Taylor Swift’s «Tortured Poets Ward» reviewed

In the past few months, Taylor Swift has become culturally ubiquitous in a way that’s almost terrifying. Superstardom tends to turn normal people into caricatures, projections, gods, monsters. Swift has been approaching some kind of tipping point for some time. The final catalyst was, in part, love: in the midst of her record breaking streak Eras TourSwift, who is thirty-four, started dating Travis Kelce, a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs. Whenever Swift appeared at one of Kelce’s games, the broadcasters pointed their extra-high definition cameras at her and sent hordes of amateur lip readers scrambling to get their phones. I’m paid to give such things legibility, and even I couldn’t help feeling that we were crossing some kind of Rubicon with respect to our collective sanity. Swift was everywhere, everyone saw him. She is one of the most streamed artists of all time on Spotify; Billboard reported that at one point she accounted for seven percent of all vinyl sales in the U.S. Swift is a capable and immensely savvy businesswoman (a billionaire, in fact), but I began to worry about her in an almost maternal way: How could anyone survive such scrutiny and retain her humanity ? Detachment from reality can be deadly for a pop star, especially one known for her Everygirl honesty. I thought of an often remembered bit from “Arrested Development,” in which Lucille Bluth, the oblivious matriarch, asks, “I mean, it’s one banana, Michael — what could it cost? Ten dollars?”

This month, Swift released her eleventh studio album, The Tortured Poets Department. Within her genre, she’s now reached a level of virtuosity that seems almost immutable—she’s too practiced, too masterful to swing and really pass. But «The Tortured Poets Department» suffers from being too long (two hours after its release, Swift announced a second disc, bringing the track total to thirty-one) and too familiar. Swift wrote most of the record with Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner. (The two producers have opposing melodic sensibilities: Antonoff sharpens Swift, Dessner softens her.) The new songs suggest that after a decade, her partnership with Antonoff may be over. The songs written with Dessner are softer, more tender and more surprising. Raw and exciting, «Robin» seems to address a child — either a very young Swift (the album contains several references to her stolen youth, including «The Manuscript,» a dark song about a relationship with an older man), or perhaps a future son or daughter.

Released after Swift’s six-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn ended, «The Tortured Poets Department» is mostly about the utter unreliability of love — how crazy it is that we base our entire lives on a feeling that can easily dissipate. «You said I’m the love of your life / About a million times,» Swift sings on «Loml,» a harrowing piano ballad. “You fucked me under the table, talking rings and talking cradles. Shortly after Swift and Alwyn broke up, she reportedly had a fling with Matty Healy, frontman of the British rock group in 1975. («I took a miracle drug / The effects were temporary,» he sings in «Fortnight».) Healy is a provocateur, prone to silly jokes; on stage he smokes, eats raw steak and makes out with strangers. The rumored relationship sent Swifties into convulsions of outrage and revealed the unusual extent to which Swift is beholden to her fans. She encouraged and cultivated parasocial affection (almost required it at times: inviting fans to her home, baking them cookies) and now has to contend with their sense of ownership over her life. In «But Daddy I Love Him,» she scornfully rebukes the «judgmental creeps» who have relentlessly hounded her about her love life: «I’d rather burn my whole life / Than listen to one more second of all that ranting and moaning.» (She saves the nastiest jab for the final line: «All wine moms still hold on.») Regardless, things quickly ended with Healy, and a few months later she did the healthiest thing possible: started dating a football player whose team would win the Super Bowl .

Several of the album’s lyrics seem to evoke Healy: «You’re not Dylan Thomas / I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel / We’re modern idiots,» Swift sings on the title track, a shimmering song about broken people sticking together. I like that line — it suggests self-awareness — but it’s followed by one of the weirdest verses of Swift’s career: «You smoked and then you ate seven bars of chocolate / we said Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist / I scratch your head, you fall asleep / Like a tattooed golden retriever.» Other lyrics lack Swift’s signature precision: «You take the ring off my middle finger at dinner and put it on the one that people put their wedding rings on,» she sings. Even the greatest poets mutter a phrase here and there, but a lot of the words on the record are either incoherent («I was a functioning alcoholic until nobody noticed my new aesthetic») or just generally confusing («Florida is a hell of a drug») . My favorite lyrics are the simplest, delivered with a kind of exhausted calm. In «Down Bad,» a heady song about feeling like shit, Swift admits defeat: «Now I’m down, crying in the gym / It’s all coming out teenage.» / Fuck if I can’t have him.” Feeling you, dude.

