'Underwhelming' Or 'A Triumph'? Critics Can't Seem To Agree On Taylor Swift's Tortured Poets Department

The Grammy winner's new album has split opinion right down the middle.
Taylor Swift performing in Brazil last year
Taylor Swift performing in Brazil last year
Buda Mendes/TAS23 via Getty Images

There are only a few artists in today’s music scene for whom an album release is a major event – and Taylor Swift is undoubtedly one of them.

On Friday morning, she unveiled her 11th studio album The Tortured Poets Department, and began dominating the conversation not just because of the release’s candid lyrical themes (which seem to allude to her past romances with Joe Alwyn and Matty Healy), but also the fact it was followed by 15 more surprise tracks just a few hours later.

Critics have been sharing their verdict all morning – and they can’t seem to agree on a consensus.

Taylor pictured during her 2021 Grammys performance
Taylor pictured during her 2021 Grammys performance
TAS Rights Management 2021 via Getty Images

While many are hailing The Tortured Poets Department as among Taylor’s strongest ever, others are claiming it’s on the “underwhelming” side.

And while some have said parts of the album feel like do-overs of musical tropes and lyrical themes Taylor has tried out before, others are hailing its innovation and new direction for the Grammy winner.

Take a read of some of the reviews (which we should point out were written before the second half of the album’s surprise release) below…

The Times (5/5)

“One of the things the album most powerfully conveys is that Swift sees herself as very much a member of the titular department. Yes, there are songs that are surely about her relationship with Alwyn.

“But, through the skill of her songwriting (and I’m not sure it’s been better), Swift moves beyond the diaristic to something impressionistic and, yes, poetic. And universal.”

“The music is full of the pillowy synths and muted drums that served the hypnagogic vibes of her last album, Midnights, so well. That’s fine when she submits to grief, on a song like the delicately percolating Bad Down, but when she writes something salty and mischievous like Who’s Afraid Of Little Old Me? it gets suffocated by layers of echo and gauzy strings.

“Some of her vocals mannerisms have become overly familiar, too - like the staccato pitter-patter of her verses, and the hooks she SHOUTS FOR EMPHASIS. But a few tracks point towards new musical directions.”

“The Tortured Poets Department is extreme in its emotions and uninterested in traditional hits; not everyone will love it, but the ones who get it will adore it fiercely.

“As Swift continues this current astonishing run of superstardom, she has once again pushed herself to strike a new pose. It’s what makes her special — and what turns The Tortured Poets Department into yet another triumph.”

“Dissecting heartbreak, and the complications of trying to navigate it in the glare of public scrutiny, may well make for ripe songwriting fuel, but as an idea, it is nothing new. And sonically, The Tortured Poets Department feels like ground that has already been trodden.

“Its glacial, artfully restrained synth-pop frames the storytelling well, but will come as no surprise. That said, the way that Swift approaches the difficult and intensely complicated topic of fertility is both moving and refreshing.”

“This isn’t the breakup album — or the new-love album — you might’ve expected. Swift doesn’t portray herself precisely as a victim as she did in old tunes [...] nor is there anything dewy-eyed about The Alchemy, which likens falling for a new guy to a chemical imbalance. The LP turns out to be something of a heel turn; it’s got a proudly villainous energy as Swift embraces her messiest and most chaotic tendencies.”

“On the simplest of terms, what we have here is a very smart, seductive, lyrically sharp set of smooth synth pop songs about affairs of the heart, crafted with love, intelligence and passion – another hugely appealing addition to Swift’s expanding canon.

“But it can be hard to disentangle the hook lines from the headlines on an album that is not so much a blockbuster entertainment release as a global news event, to be endlessly deciphered, decoded and deconstructed from gossip forums to business pages.”

“Less cluttered and more conversational than those on Midnights, [the lyrics] return Swift to what you might call her safe space, letting a well-known ex have it in no uncertain terms [...] But if we’ve been here before, it’s still hard not to be impressed by Swift’s efficiency and wit [...] or her ability to turn a celebrity boyfriend into a relatable archetype.”

“Tortured Poets has the intimate sound of Folklore and Evermore, but with a coating of Midnights synth-pop gloss [...] It sounds as though Swift was shocked at how it felt to play her quietest songs live [on the Eras tour] and hear how gigantic they could be given enough room. So Tortured Poets feels like Swift writing those Folkmore-and-(especially)-Evermore ballads, but giving them that stadium power in the studio.”

“As was the case on Midnights, these melodic hooks take time to sink in. But trust me, they’ve got anchors – designed to lodge slowly and securely in the mental seabed. The stories will snag you and you’ll be surprised to find yourself humming choruses hours later.”

NME (3/5)

“Swift seems to be in tireless pursuit for superstardom, yet the negative public opinion it can come with irks her, and it’s a tired theme now plaguing her discography and leaving little room for the poignant lyrical observations she excels at. It’s why the pitfalls that mire her 11th studio album are all the more disappointing — she’s proven time and time again she can do better.”

“The Tortured Poets Department feels like it comes the closest of any of her 11 original albums to just drilling a tube directly into her brain and letting listeners mainline what comes out.

If you value this confessional quality most of all, she’s still peaking: As a culmination of her particular genius for marrying cleverness with catharsis, Tortured kind of feels like the Taylor Swift-est Taylor Swift record ever.”

“There’s certainly a sense that she’s pulling out all the stops on The Tortured Poets Department [...] an immersive, cinematic affair that often feels more like an old Hollywood film script than a straightforward pop record.”

“Solid but underwhelming [...] Swift has released eight albums in the last four years, and the influence of that hyperproductivity is evident in Tortured Poets. Production-wise, many of Swift’s collaborations with Jack Antonoff sound like Midnights B-sides, or worse, like 1989 Vault Tracks (essentially, C-sides). Songs that are brand new feel done before within this Taylor Swift Experience context.”

“In moments, her 11th album feels like a bloodletting: A cathartic purge after a major heartbreak delivered through an ascendant vocal run, an elegiac verse, or mobile, synthesised productions that underscore the powers of Swift’s storytelling. And there are surprises.”


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