(April 20, 2024).  Taylor Swift is a remarkable lyricist, clearly among this generation’s best, if not the best.  

By now, it’s something that’s as much a fact of life as bacon is essential to breakfast, at least for those who indulge in it.

For that reason, Swift’s new album The Tortured Poets Department (including its Anthology version) is perhaps her most appropriately named and, by extension, her most highly anticipated LP yet. The title alone suggests a career’s worth of relationship frustrations will be compiled into one messy breakup-song package (the breakups being the messy part, not the songs) that only Taylor could deliver with such ease and clarity in 2024.

The Tortured Poets Department is Taylor’s 11th studio album (not counting four re-recordings)

Past relationship drama is indeed Taylor’s brand, one that goes hand in hand with the incessant coverage her love affairs seem to get in today’s media, both social and traditional, while she’s between albums.

It’s this realization that makes the words — and not so much the music — so important in Taylor’s vast canon of recordings.

In the past five years alone, beginning with 2019’s Lover (this writer’s personal fave btw), she’s released nine albums — five new studio sets and four re-recorded Taylor’s Versions of her older LPs — totaling more than 210 tracks(!).

In the buildup to and coverage of each of those nine releases, not once have I read a preview that focused on anticipation of the music itself: the songs’ structures, the chord patterns, intricate melodies to be found, whether she’ll pivot back to country from pop (although, to be fair, both Folklore and Evermore — her first two pandemic ventures — did stray far enough into folk and Americana to give fans and bloggers something other than her lyrics on which to shift their laser-like Taylor focus).

Other than those two brief musical indulgences in 2020, Swifties have lived mainly for her “poetry,” often whisked into her melodramas as if they were their own, or as if they were living vicariously through their Queen’s fairytale-leads-to-heartbreak soundscape. (One also has to wonder if we’d be so interested if it weren’t for her very public love life and the dastardly characters who’ve been part of it.)

Indeed, entire articles have been devoted to her songs, not for any particular musical quality or instrumental elements, but for their lyrics.  Clever turns of phrases have been analyzed, specific references have been decoded, boyfriends have been linked, hidden “Easter eggs” solved. 

It’s fitting then that no album from Swift embodies this reality (and triggers such examination) more than the new TTPD+, a collection of 16 songs released at midnight Friday (April 19) in its first edition — plus 15 more tracks in an “Anthology” supplement released two hours later, where our pop princess once again bares all with the kind of on-brand vulnerability, emotionality, and specificity about past moments with (and thoughts about) her former princes.

Most of the songs on this two-hour, two-minute listenfest contemplate (or vividly describe) a relationship’s beginning, middle and demise, with a lyrical deftness that stands above her contemporaries (and looms above a bunch of folks from earlier generations as well).  It’s her vivid imagery, spitefulness and unflinching regret that keeps so many millions of Swifties interested.  

With rare exception, each song’s lyrics read like a one-sided conversation between Taylor and some unnamed former boyfriend — a first-person to second-person perspective where the pronouns “I,” “my,” “you” and “your” take up so much space (she occasionally slips into third-person storytelling mode as in third track “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” or the later tune “The Bolter”).

But, lyrical prowess aside, most of the songs are exercises in familiar musical territory for Swift: standard three- or four-chord combinations by pop’s reigning queen and Folklore/Evermore collaborator Aaron Dessner with nary a variation from her genre’s most tried and true formula.  It’s almost as if Swift intentionally downplays any real experimentation in melody or unpredictable chord sequences so that the lyrics and her delivery of them really are the stars of the show.

This is true in first single (and the album’s lead off track), “Fortnight,” featuring Post Malone, for which there’s a viral music video and, already, a Taylor-endorsed social media challenge designed to shoot the ballad straight to the top of next week’s Billboard Hot 100 where it will no doubt debut.

But, while that song’s lyrics inspire introspection — as all Taylor’s pennings do — is there anything really remarkable about the music in “Fortnight”?  It’s another familiar four-chord pattern that remains constant throughout, in this case not even altered for the choruses (well maybe slightly, but it’s hardly noticeable).

The same is true of the next song, the album’s title track, and the song after that, and the one after that.  The most interesting thing about any of them, besides the lyrics, are an occasional ramping up of the drum patterns (as in “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys”) to give the songs a sense of building up to some unrealized crescendo.

It’s not until we get to Track 7, “Fresh Out the Slammer” where Swift finally breaks out of this musical prison.  About two-thirds of the way in, Taylor and longtime producer Jack Antonoff throw in an unexpected tempo change that easily makes “Slammer” the most experimental and most interesting of the album’s first seven songs.

That one is quickly eclipsed by its immediate successor “Florida!!!” (featuring Florence + the Machine) a frenetic stomper where Taylor is joined by Florence Welsh in a welcome addition where harmony background vocals — both Swift’s and Welsh’s — make the intricate arrangement one of the best on the album.  Florence, who cowrote the song with Taylor, also plays piano, drums and percussion on the first of the album’s tunes this listener played on repeat.

The next few songs return the four-time Best Album Grammy winner to a more standard structure, which I guess isn’t so bad when you reconcile any expectations to the contrary with the fact that this is Taylor’s formula — and its worked for 18 years now.  

