The Tortured Poets Department Is One Hell Of A Drug: An In-Depth Album(s) Review

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The Tortured Poets Department Is One Hell Of A Drug: An In-Depth Album(s) Review // Photos by Beth Garrabrant retrieved from Taylor Swift’s Instagram // Article by Adeline Chai

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open,” wrote Muriel Rukeyser in her poem, “Kathe Kollwitz”.

When I first came across this quote, it reminded me of how Red by Taylor Swift changed the trajectory of my life when I was 12. The album catalogued intimate meditations on love, longing, and heartbreak that I hadn’t encountered before. From that first point of fascination onwards, I became enamoured with women storytellers who spun their pain into purpose and courageously recited their vital truths to the world. I wanted to become one. 

More than a decade later, just when I thought it had been lost on me, The Tortured Poets Department reignited the amazement I felt while Everything Has Changed played on the radio and took my breath away in the backseat of my mum’s Toyota all those years ago. 

When Taylor Swift first announced The Tortured Poets Department at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards, the world stopped in its tracks to listen. Fans were ecstatic about her 11th body of work which had been 2 years in the making while vipers amongst the general public were ready to extract salacious gossip about her personal life. It had been highly anticipated as ‘the breakup album’ that would detail the ins and outs of her previous relationship, yet as expected, it turned out to be so much more. On the record, Taylor pieces together the debris of love and longing in tales of marshland crimes (Florida!!!) and alien abductions (Down Bad), of forbidden lovers (But Daddy I Love Him) and lustful reverie (Guilty As Sin?), of drowning ships (So Long, London) and prison breaks (Fresh Out The Slammer), of fairytales (Peter) and religion (loml).

In Tortured Poets, Taylor creates a world of clandestine moments and hologramic musings shared by the few characters that dwell in it. The record begins with Fortnight, which Taylor explained through Amazon Music as an occurrence in an “American town where the American Dream you thought would happen to you didn’t”. The narrator of the song ruminates on the fatality of love as they watch their romantic interest fall in love with other people in close proximity, repeating over and over “I love you, it’s ruining my life”. There’s a smoothness to Fortnight, within which Taylor sounds poised, accompanied by the soul-stirring background vocals of Post Malone. The anger, ruin, and grief in the lyrics, however, are so palpable that the song is made out to feel like the calm before a brewing storm. As the opening song, Fortnight sets the scene for a larger narrative to sprawl across the album.

In the epilogue of The Tortured Poets Department, titled “The Summation Poem”, we are introduced to the Chairman of The Tortured Poets Department, assumingly Taylor Swift, who paints a vignette of the record with her words. Pleading “temporary insanity” in the first stanza of the poem, the album provides context for Taylor’s experience of “restricted humanity”, which seems to come from both her relationships as well as her career. She goes on to describe how she “tore down the whole sky” in a previous relationship before moving on with someone who promised to be “brand new”.

Her new beginnings however are tainted by broken promises, and she describes the breakdown of both relationships as “house then cardiac arrest”. In this album, Taylor takes a deep dive into grief, mental health struggles, love, and heartbreak – weaving these themes into narratives with candour and conviction – in a way that we’ve yet to see from her before Tortured Poets. In true Taylor Swift style, she places listeners in the room where events unfold and hearts get broken, and soon enough, you’ll find yourself spilling over in grief and frustration with her.

Reminiscent of Taylor’s diaristic writing style in her debut album Taylor Swift and Red, her feminine rage on reputation and Speak Now, and her character studies in folklore and evermore against a sonic backdrop that combines various musical elements from her previous work, The Tortured Poets Department is an album that can only be appreciated in all its glory alongside her entire discography. On some tracks, Taylor makes direct callbacks to her older songs, giving old stories alternate endings and old lyrics new meanings. “How dare you think it’s romantic / leaving me safe and stranded” in Down Bad seems to reflect a change of her perspective on love compared to when she first wrote “Please leave me stranded / it’s so romantic” in 1989’s New Romantics. In …Ready for it?, Taylor cheekily sings “and he can be my jailer” while the metaphor of being imprisoned takes on new connotations in Fresh Out the Slammer, which alludes to the feeling of being stuck in a dissatisfying relationship.

Sonically, the first instalment of Tortured Poets is mostly synth-pop. Taylor’s vocals drift beautifully across synth waves and drum machines, while her lyrics are given the capacity to shine even more. The second instalment, The Anthology, mimics the more intimate folk-pop sound of folklore and evermore for the most part. There are a few surprises: Guilty As Sin? sounds like a mesmerising 90’s soft rock ballad while So High School could easily feature in a 2000s Hilary Duff coming-of-age movie without feeling out of place.

