Courtesy of Republic Records

April 22, 2024

From Pain to Poetry: ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ in Review

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All is fair in love and poetry, but both are not without torture. Taylor Swift’s 11th studio album The Tortured Poets Department is finally here. Tortured Poets presents an ethereal collection of hushed midnight musings that are vulnerable, brutal, unhinged, hopeful and, of course, tinged with torture. Swift provides us with a look into her life as she struggles with emotions determined to drown her while continuing to go above and beyond for her fans. Tortured Poets is a revealing and cathartic album that comes with claws that spare no one, even Swift herself.

On April 18, fans, now members of the department, gathered around the world for the first meeting of the Tortured Poets clad in black and white, ready for heartbreak. As the clock struck midnight, Swifties were met with steady synth beats reminiscent of Midnights, sultry breathless vocals and sepia-shrouded ballads. As one of those expectant Swifties, I excitedly started the album at midnight but left my first listen feeling underwhelmed. The songs began to blur together as I recognized the same synth beats and the same low agonized vocals and soft melodies. But then the chairman extended the meeting! In a surprise, but very Taylor-esque twist, the megastar announced a double album release at 2 a.m. after leaving a trail of hints involving twos. Yet I again felt myself questioning the necessity of the repetitive style whose lull detracted from the powerful lyrics beneath. 

In “Fortnight,” the first song and lead single on the album featuring Post Malone, Swift laments “I was a functioning alcoholic / ‘Til nobody noticed my new aesthetic.” She starts the album by illuminating her despair hiding behind the facade she puts on as a performer while falling through tumultuous relationships in the midst of her famed Eras Tour. Following “Fortnight” is the title song “The Tortured Poets Department,” which is relatively unremarkable, as are many of the other songs in the 31-song double album. The repetitive use of synth and drums unfortunately lock Swift into a relatively simple time signature that lulls listeners into a haze. While this haze may be intentional and in line with the vibe of the album, it makes it harder to appreciate Swift’s iconic lyricism.

“My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” again follows the same sonic formula of the songs before it; however, it stands out in its sweeping chorus. Using the metaphor of a doll, Swift details the ways she felt used and discarded in her relationship, seemingly with her as an unwitting bystander to the affair. There is something about the vocals in the chorus, especially the achingly beautiful glissando on “toys” and “destroys” that coaxes me into pressing replay.

“Down Bad” was one of the only songs, along with “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” that stood out sonically to me with a layered saxophone melody and a melancholy but catchy chorus. The song has recurring celestial imagery from cosmic love to desired abductions that won’t come which suspend the verses in whimsy while the chorus crashes back to reality full of anguish and a lot of f-bombs. In one of my favorite lyrics from the album, Swift muses “For a moment, I was heavenstruck,” which offers beautiful imagery of feeling more than wonderstruck, but lost in a land of gilded ideals.

Track four transitions abruptly into “So Long, London,” the famed and feared track five of the album. In a pattern familiar to Swifties, track five is often the most devastating and vulnerable song in the album with previous track fives including “Dear John,” “tolerate it” and, of course, “All Too Well.” “So Long, London” delivers in terms of subject, dealing with the heartbreak of letting go of the floating remnants of a relationship. Swift asks “How much sad did you think I had / Did you think I had in me?” which painfully captures what it feels to grasp for something that is dead and how its decay leeches into one’s soul. In the final verse, Swift sings “You swore that you loved me, but where were the clues? / I died on the altar waiting for the proof,” a devastating line made even more so by a connection to “False God” from Lover where Swift describes this same “altar” with undiluted love.

Jumping over to track 9 is “Guilty as Sin?” which I believe to be the most achingly beautiful song on the album and maybe even the best on the whopping 31-song album. “Guilty as Sin?” creates vocals and rhythms that, together, transport the listener away from reality and into gauzy clouds and heady fantasies. However, this is also a song I felt is best enjoyed if the lyrics are ignored. There is something about Taylor Swift’s music that can never be isolated in words, that can only be felt. Many songs have done it in the past and in The Tortured Poets Department, “Guilty as Sin?” is the magical song imbued with power that doesn’t seem to be from this world. This song epitomizes the album in the best way, a collection of lilting euphonies wrapped in the intoxicating embrace of a hopeless romantic. Swift asks “Am I bad? Or mad? Or wise?” and really who knows because the careful listener will leave the album asking themselves the same question. Am I bad because society labeled me this way for daring to break the mold? Am I losing my mind trying to find my place in a world not built for tortured poets? Or really, is there strength in wonder and fantasies? Will the world be saved by the dreamers? Swift thinks so, and I am inclined to agree. 

Swift develops on the idea of existing in a world not large enough to accommodate one’s hopes and dreams in “I Hate It Here” from the extended anthology. She sings, “I hate it here so I will go to / Secret gardens in my mind,” a familiar call for the dreamers of the world. As a reader and a lover of fantasy, this song epitomizes midnight longings and subdued reveries stemming from the frustration with the world and its stringent norms. Swift discusses the deepest desires of the poets and dreamers of the world who long to escape into our minds and stare at the stars, wishing for them to stare back.

There are many debates on which relationship Swift sings about in each song, but I believe that is hardly the point. Taylor Swift is one of the most accomplished songwriters of all time because of her musical and literary prowess, not because of the men in her life. It is far past time we stop linking a woman’s successes to the romantic relationships, breakups and heartbreak she undergoes. This album is not for the fans, not for the critics and certainly not for the men in her life. This album is for Taylor Swift. She is the author of her life, not just a character. This is her story. 

All this to say, The Tortured Poets Department is definitely not my favorite album. With the easter egg-laden promotional craze leading up the release, the album itself felt underwhelming and monotonous. So was it the best album? No. But will I keep listening to a few songs on repeat? Absolutely. And that’s the magic of Taylor Swift. As she puts it “[I] put narcotics into all of my songs / And that’s why you’re still singing along.” Aside from its downfalls, the album is an incredibly vulnerable translation of pain that need not be viewed through the lens of a critic. In the end, all that is left is tortured poetry.

Ayla Kruse Lawson is a freshman in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at [email protected].