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This cover image released by Republic Records show "The Tortured Poets Department" by Taylor Swift. This cover image released by Republic Records show "The Tortured Poets Department" by Taylor Swift. (Republic Records via AP)

Have we reached peak Taylor Swift? As a fan of her music, I find it a difficult question to grapple with. You always hope that your favorite artist’s best work is still ahead of them, but you only have to look around at how preeminent Swift is in the zeitgeist to start reading the tea leaves. What goes up must come down. If—when, really—it happens, I fear that we might not be ready for it.

There is an energy in the air, an electricity that began with the release of her 2022 album “Midnights” and grew to exponential heights with the advent of the record-breaking Eras Tour, the kind of monocultural event that one almost never sees anymore. But the Eras Tour is coming to an end come 2025 and, like it or not, so might Swift’s media dominance. What comes next? “The Tortured Poets Department” attempts to give some answers. Written and recorded in the midst of an astonishing concert tour by an artist at the apex of her career, it has a lot to live up to.

If nothing else, it is certainly a dense text. Two hours after the midnight release of “Tortured Poets,” Swift announced that it was in fact a double album, revealing “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology” which bolstered the initial 16 tracks with an additional 15. Fans who stayed up late to listen to the whole thing were suddenly thrown for a loop as the album’s scale expanded nearly twofold. “Tortured Poets” has the most tracks of any of her albums and is the second-longest of her discography.

In short, there is a lot to dig into. But what exactly does the epic scale of “Tortured Poets” have to offer?

The album starts slow—perhaps a little too slow. The opening track, “Fortnight,” which features the rapper Post Malone, is a ponderous post-mortem of a relationship, with a bevy of Tim Burton-esque macabre images (made even more obvious in its accompanying music video). It keeps a steady beat throughout but never quite reaches the crescendos that Swift is known for.

A similar level of steady pulsating beats continue for the next three songs, nearly bogging the beginning of the album down in a mire of producer Jack Antonoff’s signature synths. Swift and Antonoff have been longtime collaborators beginning with 2014’s “1989,” for which Swift won Album of the Year at the Grammys. They might have grown a little too accustomed to each other; they nearly sleep their way through the first few tracks.

Thankfully, Aaron Dessner of The National begins to fill in the missing musical gaps, particularly with the fifth track, “So Long, London,” a farewell song to a city that Swift had spent much of her time in due to her various British beaus (especially Joe Alwyn, whom Swift was with for seven years). Dessner, who began collaborating with Swift on her much-lauded pandemic album “Folklore,” imbues the tracks he produced with a sweeping score. “So Long, London” features everything from ethereal church choirs to powerful percussion to soft electric guitar. Dessner produces most of the tracks exclusive to “The Anthology,” creating a unique musical identity for the two halves of the album, with Antonoff’s half giving more focus to Swift’s lyrics instead of the production.

Indeed, Swift clearly wants her lyrics to shine through any of Antonoff’s muted instrumentation. Her songwriting has always been her bread and butter, and she remains true to form on this new album, though it’s hard to shake the feeling of “been there, done that” at first. The initial 16 songs resemble her most recent work, “Midnights,” quite strongly, and while that is largely due to Antonoff’s production, Swift seems to be echoing the same themes.

More than anything, it’s about “mess,” and the idea that you are not done being “messy” in your 30s, despite the popular idea that you should have your life together by the time you’re Swift’s age of 34. She is writing about a lot of things: the end of a seven-year relationship, the bad boy she gravitated to afterward and the hope she sees in the new man whose earnest simplicity may be just what she needs. This is well-trodden ground for Swift, though her lyricism remains strong in spite of a few retreads.

The opening lines of “Florida!!!”, a song featuring Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine, mention that all of Swift’s friends “smell like weed or little babies.” In “Loml,” she writes, “You sh-t-talked me under the table/ Talkin’ rings and talkin’ cradles.” In “Down Bad,” a song about wanting things you can’t have, she writes, “Now I’m down bad, cryin’ at the gym/ Everything comes out teenage petulance/ ‘F— it if I can’t have him’/ ‘I might just die, it would make no difference.’”