Fresh Out The Slammer and I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can) are Western-sounding tracks with intros that establish the scene of a Wild West duel. Taylor returns to her country roots on But Daddy I Love Him, an electronica and folk-rock ballad with fingerstyle guitar verses. The track has a dynamic chorus that embodies the feeling of running through a field of wildflowers with your eyes closed in rapture.

But Daddy I Love Him feels like a grown-up version of Love Story, except it features a more humorous and confident Taylor. The narrator’s fight for love has evolved from simply exchanging stolen glances in the ballroom to flooring it through the fences with her forbidden lover in her dress unbuttoned – after all this time, she would rather burn her whole life down than “listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning” if anyone tried to intervene with her love affairs unjustly. Oh, and she’s having his baby (no she’s not, but “you should see your faces!”). Taylor seemingly peppers her renouncement of the merciless and microscopic judgement she’s grown up under across this album – as someone whose coming of age has been broadcasted from all angles for the entire world to spectate, almost more than anyone – and instead, reclaims her life by unabashedly choosing wild joy while unleashing all her pent-up wrath.

This manifests in Guilty As Sin? which heavily leans into religious imagery, where the narrator dreams of “throwing her life to the wolves or the ocean rocks” because “they’re gonna crucify me [her] anyway”. In Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me, Taylor further constructs a character who’s been declawed for entertainment at a circus, implying that being contorted for fame can wholly corrupt a person. “I forget if this was ever fun,” she remarks dismally before erupting in the chorus of the song: “Who’s afraid of little old me?”

There’s a finality to these songs and reflections that helps the listener to understand the tragedy of the situation at hand: Taylor has felt trapped by her stardom for so long, that no one, not even Taylor herself, is capable of reversing the accumulated damage she’s had to face over the years. She had gone on doing business as usual as she did in the track I Can Do It With A Broken Heart, grinning and hitting her marks for the most part, while having only occasionally hinted at the suffocating mountaintops of celebrity in the past (see The Lucky One, Anti-Hero, Dear Reader, and mirrorball).

What sets apart Who’s Afraid Of Little Old Me?, however, is the raw emotion displayed in the song. If they listen closely enough, listeners might hear the gnashing of teeth between verses that do not sound as lighthearted or whimsical as the song’s predecessors. Taylor sounds bitter and angry on the record, and rightfully so. It’s no wonder that Tortured Poets features some of Taylor’s most earnest musical efforts – it was written on survival instinct. The record wasn’t merely a byproduct of catharsis, it facilitated the entire process. “It [Tortured Poets] was really a lifeline for me. Just the things I was going through and the things I was writing about,” Taylor confessed before playing You’re Losing Me at an Eras Tour show in Melbourne, Australia. “It kind of reminded me of why songwriting was something that actually gets me through my life.”

Through introspective moments and anthemic hooks, the record takes listeners on an immersive voyage through a turbulent period in the narrator’s life, one that Taylor describes as “self-harm” and a “mutual manic phase”. While these are murky waters to be in, Taylor embraces the tide fearlessly and the result is a body of confessional poetry that feels like some of her most vulnerable and beautiful work. “Could it be enough to just float in your orbit,” Taylor creates vivid images in Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus. “Can we watch our phantoms like watching wild horses?” She borrows the concept of the children’s fairytale, Peter Pan for Peter, in which the narrator laments parting ways with a boy who refuses to grow up:

“And sometimes it gets me / when crossing your jet stream / we both did the best we could do underneath the same moon / in different galaxies”.

In The Black Dog, Taylor sings of heartbreak that cut so deeply, that only an exorcism could help the narrator move on from it: “Now I want to sell my house and set fire to all my clothes / And hire a priest to come and exorcise my demons / Even if I die screaming”. Finally, in Down Bad, Taylor struggles to finish her sentences in an affecting performance where listeners can feel her heartache in real-time. She plays an anguished narrator who can’t bring herself to spell out the end of a romance, merely stopping at “How dare you say that it’s—“. 

Taylor channels wit in quippy lyrics like “He jokes that it’s heroin but this time with an ‘E’” (The Alchemy) in one track and croons gorgeous couplets in the next (“Only when your girlish glow / flickers just so / do they let you know / it’s hell on earth to be heavenly”, Clara Bow). The Tortured Poets Department embodies the quintessential Taylor Swift album in this way, except it exceeds our previous expectations for and knowledge of the international star. In this defenceless record, truth bleeds out of Taylor’s veins in black ink.

