With ‘The Tortured Poets Department,’ Taylor Swift Makes One for Herself

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With ‘TTPD,’ Taylor Swift Makes One for HerselfBuda Mendes/TAS23 - Getty Images

At a February concert in Melbourne, Taylor Swift spoke to the stadium crowd of nearly one hundred thousand strong about The Tortured Poets Department, the forthcoming album she had announced two weeks prior at the Grammy Awards. “It was really a lifeline for me,” she said. “It sort of reminded me why songwriting gets me through life. I’ve never had an album where I needed songwriting more than I needed it on Tortured Poets.”

As you know by now, whether you like it or not, that album is out in the world—initially the sixteen tracks that had been listed in advance, followed a couple hours later by a surprise fifteen more, adding up to over two hours of music and thirty-one songs (the mirror image of thirteen, Swift’s favorite, talismanic number). It’s a fascinating, confounding, messy, sometimes frustrating, and bravely strange collection with unexpected revelations about the personal and creative journey of the world’s most dominant cultural figure.

There’s no commercial or strategic reason for this LP, her eleventh, to exist. It’s been only eighteen months since she released her last record, Midnights, and, incredibly, the 2019 fan favorite “Cruel Summer” remains parked in the top fifteen of the Billboard Hot 100. Swift still has six months left in the Eras Tour, the most successful tour of all time. The sound of TTPD is overwhelmingly sad and slow, without anything that stands out as a big radio single—not one genuine banger. Even the relationships that inspired most of these songs are old news.

Let’s get this out of the way: Since Midnights came out, Swift broke up with actor Joe Alwyn, her partner of six years; had a fling with Matty Healy, bad-boy lead singer of the 1975; then started seeing Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, forming America’s Ultimate Sweethearts, with all the attendant media frenzy. Every element of this is well documented both in and out of the lyrics, and I leave it to you to go as far down that rabbit hole as you wish.

But when you do, please don’t forget that Taylor Swift is a writer, with all the license and ruthlessness that implies. She is not a diarist or a documentary filmmaker, as she reminds us on the gorgeous “I Hate It Here,” singing, “I go to secret gardens in my mind / People need a key to, the only one is mine.” On the raging, hilarious “But Daddy I Love Him,” she scolds listeners who act like they really know her and feel qualified to criticize her choices: “God save the most judgmental creeps / Who say they want the best for me.”

Admittedly, complaining about excessively zealous fans is a bit disingenuous coming from Swift—a chronic (if perceptively self-aware) overexplainer who can make it impossible to see her work as separate from her life. In a social-media post, she wrote that the TTPD songs “reflect events, opinions, and sentiments from a fleeting and fatalistic moment in time—one that was both sensational and sorrowful in equal measure.”

What is most striking is how broken Swift sounds on these songs, especially following the defiant tone of Midnights, on which she embraced her ambition (“Mastermind”), independence (“You’re on Your Own, Kid”), and gratifying sense of revenge on her haters (“Bejeweled,” “Vigilante Shit”). Here, when she’s not lamenting her romantic disappointment and wasted time or lashing out at the exes (see: the scathing “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”), she’s recounting the agony of having to maintain a cheerful image even while things are falling apart—“Lights, camera, bitch, smile / Even when you wanna die…All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting ‘More!’ ” she sings on “I Can Do It with a Broken Heart.”

That song, with a chirpy refrain of “I’m so depressed I act like it’s my birthday every day,” is—ironically and intentionally—the closest thing to an upbeat bop on an album that is way more concerned with vibes than with hooks. The project reunites Swift with her two regular collaborators in recent years, the producers/songwriters Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner. The first half is dominated by Antonoff’s downtempo, throbbing electro pulse—a strong echo of his work with Lana Del Rey—which gets too same-y and static over this duration; the unhinged drums on “Florida!!!” (a duet with Florence Welch) and choral explosion on “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” are welcome disruptions. The piano- and string-based work by Dessner (of indie-rock icons the National) is ultimately stronger, intimate and riveting on the devastating “loml” (for “love/loss of my life”) and delicately seductive on “Clara Bow,” a meditation on the star-making machinery’s never-ending churn of female stars, named for Hollywood’s original “It Girl.”

Swift offers a few glimpses into a loving relationship on “The Alchemy” and the nineties dream-poppy “So High School,” both loaded with sports metaphors that unsubtly point to Kelce. But there’s no big payoff here, no sense of vindication or happy ending. The final track—two full hours into this thing—is “The Manuscript,” which posits that life is a series of experiences to write your way through and that artistic expression is its own reward. “The professor said to write what you know,” Swift sings, carefully and tenderly. “Looking backwards / Might be the only way forward.”

Of course, she tells us this even more directly in a poem that’s part of the TTPD packaging (one of two, actually, along with a benediction by Stevie Nicks, the patron saint of sad girls). “It’s the worst men that I write best,” Swift offers, reminding us that there’s no creative prompt quite like heartbreak.

Taylor Swift made clear from the start that this project is about purging, a necessary grab for that emotional “lifeline.” So of course The Tortured Poets Department is too much—too many songs, too heavy on melodrama, too wordy, with too many clunky lines. It’s packed with references, from the Scottish band the Blue Nile to American Pie (the movie, not the song). Detail, though, isn’t the same as precision.

But the sprawl is the point. This album isn’t concerned with polish and perfection; it’s about release, clearing the decks and moving on. “This period of the author’s life is now over, the chapter closed and boarded up,” she posted. “Once we have spoken our saddest story, we can be free of it.”

Do not underestimate the history Swift is making eighteen years into her recording career. No one has ever been this popular for this long, and she’s only getting bigger. In just the past five years, she has released five original albums and four “Taylor’s Version” re-recordings of her catalog. That adds up to more than two hundred songs in under sixty months, along with the biggest tour in history and a record-breaking concert film—a period of staggering, truly unprecedented productivity from a pop star.

This is the freedom Prince dreamed of, which ultimately led to his split with his record company and the crash of his career—the belief that an artist should be able to put out music whenever they want, regardless of conventional industry wisdom. People thought he was nuts, but Swift is prolific and powerful enough to deliver on that promise (and on his crusade for owning his masters). She can release everything she wants to say, and her fans have stayed fully on board for the ride.

So yes, The Tortured Poets Department is flawed, chaotic, inconsistent. It’s also very human, at a time when Swift’s twenty-four-hour-news-cycle overexposure threatens to take that humanity away from her. She is, no doubt, a marketing genius, but this one feels like it’s for her more than for us. A writer writes, goes an old saying—and life has gotten a lot more complicated since the days when Taylor Swift could just shake it off.

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