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Monday, June 24, 2024

Review: Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

Synth-pop beats and lyrically crowded songs mark Swift as a musical innovator — for better or for worse

 

By ELIZABETH WOODHALLarts@theaggie.org 

 

Taylor Swift released “The Tortured Poets Department” on April 19 at 12 a.m. EST, following soon after with an anthology of 15 songs at 2 a.m. EST. The anticipation had been amping up for fans worldwide as she announced this album on Feb. 5 — barely two months before she was set to release the album. 

Swift hasn’t been a stranger from the spotlight these past few years, between releasing one of the all-time top-grossing albums ever with “Midnights” and her whirlwind romance with Travis Kelce, an NFL football player for the Kansas City Chiefs. On top of that, just a few shows into her worldwide stadium tour the news broke that she had separated from long-time boyfriend Joe Alwyn, and quickly found herself in the tabloids as she struck up a new relationship with Matty Healy, the frontman of English band The 1975. She’s far gone from her “reputation” days of exile and confinement, a time when, despite fans speculating that Swift would directly address her disappearance, she instead crafted an album that talked about love, deception and forbidden relationships. 

Surprisingly enough, “The Tortured Poets Department” does a great deal in addressing the public’s opinion of who she is and who she should date. Swift is known for continuously transitioning between genres in the name of remaining innovative and groundbreaking. Jumping from indie albums like “folklore” and “evermore” to the synth-pop “Midnights” is a leap that not all artists would survive and land on their feet — but that’s the enchanting nature of this pop star. 

“Fortnight (feat. Post Malone)” is the first track and leading single of the album. It’s slow, and retains the lyrical ambiguities and intricate self-referential lyrics of “folklore” and “evermore,’ but the beat is now synth-pop — a sound reminiscent of “Midnights.” 

Combining aspects of two eras that brought her back onto the scene is not an unusual technique for Swift to employ — but it falls short of her greatest works. The track “The Tortured Poets Department” confirms its muse: Healy, with reference to him being a “tattooed golden retriever.” This track starts with referencing marriage, a topic which was allegedly part of the rift between Swift and Alwyn. In the song, someone grabs Swift’s ring and “put[s] it on the one people put wedding rings on.” 

Fans can suspect that Alwyn is also mentioned in “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys,” where she elaborates on the breakdown of their relationship and the dissembling of Swift — attributing herself doll parts that he takes apart and keeps the “tortured hearts.” This track is more upbeat than the past two as well. 

The track “Down Bad” talks about feeling physically and emotionally abandoned. The concept of being “down bad” insinuates that the passionate feelings she holds for this person are unrequited. 

The next track, “So Long, London,” is speculated to be about Alwyn — someone whom she frequently resided in London with. This track speaks to the relationship that had once been seen as a perfect match. Who could think otherwise when “reputation” and “Lover” shadowed the narrative — and the truth? 

“So Long, London” is reminiscent of “Down Bad’s themes of abandonment and holding on past the finish point. She is trying her hardest to keep them close together — “Pulled him in tighter each time he was driftin’ away / My spine split from carrying us up the hill” — but he is already gone. Despite this ending, she still exists in everything he does: “I founded the club she’s heard great things about,” referencing Alwyn’s interview where he shared that he, Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott were all in a group chat called “Tortured Man Club.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Swift mentions that club through her album title. We’ve had similar instances of these seemingly obvious references to past love, such as in “Dear John” and “Style.” 

“But Daddy I Love Him” is a commentary on the public’s outrage where she claims that, “These people only raise you to cage you.” There is visual imagery of a wedding happening, something that she’s always wanted: “They slammed the door on my whole world / the one thing I wanted.” She goes on to call this uproar “bitchin’ and moanin’” and seems to poke fun at this criticism by making a joke about “having his baby” — she’s not, but she’d love to see their faces as they reacted to that line. “Fresh Out the Slammer” hints that Healy served as a rebound for her relationship with Alwyn. “Florida!!! (feat. Florence + The Machine)” has beautiful vocals from Florence and Swift, referencing crime and drugs, escaping responsibilities by leaving to Florida. Despite the ambiguities, the track stands strong because of its vocals and beat build-up. 

“Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” fights against this assumption that Swift is powerless against rumors and controversies. Perhaps her silence about most scandals and breakups has laced this narrative — but she’s saying that she has more power than people think. To say that she is “little” but that they “should be” afraid of her shows the cultural impact she has —- even when her reputation is tainted. 

“I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” talks about Swift’s triumphant tour as she’s experiencing various heartbreaks. A time that is filled with success in her career is also shadowed by her personal life and the collapse of the relationships she thought were going to last. “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” allegedly is about Healy, as she says that he tried to buy pills “from a friend of a friend.” Healy has been accused of dealing with drug abuse, as well. Listeners gain insight into what led to the end of their relationship: ghosting, inflated public image and disappearance when things got hard.

 “The Alchemy” is filled with football metaphors —- “touchdown,” “winning streak” —- seemingly referencing Kelce throughout the track. It’s one of her most slow-beat romance songs, and it does not really stand out beyond this relationship plastered across all gossip magazines.

The final track before entering the extended version of the album, “Clara Bow,” talks about making it in the industry. It’s something that she’s mastered, but it’s not easy to be competing against other artists fighting to take her throne. In the end, she views what sometimes feels like fading stardom and urges other artists to be careful of what the media wants. They’ll be glad that people are saying they have an “edge” against other artists, and enjoy the reviews saying their future looks “dazzling” because of it —- but this won’t last forever. 

“The Tortured Poets Department” is an album that’s filled with everything fans love about Swift, coupled with genuine and beautifully crafted songwriting. Despite this, there are times when these songs went on longer than they should’ve. Some lyrics go in the book of memorable lyrics by Swift — others induce confusion and perhaps a shake of the head. This album gives Swift an edge by responding to the public and taking over her narrative, calling out past relationships and setting the record straight.

 Fans are already raving about it online while others are expressing their concern that this record is too similar — or different — from her past work. Swift’s lyricism is what makes her such a good artist, and with songs that seem to be crowded with metaphors and allusions, it’s an album that places the artist dangerously close to a new genre of music that her fans might struggle to get into. Nonetheless, it’s an album that will get you through heartbreak or make you feel on top of the world. As always, Swift makes music for anyone going through the various stages of life. 

 

Written by: Elizabeth Woodhall   arts@theaggie.org 

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