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Taylor Swift's confessional 'Tortured Poets' would have benefitted from an edit

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Taylor Swift's 11th studio album, "The Tortured Poets Department," arrives as Swift ascends to the pinnacle of pop culture after the massive success of her 2023 Eras tour and the tour's blockbuster concert film. And as this album was being released, Swift added an additional batch of songs, bringing the total to a whopping 31 new songs. Rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening closely to "The Tortured Poets Department" and has come to think it might represent an end to a certain era in Taylor Swift's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BOY ONLY BREAKS HIS FAVORITE TOYS")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Oh, here we go again. The voices in his head called the rain to end our days of wild. The sickest army doll purchased at the mall - rivulets descend my plastic smile. But you should have seen him when he first got me. My boy only breaks his favorite toys, toys...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I had a dentist appointment the day before the new Taylor Swift album was to be released at midnight. I swear I didn't bring it up, but the woman who cleaned my teeth did. At 11:45 P.M, I'm getting in my car, she said. I'm going to a convenience store to buy a warm beverage, and then, at midnight, I'm going to drive the deserted streets listening to the whole thing straight through, maybe more than once.

Such is the devotion Taylor Swift inspires at this point in her career, and it's a devotion Swift does her best to repay on "The Tortured Poets Department." And I must say, driving through empty streets at midnight would seem like an ideal way to experience a song of romantic revenge, such as "Who's Afraid Of Little Old Me?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'S AFRAID OF LITTLE OLD ME?")

SWIFT: (Singing) The who's who of who's that is poised for the attack. But my bare hands paved their paths. You don't get to tell me about sad. If you wanted me dead, you should have just said. Nothing makes me feel more alive. So, I leap from the gallows and I levitate down your street, crash the party like a record scratch as I scream, who's afraid of little old me? You should be.

TUCKER: The album's title song is an impeccable deconstruction of a boyfriend's hapless hipster pretensions, a dude who thinks that using a manual typewriter qualifies him to be a real poet, and he wants her to play along as his muse. Instead, she sizes up both of them as, in her phrase, modern idiots.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT")

SWIFT: (Singing) You left your typewriter at my apartment, straight from the tortured poets' department. I think some things I never say - like, who uses typewriters anyway? But you're in self-sabotage mode, throwing spikes down on the road. But I've seen this episode and still love the show. Who else decodes you? And who's going to hold you like me? And who's going to know you if not me? 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. And who's going to hold you like me?

TUCKER: Another moment that made me smile at Swift's gift for puncturing melodrama occurs in the chorus of "But Daddy I Love Him." As her character runs off with a boy as her father chases after them, and she yells her desperate rebellion over her shoulder, claiming she's pregnant - even as she tells us she's not - just to get a rise out of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT DADDY I LOVE HIM")

SWIFT: (Singing) And I'm running with my dress unbuttoned, screaming, but Daddy I love him. I'm having his baby. No, I'm not, but you should see your faces. I'm telling him to floor it through the fences. No, I'm not coming to my senses. I know he's crazy but he's the one I want.

TUCKER: At a time when the rest of pop culture is overrun with kick-butt, tough, perfect, independent women, Swift performs the valuable service of reopening a whole range of experiences and emotions. On "Guilty As Sin?" she tells her audience there are times when she's weak or flawed or passive - times when, in a cleverly retrograde image she slips into the song, she dreams of having a guy write on her upper thigh that she belongs to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUILTY AS SIN?")

SWIFT: (Singing) I keep these longings locked in lowercase inside a vault. Someone told me there's no such thing as bad thoughts. Only your actions talk. These fatal fantasies giving way to labored breath, taking all of me. We've already done it in my head. If it's make believe, why does it feel like a vow we'll both uphold somehow. What if he's written mine on my upper thigh only in my mind? One slip and falling back into the hedge maze. Oh, what a way to die. My bedsheets are ablaze. I've screamed his name. Building up like waves crashing over my grave. Without ever touching his skin, how can I be guilty as sin? What if I roll the stone away?

TUCKER: The music on this collection - primarily keyboard textures decorated by guitars and light percussion - is always in the service of the lyrics, like so much of the folk music from which Swift has long drawn. This time around, though, there's frequently a thinness to the melodies and occasionally the need for a rewrite. An editor as smart as Swift probably should have taken a pencil to her use of the phrase fake news in one song and, in another, the sentence, you said some things I can't unabsorb. Oof.

The more I listened, the more this album felt like a turning point for Swift - a last big burst of confessionalism, a clearing of things off her desk before she makes another big shift in her sound and subject matter to leave tortured poetry behind.

MOSLEY: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Taylor Swift's 11th studio album, "The Tortured Poets Department."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talk with writer Daniel Bessner about the threats facing the entertainment industry, like the merging of big studios and what it means for television and film writers and for us, the audience. His cover story for Harper's Magazine is titled "The End Of Hollywood As We Know It." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORTNIGHT")

SWIFT: (Singing) I was supposed to be sent away but they forgot to come and get me.

MOSLEY: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. With Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORTNIGHT")

SWIFT: (Singing) And no one here's to blame, but what about your quiet treason? And for a fortnight there we were forever running to you... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.