At its core, “Tortured Poets” is exactly that: tortured. As I noted in my review of “Midnights,” Swift has said she feels trapped at the age that she became famous. That may remain true, but it seems that she has reached an interesting tipping point. She reveals the frustrations she has with her age and her feeling that she should be further along in her personal life; the idea of marriage comes up several times, and her inability to be in a lasting relationship clearly haunts her. Many of the same problems that plagued her in her 20s continue to plague her, and there is a palpable anxiety about aging.

There are also several places where “Tortured Poets” gets metatextual. “But Daddy I Love Him” tackles negative reception to her dating life: “I’ll tell you something ‘bout my good name/ It’s mine alone to disgrace/ I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing.” Later, in “Clara Bow,” she references herself when singing about the anxiety she feels for younger artists: “‘You look like Taylor Swift/ In this light, we’re lovin’ it/ You’ve got edge, she never had.’” Swift does not usually engage in this level of forthrightness with her audience, but the experience of the Eras Tour is clearly on her mind. The spotlight feels eternally on her.

Despite all this, there’s an unseriousness to “The Tortured Poets Department,” which is almost casual in its over-the-topness. Swift is certainly no stranger to melodrama, and her insistence on it can be a double-edged sword—though I have always preferred it when she leans into it. One can tell right from the title track, “The Tortured Poets Department,” what she thinks of so-called tortured poets: “You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith/ This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel, we’re modern idiots.” Though you can tell that she is rolling her eyes, it is debatable how effective Swift’s attempt at, essentially, intentional cringe is. Her constant references to popular poets—like Thomas or Smith—begs comparison in spite of her insistence that she is not them. Under that light, this new album can only suffer.

If there is something that modern poetry must be good at, it is delivering complex themes and ideas in a limited amount of space. Given that this is a 31-track album, “Tortured Poets” is not working with a limited amount of space; in fact, it is probably the most self-indulgent of Swift’s albums. At over two hours, it can be easy to overlook a good chunk of these songs. Many of its best songs are, in fact, buried far into the album.

A few of those songs touch on spiritual themes. In “Guilty as Sin?” she echoes the Gospels as she describes her own regrets: “What if I roll the stone away?/ They’re gonna crucify me anyway.” And in “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived,” she continues the Jesus parallels: “I would’ve died for your sins, instead, I just died inside.” Swift is all too aware of the stature she holds in the minds and hearts of her fans, and she is careful to show them that she’s not as saintly as they may paint her to be.

Once we are firmly in “The Anthology” section of the album, the quality becomes much more consistent. With Dessner’s production talents underlining every track, the music is more lively and present. Antonoff’s low synths give way to grander instrumentation that puts Swift’s vocal talents to better use. The tracks are much more reminiscent of “Folklore” and “Evermore,” focused on storytelling and characters besides Swift herself. By breaking free of the confines of her autobiographical lyrics, we are allowed to focus on her songwriting—which can be amazing when it is guided in the right direction.

The songs are quite diverse musically, too: “The Black Dog” is an orchestral epic; “Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus” is a wistful piano ballad; “So High School” is electric-guitar-infused soft rock. “The Anthology” is a showcase for Swift’s talents and her ability to produce great work with the right collaborators. Even if it seems that her collaboration with Antonoff might have hit a wall, her work with Dessner shows much more promise.

Have we reached peak Taylor Swift? It’s possible that we have, and the mixed bag that is “The Tortured Poets Department” may well be proof of that. Swift’s lyrics are strong but not as strong as they have been. Her storytelling is the same way. Is this proof that she is on a downward trajectory? Perhaps. But every time that Swift has been laid low, she has gotten back up and created some great art before long.

At the very least, “Tortured Poets” is a sign that Swift still has a lot of stories to tell and has an endlessly eager audience to whom she can tell them. We can only hope that, next time, she decides a little more carefully about how she presents her poetry.

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