Only occasionally using baroque language, Taylor peeks out from behind her narratives to deliver an honest witness account of womanhood’s greatest throes through vivid imagery and metaphors. “And I sound like an infant, feeling like the very last drops of an ink pen,” begs the narrator of The Prophecy in hopes of changing her perceived destiny of ending up alone and finding true love. In I Hate It Here, Taylor takes listeners to visit the “lunar valleys” in her mind as an escape from the squalor of life, which exists in a time “when they found a better planet” and “only the gentle survived”. Taylor lets her pen move on its own accord while making this album, which impressively encompasses almost every emotion of the human condition.

Taylor Swift's The Tortured Poets Department Is One Hell Of A Drug
Taylor Swift's The Tortured Poets Department Is One Hell Of A Drug

Many tracks on this record show a stream-of-consciousness writing style, and while The Anthology presents more refined prose, I feel that packaging The Tortured Poets Department as a neat record would’ve done a disservice to the album’s original concept — Taylor did use the phrases “temporary insanity” and “a mutual manic phase” to imply the state that she (or her constructed character) was in while creating this body of work. It seems that Taylor’s goal wasn’t to sound polished (she has 10 albums that achieved just that) but candid — she recounts various realities of love and loss with the force and tension of a poetry slam, and it works. None of us are really tortured poets in true form anyway (a concept which Taylor takes a jab at in the album’s title track, The Tortured Poets Department), we’re more “modern idiots”.

In that way, Taylor mirrors all the people in the world with bruised strength; people who have yet to receive their happy endings; people who believe that they belong to a life that’s happening somewhere else without them; and people who love and feel so deeply that things can only end by burning bridges. Some of these people are her literary muses in Tortured Poets: Wendy Darling, whom Taylor first referenced in cardigan on folklore, is a character she embodies in Peter, crying out for the boy who never wanted to leave Neverland. Cassandra, whom Taylor writes about in The Prophecy, is another example – a Greek Mythology priestess who was given the gift of prophecy but was later cursed by Apollo so no one would believe a word she uttered.

As a woman, The Tortured Poets Department represents what, to me, feels like a collective feminine chant for agency and an extended sigh for what the world has become. I particularly resonate with I Can Do It With A Broken Heart, where Taylor sings about having to carry on with life and tie everything together with a smile despite enduring heartbreak or mental health struggles. Though I can’t relate to the trappings of Hollywood stardom, the beauty of Taylor’s lyricism is that it resonates with people from all walks of life. The song underscores for me how my mental health struggles have dismantled my life more as an adult than when I was 17. I uncovered another facet of resilience when I had to crawl out of bed, go to my full-time job, and attend all my client meetings with a straight face while I was cracking inside. “Lights, camera, bitch smile” right? Taylor’s music is healing to me because she crafts universal stories of love, life, and loss that make me feel less alone.

“I want to still have a sharp pen and a thin skin and an open heart.”

Taylor Swift, Miss Americana

These were the closing words of Taylor Swift’s 2020 documentary, Miss Americana. Despite all the tribulations and betrayal that she had gone through, Taylor made a vow to never change who she was as a writer. I would argue that The Tortured Poets Department is amongst the strongest evidence that proves the sincerity of Taylor’s statement. Featuring lyrics and storylines that record labels would’ve tried to rein in during the early years of her career, Taylor chooses to remain authentic to her craft with this record at one of the highest points of her career, handing the good, bad, and ugly on a platter to her projected audience – knowing that some will savour it, and some will scorn.

It pays off in the only way that matters, as shown in The Manuscript, which includes a nod to the All Too Well 10-minute version short film and positions her creative efforts as an emotional salve: “And the tears fell / In synchronicity with the score / And at last / She knew what the agony had been for”. While there aren’t a lot of silver linings in The Tortured Poets Department – as in life – its biggest, and arguably, most important revelation remains clear: once we find the courage to face our saddest stories, and perhaps even speak or write them, we, too, will be free of them. 

The Tortured Poets Department Is One Hell Of A Drug: An In-Depth Album(s) Review // An In-Depth Album Review By Adeline Chai // Photos by Beth Garrabrant via Taylor Swift’s Instagram

Adeline Chai
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About author
Based in Sydney, Australia but born and raised in Kuching, Malaysia! I’m an avid reader, and I love beautiful lyrics! My other passions include: Snoopy, matcha and Taylor Swift.

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