The Tortured Poets Department by Taylor Swift album review by Sam Franzini for Northern Transmissions


The Tortured Poets Department

Taylor Swift

When you have a year as successful, tormenting, romantic, and publicized as Taylor Swift’s 2023, you can’t help but retreat inward — as best as you can on a sold-out arena tour.

Last year, with the help of her blockbuster Eras Tour and 10th album Midnights’ legacy, Taylor Swift likely became the most famous person on the planet. Elon Musk played with Twitter, American candidates vied for attention, but everyone looked at Swift. Gradually, it seemed as if she had the power to do anything, stop world wars if she wanted to — it was a level of stardom familiar only through her 1989 era, and even those numbers didn’t come close to Midnights’.

That album represented a (merit-wise) dip in her career — bland and insufficiently deep, it lacked the feel of late-night melancholy Swift had insisted its songs were written during. It was an album okay with saying nothing, but won Album of the Year, somehow. When entering the Tortured Poets era — sneakily announced at that Grammy acceptance speech — I was apprehensive because of Midnights’ turnaround from the lyrical writing that defined so much of 2020’s albums folklore and evermore.

But Midnights’ (alleged) theme was scraps — writing sessions through the years that resulted in a muddy-sounding album that didn’t adhere to one distinct sound. Did she really have nothing to write about? With Tortured Poets, there’s almost too much material to mine from (resulting in the 31-song double album). Though it’s decidedly uncouth to pinpoint which songs belonged to which ex-boyfriends, Swift now basically lays the Easter eggs out so well she’s asking people to decipher the whos-who of her lyrics. But for backstory (and to understand the album better), she broke up with her boyfriend of six years, the Brit Joe Alwyn, went on a month-long fling with The 1975 member Matty Healy, and then, has been happy with football star Travis Kelce, whose JumboTron relationship angered conservatives, bros who just want to watch some football, and anyone jobless enough to care that Swift took away seconds of screentime from the field.

Needless to say, TTPD’s inflammatory tracklist set off massive speculation (titles include “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”, “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)”, “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”). Which songs will be about Joe? Any about Travis yet? Will the writing be as trite as the song titles?

Enter a surprise superstar in Matty Healy, the 1975 frontman who, in his brief but apparently impactful fling with Taylor, inspired a good portion of TTPD’s lyricism. To the outside world, it was short and perhaps deluded, but for her, it was an intense, emotional month-long bender with someone she truly believed was special. In “Fresh Out The Slammer,” Joe is relegated to a warden sucking her life away as Taylor escapes — “Handcuffed to the spell I was under, for just one hour of sunshine,” she says. “I know who my first call will be to,” she mentions, meaning that Matty was the first thing on her mind after becoming a free woman. “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)” starts off like an Ultraviolence clone, with its dark soundscapes and overblown lyrics (“His hands so calloused from his pistol”) but gets moodier and better over time.

Matty is somewhat of a controversial figure — supporting anti-Semite Kanye West, touting racial insults at rapper Ice Spice — and Swifties, concerned their fave should uphold righteousness at every turn, warned Taylor on social media about their distaste for her new boyfriend (one penned an insipid “open letter”). In one of her most daring career moves yet, Swift, in “But Daddy I Love Him” openly excoriates her fans, tired of the “bitching and moaning” coming from people criticizing her actions without knowing anything about the relationship. “I don’t cater to all these vipers in empath’s clothing,” she spits. Who, save for poorly-planned Instagram Live rants from Doja Cat, would openly express this about your severely-online fandom, capable of retaliation, threats, and secession? It’s a fabulous takedown of online critics — this time, her loyal supporters — who think they know what’s best for her, continued in the screamworthy, deservedly angry reputation synopsis “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”

But many songs on TTPD focus solely on her and Matty’s love — if they used that word, in such a time — with short, sharp vignettes of the pair, truly getting each other, even if they aren’t world-famous poets like they try to be on the title track. That song harbors the viral, often-criticized lyric, leaked two days before the record, “You smoked, then ate seven bars of chocolate / We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist.” Cringy, or realistic? I’d go with the theme of HBO’s Girls, which is undergoing a renaissance for being a painful reflection of life as a young adult. We declare artists to be real, get honest with their lyricism, and though it can result in some clunkers (as is the case here), it’s what we had asked for. In the song, she mocks Matty (the title of The Tortured Poets Department is said to be a reference to a group chat Joe’s part of), and mentions a time he said he’d kill himself if Taylor ever left. But he’s not the only one deluded with love — on the poppy, Instagram-ready “Down Bad”, Taylor admits flirting with suicide with the easiness of a joke but with the weight of a threat. “Everything comes out teenage petulance / “Fuck it if I can’t have him” / “I might just die, it would make no difference,” she sings. Teenage petulance indeed — the kicker is that she’s smart enough to know it.

The best of the Matty songs is “Guilty as Sin?” an ode to imagined touch with the coy wink of innocence. The heated moments are imaginary, yet to happen, a sign the fling with him was desired before enacted — “What if he’s written ‘mine’ on my upper thigh only in my mind?” she asks over a soft rock instrumental that works perfectly with her voice. “These fatal fantasies / Giving way to labored breath takin’ all of me.” It’s steamy but lovely at the same time, a delicate balance, similar to sleepy but melodic “Fortnight,” which references the short span of their romance expanding past a pre-described allotment. Two stark lyrics from these songs summarize the relationship: “I love you, it’s ruining my life,” and “Am I allowed to cry?” — if it’s not even a season-length tryst, is it even worth feeling anything about?

