Album Review: Taylor Swift, ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

    Taylor Swift: Storyteller is the name of an exhibition that opened its doors last year at NYC’s Museum of Arts and Design, displaying props and costumes that journey visitors through all of the artist’s eras. In December, TIME’s Person of the Year profile positioned Taylor Swift as “the master storyteller of the modern era.” In that profile, Barbie director Greta Gerwig said that Swift’s “work as a songwriter is what speaks most clearly to me. To write music that is from the deepest part of herself and have it directly speak into the souls of other people.” (Among the many, many names mentioned in The Tortured Poets Department are Kens, as in the second-class citizens of Barbieland, the most famous of which parodied ‘All Too Well’ on Saturday Night Live just days ahead of the album’s release. Swift loved it.) Swift’s strengths as a storyteller and a songwriter are not directly opposed, but songs only constitute a part of her storytelling, as do the music videos, the publicity, the lore, and every one of her performances. Taylor Swift the storyteller is who critics reappraised and revered, the one fans fell in love with time and time again: when the stories were vague and precocious on her self-titled debut, sharp and fictionalized on folklore and evermore, scattered on Midnights.

    Despite her cultural omnipresence, this perception of Taylor Swift has far from escaped public consciousness. When it comes to her releasing new music, however, it means that the question being asked now is increasingly not “What story is Taylor Swift telling?” but rather “What’s the Taylor Swift story?” Swift is still a great storyteller, but belying The Tortured Poets Department is a gnawing frustration with the pressures of narrativizing one’s life and musical career, of feeding the need for constant progress and reinvention. The album may eventually find its place in The Eras Tour, and it comes with a carefully crafted aesthetic, but perhaps more than any of her albums, it rejects the idea of neatly demarcated chapters, artistic or otherwise. In eras terms, ‘But Daddy I Love Him’ is immediately reminiscent of ‘Love Story’, but in an instant Swift jumps back to her present reality: “I’ll tell you something about my good name/ It’s mine alone to disgrace/ I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing.” She doesn’t care to obscure her writing to the point where you can’t tell if she’s singing about Matty Healy or Joe Alwyn or Travis Kelce or, of course, her own image, but she will weave in enough fictional details to suggest that this is neither a return to confessionalism nor an expansion of what she has called the folklorian woods.

    Before The Tortured Poets Department even came out, Swift built an elaborate (and obviously commercialized) world around it. She presented pages of typewritten lyrics that hilariously featured the Spotify logo; for Apple Music, whose homepage now proclaims that Taylor’s “Tortured Poets Era” is here, she released five playlists representing the five stages of grief and heartbreak: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But while the playlists recontextualized and mixed songs from different eras into a single emotional category, the album itself is dominated by the sensation that this kind of theoretical framing is flimsy and unreliable, like love itself: the feelings can be simultaneous, jumbled, even contradictory, never linear. So if the storytelling of Midnights was scattered, this album is deliberately messy: Swift sounds confused (“I’m seeing visions/ Am I bad? Or mad? Or wise?”), then righteously feral (“I was tame, I was gentle/ Til the circus life made me mean”); devastated (‘loml’), suddenly energetic (however ironically, on ‘I Can Do It With a Broken Heart’), then lovestruck (‘The Alchemy’) all over again. It’s thrilling and exhausting, and she can’t pretend like there’s a logic to it. The tragic element of ‘How Did It End?’ isn’t just the scrutiny and assumptions she faces around the dissolution of a relationship, but how they inflame her own inability to muster up an explanation, to once again fold it into a story.

    Swift may not have any immediate plans to publish a poetry book like her hero Lana Del Rey, and though she adopts her languid delivery to a noticeable degree and swears a lot more, she won’t sing a line like, “I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown 24/7 Sylvia Plath,” either. And while she may declare herself the chairman of the Tortured Poets Department, she shows little interest in romanticized personas – one of the most brilliantly self-aware lines comes from the title track, where she sings, “You’re not Dylan Thomas/ I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel/ We’re modern idiots.” It should go some way into convincing listeners The Tortured Poets Department is meant to be at least somewhat tongue in cheek, even those who don’t know the title is rumoured to be a nod to a group chat co-run by her ex-boyfriend Joe Alwyn called “The Tortured Man Club.” But as a trope, an aesthetic, a vehicle for the unvarnished truth, the poetry angle fits right in with the shift away from structured storytelling. “All’s fair in love and poetry,” as she wrote in a letter accompanying the album, flipping the famous proverb.

