22 May 2024
0 8 mins 1 mth

Who’s torturing who here? Sorry, sorry. That isn’t the freshest zinger to zing in the direction of this sprawling new Taylor Swift double album, but please know that after funneling 19 of its 31 tracks through my headphones on Friday morning, my phone died, as if by its own volition. Same for any hope I had that the overall mood might improve in the third act of this two-hour hostage situation, a despair made manifest once I located my charger and heard the lyric, “My friends used to play a game where we would pick a decade we wished we could live in … I’d say the 1830s, but without all the racists.”

As a 21st-century pop omnipresence, Swift remains mercilessly prolific and unwilling to edit for length, which makes this extended version of her new album, “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology,” feel miserable and bottomless. The big surprise is how much of that misery is intentional. In concussive contrast to the good times she’s been having in the public eye — highest grossing concert tour in the history of the species; highest grossing concert film to match; on-field kisses with her boyfriend after he won the Super Bowl — Swift’s new ballads are sour theater, fixated on memories of being wronged and stranded, sodden with lyrics that feel clunky, convoluted, samey, purple and hacky. There are song titles that burn hot like distress flares (“I Hate it Here”), and lines that feel waxy with Freudian slippage (“I know I’m just repeating myself”), and a profusion of soft-edged, slow-moving melodies — produced by Swift, Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dessner and Patrik Berger — that do her lyrics few favors. As she unloads every last item from her grievance vault, it’s hard for sentient listeners to not want to reciprocate.

That said, is this the album that finally grants us societal permission to say that Swift is not a great lyricist? She can be, sometimes, but greatness isn’t a part-time job, and the thinning thinness of her words can make big emotions feel hollow. Plus, the objects of affection that populate these midtempo reminiscences all sound like real creeps. “At dinner, you take my ring off my middle finger and put it on the one people put wedding rings on,” sings the most celebrated songwriter of her generation on her album’s title track, “and that’s the closest I’ve come to my heart exploding.” Oh man. In “The Manuscript,” she sings in the third person, describing a flame who once “said that if the sex was half as good as the conversation was, soon they’d be pushing strollers.” During “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can),” she gloms onto some imaginary bad boy, describing how “his hand, so calloused from his pistol, softly traces hearts on my face” — which must be pretty close to what you get when you ask ChatGPT to compose a Lana Del Rey hook. Attempting to further signal her maturity, Swift deploys profanity with awkward relentlessness across too many of these songs, sounding like a child test-driving her illicit new vocabulary in hopes of convincing the greater populace that she is, in fact, 34 years old.

Her music has no problem walking up to the precipice of self-examination — Hmm, why did I want to live in the slavery era if I’m not all that into the slavery part? Hey, why didn’t I barf when that dude played his cringey ring game? — but Swift almost always steps back into the shallow end, dulling her ideas with reflexive clichés. Lightning appears in bottles. Wrinkles appear in time. Ships are abandoned or gone down with. Plans are best laid. Hearts are cold, cold. Scripts get flipped. Poisons get picked. To zest things up, she likes tweaking certain words in rote figures of speech, or grafting them onto more melodramatic phrases until a completed line begins to resemble cathartic teenager poetry. “They say what doesn’t kill you makes you aware,” she sings on “Cassandra,” a piano ballad that vaguely surges in the direction of Tori Amos. (Stay that course, please.) “Old habits die screaming,” she sings while seething tidily during “The Black Dog.” On “Loml,” she feels “better safe than starry-eyed,” but eventually grieves “our field of dreams engulfed in fire.” On “How Did It End,” she flips the old playground matrimony ditty so that she’s “sitting in a tree, D-Y-I-N-G.

Enough. These are highly embarrassing combinations of words made to serve an even more embarrassing narrative: the childish idea that the most famous singer alive should be pitied for living alone atop her mountaintop of money, feeling sad and aggrieved. We should all try our hardest to forget the manipulative underdog posture that Swift refuses to forfeit with each passing album, especially when the genuine tragedy-like feeling to be gleaned from all of these songs — and from nearly every Swift song that came before, too — is that Swift has traded her adulthood for superstardom.

She hasn’t been an anonymous human being since she was 17, and in terms of her art, many of her horizons seem to have stopped right there. It helps to explain why at least three songs on this double album take place on playgrounds; and why another one is set at a high school party (where the sexiest lyric of her career sounds like additional AI-generated Lana worship: “You know how to ball, I know Aristotle … Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto”). It’s probably why her songs rely so heavily on the make-believe concepts of destiny, and prophecy, and fate. She has not lived a normal life. She doesn’t make normal choices. Everything in her creative and professional world happens at epic heights that are difficult to comprehend and from which there is no coming down. Where are the songs about the profound sadness in all that?

Also, who cares what I want? You are a middle-aged man, you’re saying, This music is not for you. The first part is true. But I would argue that pop music is for everyone. You’re here, I’m here, I’m writing, you’re reading, we’re in this listening life together, and it’s probably just fine to wish that the most widely circulated music of our lifetimes might be more imaginative and less self-obsessed. We’re long overdue for a Swift album that feels even a little bit curious about the world she rules.

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