Rant and Rave: But Daddy I Love ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

As Swift announces her new project with its sonic palette and overarching themes, fans are left wondering: what could the most successful woman in music be so “tortured” about?

As the Midnights album and the succeeding The Eras Tour dominated the cultural zeitgeist, Taylor Swift has practically taken the world by storm. Every concert date felt like a gladiator match in scope and stakes, with thunderous fanfare greeting her whenever she performed onstage. Yet amid this worldwide spectacle came the surprise of a follow-up project: The Tortured Poets Department (Poets).

As Swift described her 11th studio album as a “lifeline” record, Poets is indeed a breakup album of sorts, but not particularly about long-time beau and muse Joe Alwyn or even controversial fling Matty Healy of The 1975. Through this full-length effort, Swift crafts a body of work that aims to set the record straight about her willingness—and even desire—to break free from the expectations pinned down on her as the current pop music “it girl,” in both its artistry and its subtext.

Oh, here we go again

Poets is messy, uncomfortable, and abstruse—a departure from the typically polished albums by the pathological people pleaser herself. This very singular soundscape harkens back to early Bleachers records and Big Red Machine’s output, which may probably be the type of work that drew the august crooner to Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner in the first place. With Swift’s established ability to bend genres—from country to pop, then alternative—in Poets, we see her embracing yet again a synth-pop sound reminiscent of her Midnights era. 

The overly dramatic and subtly campy Who’s Afraid Of Little Old Me? embodies this heavy synth while delivering a raw, unfiltered expression that borders on cringe-worthy main character syndrome. The torture continues with Swift’s sing-talking in But Daddy I Love Him, with lyrics resembling an unhinged yet more mature Love Story—except Romeo and Juliet are now thirty-somethings making regrettable decisions. Singing “her name is hers to disgrace,” Swift asserts she’s a grown woman who’s free to make her own decisions, even bad ones. 

While some bad choices may be as unpalatable as the unnecessary and excessive drum-bursting in Florida!!!, the feature of Florence Welch’s vocals made it one of the most revealing songs on the record. The drug-coded song’s themes revolve around failure, redemption, and allowing “Florida”—a metaphor for her bad girl crimes—to f*** her up again. 

In contrast, Fresh Out The Slammer stood out with its rare polished production by Antonoff. While we typically avoid commentary on Swift’s love life, the song undeniably references her past relationship with the London Boy. She portrays the six-year relationship as a form of imprisonment, one she finally bids farewell to in So Long, London, which leaves fans pondering how the once romantic Paper Rings dissolved into “imaginary rings.”

Arguably, the best thing about this album is the bop that is Down Bad, with its whopping 18 f-bombs, wholly capturing the anger and longing in Swift’s pissed-off delivery—a perfect recipe for destruction befitting of the album’s thematic bluntness. Its infectious hook positively positions it as the most pop-catch track on the album, making you want to cry at the gym even without lifting any weights.

Poets is, indeed, tortured. Swift’s intention to embrace her flaws and vulnerabilities through this album is a bold declaration of her artistic autonomy. It’s recherché, imperfect, and undeniably human—and we’re living for it.

Do you believe me now?

To provide fans with the dose of folky chamber pop of sister albums folklore and evermore and its ilk, Swift released 15 songs tacked on the standard version to form The Anthology version, which she referred to as a “surprise double album” released two hours after the standard version.

The mostly Dessner-led production of The Anthology expands the mid-tempo pop of the world of Poets. The tragedy of The Manuscript is backed by a spare production style from Dessner, which highlights Swift’s melancholy as she declares that in her songs, “the story is not mine anymore.” Even the Antonoff-produced cuts in the second half lean more toward the use of distorted guitars, with tracks like imgonnagetyouback having bombast and pulse similar to their 1989 collaboration I Wish You Would.

While many may consider the second half of The Anthology as mere bonus songs, it can be easily surmised that there is a clear intent of fleshing out the themes seen in the first half. We see a yearning Swift wistfully reminisce about a past lover in The Black Dog, but we also see her gradually learning to get over a feud that deeply affected her in the barely subtle thanK you aIMee. These songs give some context to Fortnight and Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?, respectively, in the standard version. 

In The Anthology songs, Swift is more conscientious about the subject matter she’s singing about, which is a departure from the no-holds-barred, train-of-thought storytelling of the first half.

Who uses typewriters anyway?

When Swift comes out with her newest long play, we usually know what’s to come. Grief and glory always lace the genius that is a Swift-owned master(piece). This time around, reception to the album has ultimately been a melange of love and/or loss—and it’s largely a product of mixed reception in her belles-lettres prowess.

If there’s one thing the singer-songwriter has mastered—besides the ownership of her own masters—it’s the art of articulating her emotions. From her personal grievances in the music industry to the glories of making peace with a breakup that cost her youth, the singer-songwriter has definitely figured out her figures of speech. She exhausts similes of icons in Clara Bow, about the song’s namesake, Stevie Nicks, and even Swift herself. Additionally, integral to the messages she’s sending in tracks such as Down Bad and The Bolter are the hyperboles of her demise due to heartbreaks. For most listeners, her use of metaphors and oxymorons has captured teenage petulance in the most sophisticated way possible.

This is not to say that all’s well ends well. It may take a fortnight or more for Poets to live up to the prophecy it promised its listeners. Contrary to what the title suggests, certain tracks including The Alchemy and So High School do not seem so poetic. While she’s referenced Aristotle in the latter, it stands no match to the Babylonian similes she’s made in the past. Having a Grand Theft Auto mention in a sea of albatrosses and soliloquies felt off-brand for the refined-sounding title of the album. This is not a first for Swift, as she has done just the same in 2020 track the lakes, where she talked of calamitous love and tweeting in one song.

Lights, camera, smile

Poets is indeed an esoteric record, especially in the context of Swift’s superstardom. With an album title so tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic yet personal as The Tortured Poets Department, Swift milks a lot out of this prompt. Her lyrics feel like long-winded soliloquies, so raw that they need a bit of editing, polishing, and restructuring. In parallel, her comedic punchlines, juxtaposed with tasteful instrumentation, only accentuate the record’s underlying tragedy. This provides the record with sass and personality previously unmined by Swift.

As Poets looms large over Swift’s long and storied career at its peak, the album is a shining testament that Swift can play around with her persona and reputation to deliver a uniquely heart-wrenching record. If this “tortured” album proves one thing, it is that Swift can make a stunning project even with a broken heart; and the Swifties will be on the lookout to see what our resident mastermind still has up her sleeves.

Rating: 3.0/4.0
Andy Jaluague

By Andy Jaluague

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