    Poems can deliver beautifully composed stories, of course, and songs aren’t the same as poems. But this framing allows Swift to lean into two main things in her songcraft: raw vulnerability and chaos. They’re both elements of the album I appreciate and wish there was more of. ‘So Long, London’ is haunting and understated, effectively tossing a whole list of wrongdoings into one big pile of sadness. ‘loml’ benefits from the same emotional honesty, and though Swift’s flowery language can come off overwrought elsewhere, the way she slips into it towards the end of the song feels piercing and revelatory (“Oh, what a valiant roar/ What a bland goodbye/ The coward claimed he was a lion.”) On the other hand, while anyone who still hasn’t gotten over ‘ME!’ should be alarmed by a Taylor Swift song with three exclamation points, ‘Florida!!!’ is refreshingly bombastic, and trading lines with Florence Welch inspires one of Swift’s most dynamic performances. She brings a similarly wild ferocity to ‘Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?’, which revels in its own contradictions: “Tell me everything is not about me/ But what if it is?”

    It’s not messier, rawer songwriting that gets in the way of The Tortured Poets Department’s ambitions; it’s necessary for the album Swift is trying to sell. I like that it’s a conflicted album, and it’s definitely not a bad-sounding album. But its sound and messy, conflicted core often seem at odds with each other. In continuing her collaboration with Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, the album settles on a combination of the wispy synthpop of Midnights and the delicate intimacy of folklore, which isn’t inherently a bad thing; again, Swift doesn’t have to steer her sound in a new direction with every “era.” At this point, however, she wears that sound – even with all its slight variations – so comfortably that it often prevents those tangled emotions from rising up. ‘Fortnight’, the opening collaboration with Post Malone, is one of the worst offenders: no tortured love story should sound this bland, even if the point is that the ruin stays unobserved. When I hear phrases like “cosmic love” and “fatal fantasies,” I wish the music took greater lengths to evoke them, the way it sparkles when accentuating a range of emotion, from the anguish of “old habits die screaming” to the snarkiness of ‘I Can Do It With a Broken Heart’.

    The other issue is that The Tortured Poets’ chaotic presentation excuses the lack of quality control that Midnights also suffered from. You may already have seen or heard some cringeworthy lines from this album stripped out of context, and they may elicit the same reaction “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby” did a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve come to accept cringe as an authentic and potentially fun component of Swift’s music, as essential as the longing that burns in her best songs. ‘I Hate It Here’ is a low point, but not because of that line – I’m pretty sure embarrassment is what the narrator feels, too, after uttering the phrase “1830s but without all the racists.” There are some clunky lyrics here and there – I still can’t get past “Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto” – but they don’t matter as much when there are whole songs you’re tempted to doze out of. This happened to me with a few tracks on the original album, especially the slumbering ‘Fresh Out the Slammer’ and the penultimate track ‘The Alchemy’. But it immediately won my attention back with the closer, ‘Clara Bow’, which ends, strikingly yet undramatically, with a word Swift spins deep meaning out of: dazzling.

    It doesn’t end there, of course. For anyone who had already formed an opinion when The Tortured Poets Department arrived on Friday (or before that), Swift extended it with The Anthology just two hours later, adding an extra 15 songs that contain some playful and poignant moments, even if many of them muddle into the background. If you want to be cynical about it, you can say the expansion was simply a consequence of Swift working in (really, dominating) an industry where bloated album releases have become lucrative. The way I see it, though, Swift’s decision to sprawl it out also reads as a poetic act of desperation. “Once we have spoken our saddest story, we can be free of it,” Swift wrote, but you don’t reach the end of the album feeling like that sense of freedom has totally been earned, because the saddest parts of every story are always partially unspoken, always unraveling. “The story isn’t mine anymore,” Swift sings, finally, on ‘The Manuscript’. The feeling that we’re not in control of our own stories is something we all grapple with, and it’s what makes us human. In The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor Swift – world-famous storyteller, but also just a person hiding and leaping out of these songs – can’t help but do the same, aching to cling and let go.

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    Taylor Swift: Storyteller is the name of an exhibition that opened its doors last year at NYC’s Museum of Arts and Design, displaying props and costumes that journey visitors through all of the artist’s eras. In December, TIME’s Person of the Year profile positioned...Album Review: Taylor Swift, 'The Tortured Poets Department'