“The Tortured Poets Department” was torturous

Writer Rishi Bonthu rates the tracks on Taylor Swift’s eleventh studio album “The Tortured Poets Department.”
Photo illustration of Taylor Swifts album over for her newest release, The Tortured Poets Department.
Photo illustration of Taylor Swift’s album over for her newest release, “The Tortured Poets Department.”
Prajwal Adhikari

“The Tortured Poets Department” mixes the intimacy of previous albums like “folklore” and “evermore” with the synth-pop beats of “Midnights” and “reputation”. While this release was anticipated by many, including me, I found the album, at 32 songs and a 2-hour running time, entirely overwhelming.  The album offers insight into Swift’s private life amid multiple highly publicized breakups and relationships. While Swift’s previous albums have offered stories like these in the form of songs before, they have always been fictitious, while in The Tortured Poets Department, she bares her life for all to see. The Tortured Poets Department is more adult yet somehow manages to feel more childish, perhaps due to some of the questionable lyrics included or the way she curses; it feels like she is trying to hit a quota.  

I firmly believe the album would be much more enjoyable without Jack Antonoff’s atrocious backing instrumentals that make every song sound the same. While Swift and Antonoff’s collaborations have produced some of my favorite songs in the past, these new songs just feel stale and lifeless. This album could have benefited greatly from added musical variety. On my first listen to the album there were two songs that stood out to me immediately, “loml” and “Guilty as Sin?”. They were two of the few 10/10s on the album for me, and these songs happen to be two of the few songs that do not feature Antonoff. While many of the problems on the album do stem from Antonoff’s repetitive production, all of the blame cannot be placed on him. This album features some of Swift’s worst lyricism out of her entire discography including, “And my friends all smell like weed or little babies” or “My friends used to play a game where / We would pick a decade / We wished we could live in instead of this / I’d say the 1830s but without all the racists”. The mixture of the same soulless patterns from Antonoff and Swift’s questionable songwriting (which we know can and has been phenomenal) paired with some drums and synthesizers just feels hollow and numb. This said there were some  particularly beautiful lyrics that are reminiscent of “folklore” or “evermore”. 

“Tortured Poets” just feels like there are no stakes and there is no passion behind it. With Swift’s previous albums like “reputation”, Swift wrote songs like she had something to prove and that was the charm, she took risks even after a wildly successful album like 1989 and made changes again and again. Swift is at her best when she is trying to prove something and it seems like she no longer feels challenged because she is already at the top. This being said, it is difficult to consistently drop so many albums in so little time and have every single one be a hit, especially one that is so large in both anticipation and length and while the songs did initially blend into each other I believe that given time, the album will grow as listens relisten and can digest and distinguish songs from each other. While I have many mixed feelings about this album, overall I mostly enjoyed listening. I appreciate the vulnerability and many of the lyrics, but I do hope her next album brings back the variety in sound she is known for.


Fortnight (featuring Post Malone): 4/10 

“Fortnight” was probably one of the worst choices for the first song on the album. It was more electronic than I expected but it definitely set the vibe for the album. It was catchy although a bit repetitive. The way many of the words were annunciated was jarring and the feature was questionable at best. 


The Tortured Poets Department: 7/10 

“The Tortured Poets Department” is a solid title track. It is slightly evocative of “Fearless” in the beginning but goes downhill after that. This song has some of the most questionable lyrics out of the album, including the already infamous, “You smoked then ate seven bars of chocolate/We declared Charli Puth should be a bigger artist/I scratch your head you fall asleep/Like a tattooed golden retriever” but also some redeeming lines. My personal favorite is “I laughed in your face and said, ‘You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith’ / This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel, we’re modern idiots,” I appreciate the call out to other “tortured poets” especially because poet Dylan Thomas famously died at his favorite bar – the White Horse Tavern.  


My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys: 6.5/10 

“My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” has a very interesting spot in my mind, it was very reminiscent of “reputation” and while I do love the layered vocals used, the chorus was lacking and repetitive. 


Down Bad: 7.5/10 

“Down Bad” is also very similar in sound to the past few songs, but evokes a very 1989 feel. The bass line in the back helps to differentiate from the other songs but it doesn’t particularly stand out from the rest. It does have a catchy chorus and I enjoyed how she layered the chorus with other lyrics at the end. However, I dislike how many of the choruses on this album are just a repetition of the title, it is a major reason why all of the songs seem to blend into each other. 


So Long, London: 8.5/10 

“So Long, London” is one of the first songs on this album that actually stood out to me. It starts with a chorus that sounds eerily similar to a church choir which helps separate it from the rest. After that, however, she does fall back into her old pattern of electronic beats, but this one actually helps convey the story. The mixture of Swift’s slow melancholic vocals with the frantic electronic beat in the back makes a great dissonance to convey the anxious vibe of the track.


