Taylor swift
Credit: Taylor Swift

Love, war & poetry: The Tortured Poets Department in review

On April 19, Taylor Swift released her latest album, The Tortured Poets Department – but that’s not all. A 2am surprise saw the reveal of a secret ‘double album’, with the main tracks followed by an additional release, The Anthology. The dizzying total of 31 songs makes for an overwhelming (two-hour-long) first listening experience. It leaves us in no doubt about Taylor’s productivity; Tortured Poets marks her fifth new album in as many years, not to mention four re-recordings of previous albums, and her ongoing international Eras Tour.

What’s in a title?

I have been eagerly awaiting The Tortured Poets Department since it was first announced at the Grammys, both for obvious reasons as a perennial Swiftie, and more specifically due to the implicit reference in the title to Dead Poets Society, a favourite film of mine. This allusion was confirmed via the cameo made by the original actors Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles in the music video for the first single, ‘Fortnight (ft. Post Malone)’. Teetering on a tight-rope between poetic exaltation and despair, the mood that permeates Dead Poets also undoubtedly weaves its way into the album. 

The album title also sparked speculation due to its alleged link to ‘The Tortured Man Club’, a rumoured group chat involving actor Paul Mescal and Taylor’s long-term, now ex-boyfriend, Joe Alwyn. But, much more importantly (and interestingly), it raises questions about the relationship between music and poetry. It’s true that Taylor’s best songwriting – to be found, in my opinion, in the albums Folklore and Evermore, which first converted me to a Swiftie – bleeds into poetry, from the mystical ‘Ivy’, to the whimsical ‘The Lakes’. In promotional posts for Tortured Poets, Taylor has stressed the capacity of songwriting to revolutionise emotion, enabling healing and catharsis. In particular, she has spoken of her “firm belief that tears become holy in the form of ink on a page.”

Taylor herself is not the only tortured poet to whom the album refers. In fact, the titular track assigns this status to the lover figure, who “left your typewriter at my apartment, straight from the Tortured Poets Department.” Equally, in the ‘Fortnight’ music video, bothTaylor and Austin Post/ Post Malone can be seen tapping away on typewriters. But she is also quick to acknowledge the pretentiousness of this stance: “We’re modern idiots.”

And I don’t even want you back,
I just want to know
If rusting my sparkling summer was the goal

~ Taylor Swift

Sonic Characteristics

Sonically, Tortured Poets is a muted album, reflected in the black, white and grey of its aesthetic. Mellow backing tracks meet with synthpop, while The Anthology bears more hints of folk music. Yet, in spite of its subdued nature, the album remains unapologetically dramatic, brimming full of emotion that demands to be felt. It’s refreshing to see an artist who, for many, represents the pinnacle of mainstream pop, take a risk by avoiding an upbeat hit in this album, even if some tracks occasionally sound overly similar.

Among the more immediately catchy songs are ‘I Can Do It With a Broken Heart’ and ‘Down Bad’. The former candidly discusses Taylor’s waning mental health despite the outward joy of the Eras Tour, with the lyric video symbolically featuring black-and-white clips of the show: “All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting, ‘more’”. Meanwhile, the latter recalls the intergalactic aesthetic of the 2022 album Midnights, though the prevailing mood here is one of dejection, with lyrics including, ‘Did you really beam me up/ In a cloud of sparkling dust/ Just to do experiments on?’, ‘I’ll build you a fort on some planet/ Where they can all understand it,’ and, ‘For a moment, I knew cosmic love.’

Collaborative Creativity

The melancholy, ambitious, sometimes digressive lyricism and slightly alternative pop sound of Tortured Poets might be compared to a blend of Florence + the Machine (with Florence Welch actually featuring on ‘Florida!!!’), Lana Del Rey, and especially The National. Given my love of all of the aforementioned, this sound has definite appeal for me, though I can see how this might not apply to all of Taylor’s fan base – particularly those enjoying her dance tracks. 

