As you’re surely aware, the inhumanly prolific Taylor Alison Swift released a new album the other night. Well, she released a surprise double album. (Triple album? I don’t know. It has 31 songs. So far.) This brings her to a total of ten albums (if you count The Long Pond Sessions limited vinyl, which I do) and 240 tracks recorded and released since 23 August 2019 (along with three films and the most successful concert of all time).

Yes, that’s an average of more than one song per week over the past five years. Crazy crazy work ethic this woman has.

Another example of Taylor’s prolific nature: It seems that all (or nearly all) 31 of these songs were written and recorded in the past year (because they chronicle events from the past year — some events as recent as February 11!). Think about that. She wrote and recorded all of this while also doing everything else she’s been doing. And don’t forget that during the pandemic, she wrote and recorded two albums: Folklore released 24 July 2020 and Evermore released 11 December 2020. Where does she find the time?

So, as an avid Swiftie, what do I think of The Tortured Poets Department? It’s complicated. Or maybe it’s not.

First Impressions

Taylor Swift has always used music (and poetry) as a confessional, but never more so than on this record. On Tortured Poets, she’s shockingly up-front about her personal challenges, especially her struggles with mental health (brought on, in part, by the pressures of enormous fame). Fans are having mixed reactions to this. A lot of them don’t like TTPD. I dolike it. In fact, I think it just might be her best album yet — but I didn’t at first.

My first listen came at low volume while drifting to sleep Thursday night. My initial reaction was: “Yikes. This is worse than Midnights.”

Midnights (released 18 months ago) is my least favorite Taylor Swift record, but that’s largely due to the production. I like the songs when they’re performed live and/or by other people, but I don’t like them on the album itself. They way they’re produced drives me nuts.

I’m actually a fan of producer Jack Antonoff, but I sometimes think his collab with Taylor yields unlistenable results. Not sure why. And on my first listen to TTPD — late at night while falling asleep — I felt like the combo was the worst it had ever been.

Then, of course, Taylor “surprised” us two hours after the album’s release (though many suspected the surprise) with a second half to the album. This second half is much more heavily weighted toward Folklore/Evermore style stuff produced by Aaron Dessner. Folklore is my second-favorite Swift album (behind 1989), and while Evermore is uneven it has some terrific songs (“Champagne Problems” chief among them.). These sister albums feature a lot of work with Dessner. I like the sound these two produce together.

So, I stayed up late Thursday night (until 2 a.m.!) listening to both halves of the album. On my second listen, I liked the Antonoff songs better than on first listen, but I loved the Dessner songs.

Second Thoughts

On Friday morning, I got a chance to listen to the first half of the album at high volume while walking the dog. My opinion swung firmly from “meh” to “this is (mostly) brilliant”. And now, after six or seven listens, I’ve come to believe it’s all brilliant and may be her best album yet.

This is certainly Swift’s bravest and boldest album, which is why it falls flat for many people. She lays it all out there. It’s clear that she made Tortured Poets for herself, not for the fans (and especially not for casual listeners).

I think this can be best seen with the track “But Daddy I Love Him”, which is a huge “fuck you” to a certain segment of Taylor Swift fandom. No, it’s not “another version of ‘Love Story'”. And especially, no, it has nothing to do with The Little Mermaid. In a way, this song is about the fans who believe this stuff.

“But Daddy I Love Him” is clearly a firm rebuke to those who want to pass judgment on Swift’s private life. It’s a metaphor. But metaphor seems difficult for people to understand in these days of everyone taking everything literally. The song is a renunciation of cancel culture in general, and of Swifties in particular, and I love it. She is so pointed and angry here, kind of the same mood as “All Too Well”.

Here are some sample “But Daddy I Love Him” lyrics:

Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday best
Clutchin’ their pearls, sighing, “What a mess”
I just learned these people try and save you
‘Cause they hate you

I’d rather burn my whole life down
Than listen to one more second of all this bitchin’ and moanin’
I’ll tell you something ’bout my good name
It’s mine alone to disgrace
I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing

God save the most judgmental creeps
Who say they want what’s best for me
Sanctimoniously performing soliloquies I’ll never see

All the wine moms are still holdin’ out, but fuck ’em, it’s over

If you think this is “Love Story” stuff or The Little Mermaid references, I don’t know what to say. It’s not. This is a song about toxic fandom plain and simple, and it’s awesome. (The lyrics seem to specifically reference fan reaction to Taylor dating Matt Healy, who says and does stupid stuff. Some fans went so far as to draft a letter/petition to Taylor to drop the dude, which is fucking bizarre. Does Taylor then get to have a say in their private lives?)

Angry Taylor is my favorite Taylor. Her righteous wrath is truly a sight to behold.

