Taylor Swift, "The Tortured Poets Department" (Republic)

Nearly 20 years into her career, Swift, 34, is more popular and prolific than ever, sating her ravenous fan base and expanding her cultural domination with a near-constant stream of music — five new albums plus four rerecorded ones since 2019 alone — plus the record-breaking Eras Tour with 40-plus songs per show.

What Swift reveals on her sprawling and often self-indulgent 11th LP, "The Tortured Poets Department," is that this stretch of productivity and commercial success was also a tumultuous time for her, emotionally. "I can read your mind: 'She's having the time of her life,'" Swift sings on "I Can Do It With a Broken Heart," a percolating track that evokes the glitter and adoration of the Eras Tour but admits, "All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting 'more.'" And yet, that's exactly what she continues to provide, announcing two hours after the release of "Poets" that — surprise! — there was a second "volume" of the album, "The Anthology," featuring 15 additional, though largely superfluous, tracks.

Gone are the character studies and fictionalized narratives of Swift's 2020 folk-pop albums "Folklore" and "Evermore." The feverish "Tortured Poets Department" is a full-throated return to her specialty: autobiographical and sometimes spiteful tales of heartbreak, full of detailed, referential lyrics that her fans will delight in decoding.

Swift doesn't name names, but she drops plenty of boldfaced clues about exiting a long-term relationship that has grown cold (the wrenching "So Long, London"), briefly taking up with a tattooed bad boy who raises the hackles of the more judgmental people in her life (the wild-eyed "But Daddy I Love Him") and starting fresh with someone who makes her sing in — ahem — football metaphors (the weightless "The Alchemy"). The subject of the most headline-grabbing track on "The Anthology," a fellow member of the Tortured Billionaires Club whom Swift reimagines as a high school bully, is right there in the title's odd capitalization: "thanK you aIMee."

At times, the album is a return to form. Its first two songs are potent reminders of how viscerally Swift can summon the flushed delirium of a doomed romance. The opener, "Fortnight," a pulsing, synth-frosted duet with Post Malone, is chilly and controlled until lines like "I love you, it's ruining my life" inspire the song to thaw and glow. Even better is the chatty, radiant title track.

For all its sprawl, though, "The Tortured Poets Department" is a curiously insular album, often cradled in the familiar, amniotic throb of Jack Antonoff's production. (Aaron Dessner of the National, who lends a more muted and organic sensibility to Swift's sound, produced and helped write five tracks on the first album, and the majority of "The Anthology.") There is a sonic uniformity to much of "The Tortured Poets Department," however — gauzy backdrops, gently thumping synths, drum machine rhythms that lock Swift into a clipped, chirping staccato — that suggests the Swift/Antonoff partnership has become too comfortable and risks growing stale.

As the album goes on, Swift's lyricism starts to feel unrestrained, imprecise and unnecessarily verbose. Breathless lines overflow and lead their melodies down circuitous paths. It is to the detriment of "The Tortured Poets Department" that a certain starry-eyed fascination with fairy tales has crept back into Swift's lyricism. It is almost singularly focused on the salvation of romantic love. By the end, this perspective makes the album feel a bit hermetic, lacking the depth and taut structure of her best work.

Great poets know how to condense, or at least how to edit. The sharpest moments of "The Tortured Poets Department" would be even more piercing in the absence of excess, but instead the clutter lingers, while Swift holds an unlit match.


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