Feel she does — TTPD’s harshest song is “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived,” where it’s revealed the immense feelings towards Matty turn cold with sudden clarity and jagged sharpness. “I just want to know if rusting my sparkling summer was the goal,” she pleads over a piano with electronic buzzing, but, don’t get it wrong, she’s not waiting for Matty to answer the question, she’d like someone to deliver it, so they don’t have to talk again. Seemingly using then discarding Taylor when he was through, she goes through a line of questioning, determining his supposed motive over the song’s tumultuous climax: “Were you sent by someone who wanted me dead?… Were you writin’ a book? Were you a sleeper cell spy?” Their relationship lost their fizzle without the transgression, as she cuts, “It wasn’t sexy once it wasn’t forbidden.”

Speaking of takedowns, let’s turn to Joe, who is allotted three songs on TTPD. The first is the elusive Track 5, always relegated to Taylor’s most emotional on the album. This time it’s the pulsing “So Long, London,” which smartly swaps his name out for the name of his city. “I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free,” she says of the time they spent together. Taylor’s imagery here — “My white-knuckle grip holding tight to your quiet resentment” — is in full force, writing with the strength of her powers behind her. “loml” is decidedly less exciting, with only a piano backing her, but it’s no less emotional. “I thought I was better safe than starry-eyed / I’ve felt a glow like this never before and never since,” she sings. Even though the relationship was trouble (she alludes to held breath, insecurity in the relationship), it’s still difficult to lose someone you’ve spent so long with. “You’re the loss of my life,” she cleverly ends, switching the acronym to make it whatever she’d like.

On the album’s peppiest but perhaps most depressing cut, “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” Taylor gives an up-close look at touring during a breakup (with a smart touch of an earpiece counting her in). “Lights, camera, bitch, smile / Even though you wanna die,” she says with a funny, deadpan delivery perfectly contrasting with the songs candy-coated, glittery production (it’s as if “Bejeweled” was sped-up, and good). Taylor performed on the Eras Tour right after news of her breakup with Joe was announced, performing as if nothing happened, proving her merits as a professional, but this song proves it was harder than it looked. “I cry a lot, but I am so productive, it’s an art,” she mentions. Another decidedly funny anthem is the huge “Florida!!!” where she bemoans her friends smelling like “weed or little babies” and posits the swamp as a place to drown sorrows (“What a crash, what a rush, fuck me up, Florida”). As a resident of the state for an on-and-off twelve years, she might be giving it too much credit, but is dead-on by saying “Florida is one hell of a drug” (and she probably means a lot of different things).

TTPD’s strength and weakness is the story behind it — because she has so much to say, the album does often come off as messy, blurring the lines between who she’s talking about, who she’s angry with or in love with, that it is actually whiplash. Through the jungle of Joe and Matty, Travis actually emerges with one cinematic song — “The Alchemy,” cheeky and filled with football references. But it’s a lot to parse through, and if you’re a relatively new convert to the Taylor Swift Cinematic Universe, it can seem like too much to handle, too late in the season to begin, and this isn’t even counting the fifteen additional songs she dropped two hours after the initial album’s release. It’s been said she needs an editor, and she does in terms of creating a cohesive record, but in terms of output… it might be beneficial to her fans to just dump a batch of songs every two years for them to play with.

So even though the record is a lot emotionally, it gives a great deal to pore over. Like no other album, TTPD charts Taylor’s highs and lows, and it results in some of the most energetic writing of her career. “Dancing phantoms on the terrace / Are they second-hand embarrassed / That I can’t get out of bed,” she sings of her and Joe’s breakup; “This cage was once just fine”; “Every breath feels like rarest air / When you’re not sure if he wants to be there” — poetic Taylor is back. She tries some stunts that don’t work (faking out a pregnancy, too-eager Patti Smith and Dylan Thomas references), but others, from a storytelling perspective, do (“Clara Bow”’s switch, “loml,” honestly, most of it being about Matty was a turnaround no one expected). There’s so much writing, so many stories, and the fact that these songs are given the time to breathe is something Taylor hasn’t done since 2020.

Much has been said about Jack Antonoff’s frequent production with Taylor, going back seven albums now, and it’s clear they have perhaps run their course — her songs with Aaron Dessner of The National are far more dynamic and interesting. Antonoff relies on the same flashy synths, the same soundscapes, that much of TTPD ends up sounding like a retreat of Midnights. It’s sleepy at points, but at least this record doesn’t also bore the listener with an unremarkable set of lyrics — it’s a Swiftian tradition, at this point, to relisten over and over to discover new things, and this album has the most corners yet with its literary references and detailed history.

Undeniably the most complex addition to her oeuvre, The Tortured Poets Department asks some of the most intricate questions of Taylor Swift’s career — but relishes in not answering them, opting instead to go forward, however it may be. Thorny on arrival but ultimately insightful, TTPD is a mature, messy, and grippingly honest look into Swift’s tortured psyche.

Order The Tortured Poets Department by Taylor Swift HERE HERE


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