tortured Poets Department is a break-up(s) album. It is, in some ways, a knowing exploration of what Swift terms the ‘teenage petulance’ of romantic despair, deliberately overplaying emotions for dramatic and sometimes comic effect; why else would a thirtysomething billionaire write a song called ‘But Daddy I Love Him’? It is also a jab at all those cool, sad boys cradling guitars and overly groomed misery.

‘Have you heard the new Taylor Swift album?’

Yet, my goodness, it is exhausting. While the commercially astute but artistically flawed plan to re-record every album she made for her previous label, Big Red Machine, continues apace, The Tortured Poets Department confirms the suspicion that Swift has no one around her to advise that less can be more. The album runs to 16 tracks, not counting another 15 on the ‘surprise’ second volume (which only came as a surprise to anyone unaware of Swift’s manic release schedule over the past few years). Underneath it all is a rather conservative songwriter, schooled in the Nashville tradition and still in many ways beholden to its orthodoxies. Swift has not reinvented the wheel when it comes to writing or performing, but she has arguably reinvented the notion of stardom. She is closer to a phenomenally successful film franchise or a hit Netflix series than a musical artist. She is a brand, and the brand logo is a broken heart.

The trouble with The Tortured Poets Department is that it prioritises soap opera over substance by pandering so completely to the appetites of her fanbase. The game Swift is playing with her fans – to the slightly unseemly delight of both parties, if not perhaps the rest of us – is to determine whether she is writing about her long term ex, British actor Joe Alwyn; her short term ex, bratty British musician Matty Healy; or her current beau, American football star Travis Kelce.

Having obsessive fans is one thing, but Swift seems increasingly obsessed with that obsession. She feeds the prurience of her devotees and elements of the media, while at the same time castigating them for it. Heading up the Having Your Cake and Eating It Department is ‘But Daddy I Love Him’, which states ‘I don’t cater to all those vipers’ while doing precisely that.

Swift brings her Eras Tour to the UK this summer, and on ‘I Can Do It With a Broken Heart’ she reminds the kids that when she sings for them, she will be smiling through a vale of tears. The tinny synth-pop setting suggests it might have been conceived as a joke. Indeed, you may get the most satisfaction from the album by resolving to regard it as comedy rather than tragedy.

Strip away the presumption of intimate Swiftian knowledge and we are left with songs that bubble and stew but rarely crackle. Swift might be baring her soul, but the music can barely raise a temperature. Precious few artists can be wildly prolific without defaulting to ordinary. ‘The Alchemy’, to pick a fairly random example, is not alone in sounding like a dozen other Swift songs.

‘Fortnight’ is drowsy, shimmering 1980s pop. ‘Clara Bow’ is a pithy little meditation on the fame pact, and its cruel third act. ‘Down Bad’ betrays the languorous melancholic influence of the Blue Nile, a band Swift namechecks on the similarly rapturous ‘Guilty as Sin?’ – one of too few songs which bothers to drum up a memorable chorus. ‘The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived’ is a rare case of the writing transcending diary-level angst to land somewhere more resonant.

Artistically speaking, score-settling tends not to age well. On the title track, Swift sings: ‘You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith.’ Ain’t that the truth. There is precious little poetry here, tortured or otherwise, only exposition. When the dust settles, I doubt this odd, untidy record will be regarded as a high point in her career.