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Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department' bonus tracks: A near-perfect album on its own

Callie Ahlgrim   

Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department' bonus tracks: A near-perfect album on its own
  • Taylor Swift released "The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology" on April 19.
  • The double album adds 15 brilliant songs to the original tracklist.
Taylor Swift once said, "Anything I do is polarizing."

That's certainly true of her latest album, "The Tortured Poets Department," which arrived last Friday to mixed reviews. Personally, I found it gripping and hilarious, rich with confessions and self-aware punchlines like, "I'm having his baby. No I'm not! But you should see your faces."

As strategic and measured as Swift has been with her marketing over the years, this album is less of a savvy publicity device than a guttural scream. Its unpolished attitude has repelled lots of critics, who insist Swift needs an editor and perhaps a new producer.

New Taylor Swift music is bound to spark widespread debate, but the conversation swelled when she surprise-released "The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology," a deluxe edition with 15 extra songs.

After sitting with the double album for nearly a week, I've come to consider each half completely separately. Had they been released that way, with space in between, I'd wager they would've been received more warmly. After all, digging through 31 wordy songs is a lot to ask of anyone, especially when many of the brightest gems are buried in the second half.

I've seen people complain that "Poets" is excessively insular and steeped in Swift's intricate lore, such that a casual listener can't fully enjoy her lyrics. They seem to feel there's too much research required for entry.

But even if that's true, the same can't be said for "The Anthology."

Sure, the deluxe tracks bear traces of Swift's never-ending Easter egg hunt: "ThanK you aIMee" includes a coded message in the title, "Cassandra" references the PR fiasco that preceded "Reputation," and "Peter" can be read as a sequel to "Cardigan," in which Swift references the novel "Peter and Wendy."

But for the most part, these are just exquisitely written songs about vital human experiences.

You don't need a scrap of Swiftian expertise to recognize the addictive yearning in "I Look in People's Windows," relate to the mesmeric plea of "The Prophecy," or lament the toxic gender dynamics that enabled events in "The Manuscript."

Indeed, most of these deluxe tracks succeed as self-contained stories, recalling the mythic peaks of "Folklore" and "Evermore."

Take "The Bolter," which paints the portrait of a "curious child" who almost died when she fell through a frozen lake, then spends the rest of her life chasing the same escapist rush. Her connection to Swift is unclear and irrelevant; she's a fully realized character with a fascinating backstory.

Meanwhile, "The Black Dog" is a modern tale of lopsided grief, in which Swift's ex has been reduced to a roving dot in the "Find My Friends" app. When she notices him visit "some bar called The Black Dog," a nostalgic spiral is triggered. She imagines him trying to seduce a girl who's too young to recognize The Starting Line, a band he and Swift once bonded over.

Whether any of that actually happened is beside the point. The saga is moving, propulsive, and wholly distinct. Even the pub Swift decided to name-check is a clever lyrical trick, evoking both a folkloric omen of death and a historic symbol of depression. All the details are deliciously specific, but not in the way that only Swifties would understand; they compel listeners to think about their own lives, compulsions, and woes — not hers.

There's no reason the bite-sized epics that stack "The Anthology" shouldn't be ranked among Swift's best narrative works, like "August," "Champagne Problems," and "Tolerate It." The only difference is that Swift presented the "Folk-more" duo as largely fictional, even though she later said her own emotions informed all the character arcs. (Duh.)

It's frustrating to see people dismiss "The Anthology" as bloated and self-serving without giving the deluxe half a proper chance, but I do understand the bias. It can be difficult to take bonus tracks seriously when they tend to be packaged as afterthoughts.

This is hardly the first time Swift has committed this faux pas. She executed a similar late-night surprise with her last album, "Midnights," releasing the "3am Edition" in the wee hours of the morning. The extended tracklist included "Would've, Could've, Should've," which I previously described as the only tune that lived up to the album's potential, slotted humbly at track 19.

Before that came "Right Where You Left Me" (the best song from "Evermore"), "New Romantics" (one of the brightest anthems from "1989"), and "Jump Then Fall" (a starry-eyed standout from "Fearless"), all relegated to bonus-track status.

As a fan, I must continue to object to Swift's peculiar curation. It's not as problematic in the digital age, but my original vinyl copies of these albums don't include some of my favorite cuts. And it pains me to picture a Swift-curious music lover giving "Poets" a whirl, only to burn out after 20 tracks, never to hear the haunting postmortem of "How Did It End?" — a ballad that examines Swift's own romantic missteps, as well as the giddy voyeurism of her fans, with exacting precision.

Then again, more songs equals more streams, and "The Tortured Poets Department" is on target to become one of the most-played albums of the streaming era. I doubt a pop star with a $1 billion fortune will probe my dissent — but thanks to this album, at least we now know that Swift actually does see all the discourse online.

Final Grade: 9.3/10

Worth listening to: "The Black Dog," "imgonnagetyouback," "The Albatross," "Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus," "How Did It End?", "So High School," "I Hate It Here," "I Look in People's Windows," "The Prophecy," "Cassandra," "Peter," "The Bolter," "The Manuscript"

Background music: "thanK you aIMee," "Robin"

Press skip: N/A

*Final album score based on songs per category (1 point for "Worth listening to," .5 for "Background music," 0 for "Press skip").

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