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Taylor Swift’s Realest Album: The Tortured Poets Department

From the moment The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor Swift’s eleventh studio album, was announced, there were more than a few raised eyebrows. Would the new album be a stylistic and lyrical departure from her existing work, or a continuation of form? Would it be sincere or tongue-in-cheek? After listening to the album four times over the last three weeks, I can confidently say that the answer is yes. 

First, this is an enormous album. Shortly after The Tortured Poets Department released at midnight on April 19, Swift unexpectedly released a longer version subtitled, The Anthology. Bringing us to a grand total of thirty one songs. 

The Tortured Poets Department features songs written during a tumultuous period of 2023, during which Swift broke up with Joe Alwyn, her partner of six years, then briefly dated the controversial singer Matt Healy before falling in love with lovable football player Travis Kelce. She dealt with all this while performing for 3 hours, 2-4 nights most weeks, during her Eras Tour.

This album, like most of her discography, is about love and heartbreak. Unlike her previous works, this is heartbreak with all of its sharp edges full of messy and vulnerable feelings. These deeply personal songs can be uncomfortable to witness.

In “So Long, London,” arguably the album’s saddest track, Swift waxes metaphorically: “My spine split from carrying us up the hill.” She turns to bluntness a few lines later: “I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free.”

Many of the album’s tracks are similarly morose with varying results. The second half in particular feels like a younger sister to Swift’s contemplative folklore (2020) and evermore (2020). The melancholy mood often works in Swift’s favor. “Peter” uses imagery from Peter Pan to discuss frustration with a boyfriend’s persistent immaturity. 

The album does feature a more upbeat track. In “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” Swift draws a comparison between “mirrorball” and “Anti-Hero” but in a more manic setting. Over rippling synths and a persistent click track, Swift cheerfully sings about feigning jubilant happiness while miserable. She features lines like: “I’m so depressed I act like it’s my birthday!” and “I cry a lot but I am so productive!” Truly an anthem for depressed overachievers everywhere. 

Swift frequently sticks extra syllables into metrical lines as if to musically signal her chafing at the limits of her public image and roadmap for romance. She knows how large her star has grown, and she writes in the shadow of its potential collapse. There is anxiety, frustration, and even hysteria here at the joys and horrors of a life lived so publicly. Some of the album’s best work questions how to balance intimacy and fame. In “Clara Bow” Swift meditates on the public’s insatiable desire for fresh starlets, and in “The Prophecy” she pleads, “Don’t want money, just want someone who wants my company.”

Oh, Florida. A crazy place where people can reinvent themselves. Swift creates a track dedicated to the state. Paired with Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine, the song imagines criminals fleeing the small town scene in favor of the sleaze and glamour of 1950s Florida. The women’s voices croon and soar over bombastic drums, lending the track a sense of nihilistic triumph comparable to the final frames of Thelma and Louise (1991). 

There are a few tracks that don’t fit the mold. “thanK you aIMee,” a thinly-veiled call out of Kim Kardashian for the feud she and her former husband Kanye West started more than a decade ago, prompts eye-rolls. Are we really restarting name dropping feuds in our thirties, especially when Reputation was a more interesting treatment of the same subject? 

More effective are the two tracks about Swift’s boyfriend Travis Kelce: “The Alchemy” and “So High School.” On an album full of angst, grief, and manic cheerfulness, these songs provide a welcome optimism. 

For all its self-indulgence, however, there is also a wry humor that pervades The Tortured Poets Department, from its album art imitating Greek statuary to the self-deprecating lyrics of the title track: “You’re not Dylan Thomas,” she admits, “I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel, we’re modern idiots.” 

The Tortured Poets Department will likely not win many new fans, nor does it seek to. At this point in her career, Swift has nothing to prove. For those who find recognition and camaraderie in her lament, however, there is much to appreciate here. Pull up a chair, she says, and watch me bleed.

This article follows up on the author’s previous essay for Spectrum, “When Taylor Swift Took Me To Church.”

About the author

Melodie Roschman is the Communications Officer for the department of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo. A J. N. Andrews Honors Scholar at Andrews University, she graduated summa cum laude with at BA in English/Journalism. After earning her MA in English from McMaster University, Roschman received a PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder with a certificate in Women and Gender Studies. More from Melodie Roschman.
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