“But Daddy I Love Him” reminds me of Sinead O’Connor’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, which has very similar themes (and has been a personal theme song of mine for thirty years). Or Tracy Chapman’s “Crossroads”. (Also, much of Sturgill Simpson’s fantastic “Sound & Fury” album dives into this.)

And that’s just one of the angry songs on this album. There are many more. The entire album is a bundle of barely-controlled rage.

TTPD also has some of Swift’s funniest songs, such as the hilarious Kim Kardashian diss track, “thanK you aIMee”, in which Taylor ironically thanks her thinly-disguised nemesis because without her meddling, Swift couldn’t have achieved the level of popularity that she has: “When I count the scars, there’s a moment of truth that there wouldn’t be this if there hadn’t been you.”

Delicious stuff.

To me, the funniest line on the album comes at the end of “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)”, which is also apparently about Matt Healy. Swift spends the entire song explaining that she “can handle a dangerous man”. She can fix them. But at the end she concludes: “Whoah, maybe I can’t.” Love it.

Changing My Tune

My big complaint on first listen was that I didn’t like the Antonoff/Swift collab and its soul-less tech-heavy sound (also the primary problem with Midnights). But on subsequent listens, I’ve come to realize there’s plenty of soul here, a ton of emotion. Taylor is just trying to hold it all back. She’s quite literally a tortured poet!

I also felt at first that this album lacked the melodies and hooks that Swift is famous for — “[I] put narcotics into all of my songs, and that’s why you’re still singin’ along” she explains on “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” — but after four days, I’ve changed my tune. There’s plenty to beller here once you get to know the songs.

I’ve read a few comments that say these aren’t mature lyrics, that they’re immature lyrics. I disagree. These are the most sophisticated lyrics she’s shared yet, with nuanced songs exploring complex themes.

One of the things I like most about this album is her transparent talk about mental health issues. Have you all watched the lyrics video for “I Can Do It with a Broken Heart” yet? Go watch it on YouTube and come back. It’s gut wrenching.

For years now, I’ve been fascinated by the mental-health effects of fame, how young people struggle to cope with notoriety. For instance, look at what the young performers in Game of Thrones all went through. EVERY ONE OF THEM dealt with mental health issues. Taylor, as one of the most popular performers in the world, is almost bound to deal with similar struggles. She explores this at length on TTPD.

The Bottom Line

The Tortured Poets Department is Taylor Swift’s rawest, most unfiltered album yet. The record also marks a subtle shift from pop-oriented fan service to more mature and complex personal confessional. I 100% understand why this is off-putting for a lot of people. But I also 100% understand why it’s appealing to a lot of people — because it’s appealing to me.

One thing I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is how great Swift’s voice sounds on this record. It’s strong, it’s powerful, but also capable of some real subtlety. As one of those who used to wince at her live performances (because her voice was, well, weak), she has come a long, long way in fifteen years. She may not be Celine Dion, but she’s absolutely capable, and she knows how to write songs for her vocal range.

I’m also shocked that in an album containing 31 songs, there’s not a single “skip” for me (yet). Aside from 1989 (also no skips), even my fave Swift albums contain a dud or two. But not TTPD. I’m enjoying every track so far. I could have chosen any of them to feature in this review.

Here are a couple of other standouts.

“The Black Dog”

“Down Bad”

“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”

I love The Tortured Poets Department. It’s currently my third-favorite Swift album. But I suspect it’s destined to top the list.

Nah, fuck it. It’s already my favorite.

[For reference, my ranking of her albums in order: Tortured Poets, 1989, Folklore, Lover, Red, Speak Now, Reputation, Fearless, Evermore, Taylor Swift, Midnights. But every album has songs that I think are great.)

3 Replies to “The Tortured Poets Department”

  1. Kara W. says:

    Why do you say 15 years? Her first single was released in 2003, which was 21 years ago.

    I’m not a big fan of her music, but I love to read her lyrics like the poetry that they are. Based on your review, I can’t wait to get my hands on this album.

    • J.D. Roth says:

      I say 15 years because I distinctly remember wincing at one of her live performances on TV back in 2008 or 2009 (soon after I first learned about her). For a few years there, I worried about her voice. I no longer do. She’s continually improved, and each album shows greater vocal maturity.

  2. Kate says:

    JD! I loved this review and overview of her new album. I have not been a Swiftie, but I have enjoyed her music over the years and just recently purchased her Evermore and Folklore albums after watching her concert on tv. I didn’t like those at first listen years ago, but came to love some gems and the vibe.

    This album, as well in my first listen, I was less than enthused, but then once I listened to it a few times on long walks I really started to enjoy it. I am sure I’ll enjoy it more as I continue to listen. I appreciate that you took the time to break down the album in a different way and share your musings on what songs refer to what in her life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Close Search Window