Each of Swift’s recordings has a distinct visual component—that’s more or less an assumption Eras Tour. The «Tortured Poets Ward» is busy with writer’s paraphernalia, but the atmosphere is ultimately more of an upscale stationery store than a stuffy room of rare books. At first it looked like it might be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Joe Alwyn (he once joked about being part of a WhatsApp group called the Tortured Man Club). But I found the phrase works well as a summary of Swift’s entire self-concept. She always made a big deal about her pain being generative. «This writer firmly believes that our tears become holy as ink on the page,» she wrote on Instagram. She spoke of the album as if the songs were mere monuments to her suffering: «Once we tell our saddest story, we can be freed from it.»

An unusual number of Swift’s songs depict love as combative, perhaps because it’s so prone to operating from a place of wounded desire. In the song «Better Than Revenge,» which she wrote at eighteen, Swift sings about art as a useful weapon, a way to punish anyone who messes with her: «She thinks I’m a psycho because I like to rhyme her name with things.» It’s funny text, but in today’s age Swift understands that love isn’t about winning. (Nor is art.) Yet in Swift’s universe, love is often a battlefield. In «Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?», she catalogs the ways in which fame can to bring down and destroy a person: «I was tame, I was gentle, until life in the circus turned me bad,» she sings. She’s paranoid, wild: «Tell me it’s not all about me / But what if it is?» (After the year Swift has had, she’s not wrong to ask.) The song itself is so tightly produced that it doesn’t sound dangerous. But halfway through, her voice briefly rages. I found the moment thrilling, which is perhaps part of the problem.

In the weeks leading up to the release of «The Tortured Poets Department,» a backlash seemed inevitable. Swift’s lyrics often focus on her persistence against all odds, but she’s too ubiquitous and powerful these days to be a very convincing underdog. However, interest in Swift has not yet waned or burned out. She announced the album at the Grammys in February while accepting the award for best pop vocal album for her previous record, «Midnights.» I found her speech so deeply mercenary it was a little funny. «I want to thank the fans by letting you in on a secret I’ve been keeping from you for the past two years, which is that my brand new album is coming out on April 19th,» Swift said. “I’ll go and post the envelope.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve mostly stopped thinking of art and business as fundamentally at odds. But there are times when the gluttony of our current pop stars seems catchy and ugly. I’m not saying that pop music has to be ideologically pure – it wouldn’t be much fun if it was – but maybe it’s time to cool it down a bit with commercials? A few days before the album’s release, Swift unveiled a library-style exhibit at the Grove, a shopping mall in Los Angeles. It included several pages of typed text on artificial old paper, arranged as if they had been recently pulled from a Smith Corona board. (The word «talisman» was misspelled on one page, much to the haters’ delight.) The Spotify logo was placed prominently at the bottom of each page. I laughed once more. What’s the point of all that money if it doesn’t buy you freedom from corporate branding? For a million reasons – her adoption of the “poet” persona; her already unprecedented streaming numbers – such a blatant display of sponsorship was worse than inappropriate. It was, as they say, cringe.

Among the other clues Swift provided were five playlists exclusive to Apple Music (sorry, Spotify!), featuring her own songs and organized by the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. At first, I thought the playlists were just another bit of overwrought marketing, but the more I listened to «The Tortured Poets Department,» the more true the concept felt. Anyone who has grieved knows that these categories are not a ladder you climb to peace: instead, it is possible to experience them all at once, briefly or forever. Each stage is evident in «Department of Tortured Poets». Sometimes they are opposites: Swift is conceited and self-loathing, tough and vulnerable, completely fine and completely broken. She is free but trapped. Dominant, powerless. He wants it, but he doesn’t. These kinds of contradictions can be dizzying, but in the end, they’re also the last things that keep her human. ♦


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