But Daddy I Love Him: 7.5/10 

“But Daddy I Love Him” also breaks from the slow tracks that are now expected, it is more energetic than the rest and sets a great mood with lots of imagery. While it is a break from the slow songs we mostly see it is still toned down. This song is very much reminiscent of “Love Story” with its storytelling and how the chorus changes at the end to tell the tale. This track showcases some of the best writing we’ve seen so far with “I’ll tell you somethin’ ‘bout my good name, it’s mine alone to disgrace / I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing” and the chorus not just being the title repeated a few times.


Fresh Out the Slammer: 9/10 

“Fresh Out the Slammer” begins with a gentle acoustic guitar but quickly transitions into the pop sound we are all too familiar with, but works for this song. This shift does convey the central theme of freedom and taking back control. The track is lush with imagery and and doesn’t feel confined and restricted like the other songs, it feels like a breath of fresh air and relief. This track is very reminiscent of “Clean” from 1989 (Taylor’s Version). 


Florida!!! (featuring Florence and the Machine): 7.5/10 

“Florida!!!” features one of the worst lyrics on the album, “And my friends all smell like weed or little babies” but other than that it’s a solid track. The instrumentals are drastically different but it still sounds the same as the rest of the album. I do appreciate the feature and it is pretty catchy and more energetic than the rest.  I love how the drums hit after she says Florida to mimic the exclamation marks in the title. 


Guilty as Sin?: 10/10

“Guilty as Sin?” is the first ten on the album and perhaps the only one so far I would listen to on my own time. It has a catchy chorus paired with more freed lower stronger vocals. “Guilty As Sin?” has been compared to the songs like “Dress”, “False God” or “Maroon”. 


Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?: 7/10 

“Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me” tells a story about the struggles of fame and Swift taking a stand against her critics. The song has a somber atmosphere that is ruined by the vocal filters used.  


I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can): 7/10

“I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)” is reminiscent of folklore with its limited acoustics and has an intimate tone similar to other tracks on the album. The intimate style is ironic when compared to the title. 


loml: 10/10

“loml” is the piano ballad I expected coming into this album, it strips away Antonoff’s horrific backings and leaves just her voice and a piano.  This track also includes one of my favorite lyrics on the album, “And all at once, the ink bleeds,” “A con-man sells a fool a get-love-quick scheme, I’ve felt a hole like this never before and ever since.” “loml” reminds me of “champagne problems” not only due to the tone of the song but also the story it tells. 


I Can Do It With a Broken Heart: 6/10 

“I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” has a bouncy sound contrasting with somber lyrics that create the main theme of faking strength. It does have an interesting synth back-track but it sounds the same as all the others on the album. This track sounds similar to songs on “Midnights” like “Glitch” and “Paris”.


The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived: 7/10 

“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” starts slowly but that quickly changes into quick, sharp accusations laced with anger. While the lyrics are drastically different, the chorus has a similar feeling to that of “the lakes”. While Swift is usually known for her powerful bridges, most on this album have been lacking, but I did enjoy the bridge of this song. 


The Alchemy: 9/10 

“The Alchemy” is different from all others on this album, being the only song with a happy ending. While it is different, it still manages to keep the melancholy feel while still being energetic. Although it is a pop song, “The Alchemy” reminded me strongly of songs on “evermore”. This song stood out immediately, beginning with a delicate feel but transforming into a pop anthem. 


Clara Bow: 7/10 

“Clara Bow” starts out with a muted instrumental that eerily contrasts with her breathy vocals. While I may not have enjoyed the song itself, I can appreciate the story Swift is telling, as it is one she has told before in tracks like “The Lucky One” and “Nothing New”. In “Clara Bow” Swift tells a story we have heard many times over, using film star Clara Bow as a mirror for her own life, singing about the glorification of female stars and the pressure placed on them. “Clara Bow” is a chilling critique of the entertainment industry and a beautiful way to end the album. 


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About the Contributors
Rishitha Bonthu
Rishitha Bonthu, Writer
Rishi Bonthu is a sophomore and a writer for “The Express”. This is her first year on staff. Rishi is also involved in girls golf, DECA, Science Olympiad, and Kay Club. In her free time Rishi enjoys reading, baking, making clothes, and spending time with her friends. Rishi looks forward to being on staff and is excited to make new friends and develop her writing skills.
Prajwal Adhikari
Prajwal Adhikari, Sports Design Editor
Prajwal is a senior and Sports Design Editor for “The Express.” This is his second year on staff. Outside of newspaper, Prajwal is a clarinet section leader of the Howlin’ Husky Marching Band and plans to participate in various clubs throughout the year. Prajwal enjoys hanging out with friends, rooting for the Packers, and watching movies with family. He is excited to express his creativity as a designer and editor!

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