Arts, Music, Review

‘The Tortured Poets Department’ is Insightful, Yet Inconsistent

★★★✭☆

As Taylor Swift stood onstage at the 2024 Grammy’s to accept her first award of the night for Best Pop Vocal Album, she thanked her fans with news of a new album: The Tortured Poets Department.

Swift’s 11th studio album was released on April 19 at midnight, and two hours later to her fans’ surprise, the 16-song album was revealed to be only the first half. The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology carried 15 more songs, an overwhelming addition to the night.

As the title suggests, TTPD is a dreamlike album with lyrics reminiscent of poetry. Some lyrics are beautiful and emotional, while others appear childish and lacking in depth. With a grand total of 31 songs, the album becomes difficult to navigate.

Swift explores themes of fame and a great romantic loss, speculated to be about her six-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn—two forms of heartbreak that seem to inform one another. 

The first song of the album, “Fortnight,” featuring Post Malone, is unfortunately one of only two features on Swift’s 31-song album. Post Malone contributes to the song with background vocals, but does not add much to the song. 

The other feature, “Florida!!!” with Florence + The Machine, beautifully blends the two artists’ vocals, highlighting TTPD’s relative lack of features. 

The title track, “The Tortured Poets Department,” is ironically one of the least poetic songs of the album. The song’s melody feels like the perfect opening to the album, even though it is the second track, but the lyrics are rather unpoetic. 

“You smoked then ate seven bars of chocolate / We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist,” Swift sings. 

In the chorus of the song, Swift references poet Dylan Thomas and songwriter Patti Smith. Swift draws connections between herself and previous famous artists throughout TTPD, illustrating to her listeners the effect of fame on her internal image. 

The final track of her original release, “Clara Bow,” is named after a silent film actress from the 1920s who rose to fame as a 16-year-old and was named Hollywood’s “It girl.” Swift released her debut album when she was 16, further underscoring the comparison between the two stars.

In addition to Bow, Swift references Stevie Nicks, famous singer and songwriter and an idol to many female singers. All three women rose to stardom just to realize their life was no longer their own.

On Swift’s 2021 studio album, Red, Swift wrote a song entitled “The Lucky One” about the reality of fame. 

“And they tell you that you’re lucky, but you’re so confused / ’Cause you don’t feel pretty, you just feel used / And all the young things line up to take your place,” Swift sings. 

In the outro of “Clara Bow,” Swift heartbreakingly sings her own name in the same line she sang Bow and Nicks’ names, showing how her life took the same turn as theirs. 

“You look like Taylor Swift / In this light / We’re loving it / You’ve got edge she never did / The future’s bright / Dazzling,” Swift sings, as if replying to her younger self who wrote “The Lucky One.”

Swift and Alwyn’s breakup was made public in April 2023 via Entertainment Tonight, a couple of weeks after The Eras Tour began. Swift’s song “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” is a performative, overly-produced song which perfectly captures the smile she was forced to fake for her fans as she dealt with heartbreak. 

“They said, ‘Babe, you gotta fake it ’til you make it’ / And I did,” Swift sings. 

The song’s upbeat nature is emphasized by the smile you can hear in Swift’s voice as she sings otherwise self-effacing and disheartening lyrics. The contrast between the melody and the lyrics is clever, reflecting the version of herself she had to project for her fans.

“Breaking down, I hit the floor / All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting ‘More!’” Swift sings.

“But Daddy I Love Him” is speculated to be about Swift’s relationship with Matty Healy from The 1975—a relationship many of Swift’s fans disapproved of because of his problematic reputation.

The title of the song is a quote from The Little Mermaid and also parallels a line from The Notebook. Both movies reaffirm the message that although Swift does not appreciate the outside opinions about her love life, her fame doesn’t grant her the privacy to avoid them. 

“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,” Swift sings. 

Swift’s fifth tracks of her albums are known to be the most devastating and vulnerable songs. Previous albums’ fifth tracks include “All Too Well,” “Dear John,” “You’re On Your Own, Kid,” and now on TTPD, “So Long, London.” 

The significance behind “So Long, London” is deeper than just its numerical placement in her album. On Swift’s 2019 album, Lover, Swift wrote a song about Alwyn entitled “London Boy.” Additionally, in “You’re Losing Me,” a later addition to her album Midnights, Swift’s lyrics describe a dying relationship—lyrics which are answered in “So Long, London.” 

“I can’t find a pulse / My heart won’t start anymore / For you / ’Cause you’re losin’ me,” Swift sings in “You’re Losing Me.”

In “You’re Losing Me,” the beat mirrors a slow heart beating, whereas in “So Long, London,” the beat seems to be a rising heart rate, reflecting her being brought back to life after she stopped trying to revive her relationship. 

“I stopped CPR, after all, it’s no use / The spirit was gone, we would never come to,” Swift sings in “So Long, London.”

Swift’s vocals appear in their most raw form in her least produced and perhaps most heartbreaking song, “loml.” Her lyrics portray her frustration, but her vocals reflect her heartbreak. 

“Loml” is an acronym commonly used to express “love of my life.” Swift sings she was told she was the love of his life, but in a devastating twist in the last lyric, “loml” is revealed to stand for “loss of my life.”

“You’re the loss of my life,” Swift sings. 

TTPD is an album for Swift’s fans to decipher and understand the reality of her fame. For non-fans, there may not be any hit songs within the extensive 31-song album. TTPD: The Anthology contains 15 extra songs—maybe containing more variety, or the hit song fans and non-Swifties alike have been waiting for. 

April 21, 2024

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