The National’s influence is perhaps unsurprising given the dominant place occupied by the band’s founder Aaron Dessner in production. Collaboration with Dessner has already produced some of my all-time favourite, if underrated, Taylor Swift songs, among them The Alcott, Birch and Coney Island. In Tortured Poets, his distinctive piano tunes make for multilayered rhythms that don’t always go where you expect them to.

Another important collaborator is Jack Antonoff, the musical mastermind who helped produce hits like Getaway Car, and also worked on popular albums such as Lorde’s Melodrama and Solar Power. Both Antonoff and Dessner made an appearance in Taylor’s Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions documentary, where their enthusiasm for their craft is abundantly clear.

Fame and psychology, humour and heartbreak

The ‘Fortnight’ music video makes the album’s running themes of experimentation, distress, and a sensation of being prodded and exposed visible. The album also dissects a complex response to fame, evoked through circus and asylum metaphors. In the standout track, ‘Who’s Afraid Of Little Old Me?’, Taylor writes viscerally: “I was tame ‘til the circus life made me mean, / Don’t you worry folks, we took out all her teeth,” and yells the titular question with a desperate energy.

Tortured Poets arguably makes for Taylor’s most honest and cutting album, taking the rawness of Midnight’s ‘Anti-Hero’ and intensifying it. It’s an emotional outpouring which conveys the fraught transition from experiencing the “love of my life” to the “loss of my life” (in track 12, ‘loml’). ‘The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived’ – “ set apart by its sheer emotional force – is up there with ‘Would’ve Could’ve Should’ve’ in terms of its capacity to convey hurt; at the least, it is scathing and at the most an all-out obliteration of its subject (possibly Matty Healy). 

If Taylor is famous for her bridges it is with good reason; this one is truly gut-punching: “Were you sent by someone who wanted me dead?/ Did you sleep with a gun underneath our bed?/ Were you writing a book? Were you a sleeper cell spy?/ In fifty years, will all this be declassified? […] I would’ve died for your sins, instead, I just died inside’ and so on. In spite of this, the album also includes notes of humour. ‘I Can Do It With a Broken Heart’ ends with a joking “try and come for my job”, while Taylor gently mocks her fans in ‘But Daddy I Love Him’: “I’m having his baby/ No I’m not, but you should see your faces.”

But you’re in self-sabotage mode,
Throwing spikes down on the road,
But I’ve seen this episode
and still love the show

~ Taylor Swift

Cross-album references

Tortured Poets marks the latest addition to the ever-expanding Taylor Swift multiverse, epitomised by the various musical ‘eras’ showcased on her tour. Among the most obvious cross-references to other parts of her discography is ‘So Long, London’, an inverse ‘London Boy’ which sees the rose-tinted glasses of 2019’s Lover well and truly decimated. The Midnight’s track ‘You’re Losing Me’ also now appears as a clear forerunner to Tortured Poets, with references to a deathly pallor echoed, from “My face was grey but you wouldn’t admit that we were sick,” to “You sacrificed us to the gods of your bluest days/ And I’m just getting colour back in my face.” 

Final Thoughts

The Tortured Poets Department leaves us with lots of material to digest – if anything, perhaps a little too much to take in at once. But a greater appreciation of each track will come with time. What’s certain is that critics of The Tortured Poets Department so far seem to devote far too much attention to the autobiographical context of Taylor Swift’s exes, and the dirt that she may or may not have dished on them. But it would be reductive to merely view her music through this lens, as it does not account for what it really means to so many. 

For many fans, it is a representation of girlhood and womanhood, with all it entails: insecurities, lessons and mistakes. Moreover, Taylor herself has insisted on the fact that the music is now removed from its original context and made new by its listeners, writing, “There is nothing to avenge, no scores to settle once wounds have healed”. The artwork outlives the feelings behind its creation, and can have different, inexhaustible meanings for each of us. As Taylor concludes in the final track, ‘The Manuscript’, “Now and then I reread the manuscript/ But the story isn’t mine anymore.”

Image Credit: Taylor Swift