Besides, there are moments that really do shine on TTPD+, like on Track 10 “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?,” another four-chorder where Taylor’s octave switch during the chorus is just the injection of excitement the song (and album) needs, along with her lyrical answer “you should be.”

It’s another tune that warrants repeat listens, especially the clever lyrical twists that Taylor employs, including the highly introspective “so tell me everything is not about me, but what if it is?,” a reality we’ve contemplated for the better part of the current decade.

A tattoo-free Post Malone stars in TTPD’s first video, “Fortnight.”

The next track, “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)” is another highlight — are the songs actually getting better as the album progresses? — as it eschews the well-worn formula (or at least cleverly disguises it) as Taylor navigates a more haunting melody and throws in a lyrical twist at the song’s end.

Taylor’s lucky Track 13, “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” is a soft techno dance number that veers heavily from the ballad-laden formula that dominates the album’s remaining tracks. I can see clubland jumping all over this one (as well as TikTok content creators looking to soundtrack their latest proud accomplishments made while suffering from heartbreak). Most notably, Taylor finally lets her hair down on “I Can Do It,” especially as the song ends and she playfully exclaims, “try to come for my job.”

On the next tune, the ballad “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived,” Swift doesn’t mince words as she laments another lost lover, except here she does it with what deceptively begins as a plaintive piano-driven number that erupts just past the halfway mark into a power ballad worthy of an earlier decade (that’s a compliment, btw).

Swift surprised fans with this Anthology supplement to TTPD, containing 15 additional songs

“The Black Dog” kicks off the Anthology part of the album with an arrangement closer to Taylor’s time-tested musical formula, with a few crescendos thrown in for good measure as the song progresses.

One of the candidates for the album’s best tracks is Anthology’s “So High School,” an energetic power pop number that employs familiar chords, yes, but does it more palatably.  Plus, Taylor’s lyrical wordplay on this one is in her upper echelon (who else would dare rhyme “bottle” with “Aristotle” in a song?).

Later, “I Hate It Here” has Taylor lamenting her current circumstances and wishing she were in a different time and place, like 1830s America “without the racism,” an obvious impossibility whose irony lies in the notion that there could be anything about that time in history that would be better than her current situation.

It’s not until listeners delve further into the song’s lyrics that they realize that perhaps her fairytale existence is not such a charmed lifestyle after all.

Much of the remainder of the album — like the earlier portion — seems to support this notion, where a tortured soul sings her way through some hidden pain that’s only being revealed just now, a truth that plays out in these songs’ tempos.

Of the album’s 31 tracks, at least 28 of them could be classified as true ballads (with 18 of those cowritten, coproduced or both by Dessner).  Among the best of these are “Cassandra” and “Peter,” both piano-driven numbers that collectively make the Anthology a justifiable addition to the first set of 16 songs.

But 28 ballads — or 31 songs in total — is a lot to digest without much variation in musical construction, tone and thematic context.

And while there’s really not a bad song on the album, one can’t help but wonder how much of that is owed to the fact that they’re mostly carved from the same musical molds, with rare exceptions.

As noted above, TTPD+ definitely has some standout moments and some gems, including fitting album closer and lullaby “The Manuscript,” but I’m not willing to declare this Taylor’s best album — or her “masterpiece” — as others have already done.  One such anointing review even equated the music to “sepia tones,” a good thing apparently, which when I looked that up describes a process in which photography is changed in appearance from black and white to a reddish-brown hue, giving it an antique feel. To a non-Swiftie, that might seem boring and unimaginative… IJS.

Literal definition of that comparison aside, TTPD+ will no doubt be her most commercially significant album yet — there are reports that it is on track to debut atop the Billboard 200 (on the chart dated May 4) with more than 2 million units sold, the most by any album in a single week since Adele’s 25 from 2015.

That will tie Taylor with Jay-Z as having the second-most No. 1 albums in history (14) behind only the Beatles (19), something we knew was inevitable.

Swift will also likely make history when all 31 songs likely join previous hit “Cruel Summer” on the Hot 100 (May 4) giving her ownership of nearly one-third of that chart’s positions in a single week.

To that end, millions of Swifties (not to mention full-time Taylor Swift news beat writers and curious onlookers) have already deciphered the lyrics of TTPD’s 31 tunes as I finish typing this to determine which of Joe Alwyn or Matty Healy is the target of each and every song here — and, rest assured, most of these songs were probably inspired by one or the other of those two former beaus.

But exceptional lyrics, ex-boyfriend references, Easter egg mysteries, and history-defying accomplishments notwithstanding, TTPD reaffirms one thing we’ve all come to know and accept about Taylor’s music: it really is more about the words than the music itself.

That’s not a bad thing, really, it just is what it is.

Best songs (on first listens): “So High School,” “Florida!!!,” “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me,” “The Manuscript,” “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can),” “Cassandra,” “Fresh Out the Slammer,” “The Black Dog,” “Peter” and “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived.”

I’m sure that list will change over time. 


DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, disco, pop, rock and country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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