Taylor Swift’s new album shows one thing: She could use a break

The Taylor Swift machine has been in overdrive for the past five years.

Since 2019, fans have hungrily received four new studio albums, another four “Taylor’s Version” re-recorded projects, and the enormous Eras World Tour that, once finished, will have played more than 150 shows across the globe.

Listening to her newly released eleventh studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, one thing seems clear: Taylor Swift needs a break. The creative well feels dangerously close to running dry.

Tortured Poets leaked more than a day early – an unusual security breach for music’s most bankable star – and one snippet that circulated widely on social media yesterday ignited frenzied debate.

“You smoked then ate seven bars of chocolate / we declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist / I scratched your head, you fall asleep / like a tattooed Golden Retriever,” Swift coos disinterestedly over a plodding beat.

As the snippet spread, many pondered if it was actually A.I. “This can’t be real, right?” was one common reaction (spoiler: It is; it’s taken from the album’s title track).

Swift has had the occasional lyrical clanger in the past – at tea time, everybody agrees – but this one, coupled with main collaborator Jack Antonoff’s Swift-by-numbers production, seemed to give even her most loyal fans full-body cringe.

This is by no means a bad album – Swift is yet to make one of those – but you can’t escape the feeling she needs a shake-up. A new collaborator, a new sound, or perhaps simply some time to recharge.

Tortured Poets Department is a decidedly downbeat record. Of course, Swift slowed the pace down before to great effect with 2020’s stunning folklore, a real artistic breakthrough.

But here, the flat production and Swift’s tendency towards florid lyrics make for an album that never seems to take flight. The formula feels… stale.

First single Fortnight starts things off strongly: It’s a lovely, subtle duet with Post Malone (who, after his work on Beyonce’s Cowboy Carter, is developing a nice side hustle as duet partner du jour for Big Pop Girls).

But one song later, with the title track – home to that Charlie Puth lyric – the album seems to grind to a halt.

Songs like My Boy Only Breaks His Favourite Toys and So Long, London float by listlessly, verbose lyrics trapped in gossamer production.

The best moments come when the energy levels rise: Florence Welch injects some much-needed energy into the duet Florida!!!, while Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me? is an enjoyably spiky reputation throwback.

The chintzy dance beat on I Can Do It With A Broken Heart is a rare moment of whimsy on an album that otherwise takes itself very seriously.

Lyrically, it’s an at-times angry, remorseful break-up record, but perhaps the biggest surprise is that many of the songs seem not to be about the end of her years-long relationship with actor Joe Alwyn, but about the brief, controversial fling with The 1975 frontman Matt Healy that followed (Healy appears to be that “tattooed golden retriever” mentioned in the title track).

Alwyn, today no doubt bracing to hear a suite of songs about him, will find a bigger indignity: He’s barely made the cut.

And perhaps Swift is a victim of her own ubiquity here, offering up a heart-on-sleeve album about her personal relationships at a time when her personal life couldn’t be less mysterious.

The past 12 months have seen her personal life play out as daily news, with her split from Alwyn, her disastrous dalliance with Healy and now her very public relationship with NFL star Travis Kelce.

Faced with 16-odd songs about her boyfriends and breakups, many listeners might be yearning for a return to the days of folklore and evermore, when Swift created fictional stories to illuminate her songwriting.

“I know I’m just repeating myself,” Swift sings on My Boy Breaks His Favourite Toys. Listening to The Tortured Poets Department in full, one can’t help but think that’s starting to become a problem.