Taylor Swift The Tortured Poets Department
The Bolter edition of The Tortured Poets Department

Taylor Swift Overcomes Breakup on ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

Taylor Swift advances the Midnights synth-based and diaristic formula, embracing increasingly sophisticated and minimalistic sonics on The Tortured Poets Department.

The Tortured Poets Department
Taylor Swift
19 April 2024

“She doesn’t write her own songs,” Damon Albarn said once about Taylor Swift, adding that co-writing “doesn’t count”. That inevitably stirred up the Swifties and deeply angered her. In her defense, that time stood even the president of Chile, Gabriel Boric, but she perfectly managed to resolve the issue by herself. Nine months later, she released one of her most successful records with a comeback to autobiographical, diaristic songwriting. If Albarn listened to it, I bet that he was surprised by Swift’s ability to rhyme up to three pop cultural references alongside politics and personal tragedies just in one track — I mean Godzilla, 30 Rock sitcom, Knives Out, and a high dose of self-criticism in “Anti-Hero”. The same can be said about The Tortured Poets Department

“It kind of reminded me of why songwriting is something that actually gets me through my life,” Swift said about the work on the record, surprisingly releasing by morning a two-hour long double album with the subheading “The Anthology” on top of what it was supposed to be her new record. If Albarn saw its gorgeous Cat Power or Joni Mitchell-inspired album art, he would be ashamed for the second time. Such covers just can’t cover badly written lyrics. Even more, this simple but timeless photo simultaneously connects Swift with her country music past and iconic predecessors, partly marking her transition into another league of big singer-songwriters.

Considering the balladeering second half with 15 additional tracks, most of which are really strong almost-acoustic folk-pop numbers, it could be perceived as her magnum opus. If only Swift’s team had the courage and recklessness to release this version as the basic, its instant hit to modern classic alongside, say, Fiona Apple‘s Fetch the Bolt Cutters or Beyoncé’s Renaissance would be guaranteed.

However, the fact that they chose a different path, doesn’t make our little discussion less exciting. The delicate and cunning songcraft of this record, even when being listened to without the second hour, becomes evident from the first word. In the best opening track in her career, buoyant Kavinsky/Chvrches-influenced synthpop with eight-bit synth plucks, Taylor Swift smartly uses this British term “Fortnight” to, presumably, appeal simultaneously to two of her British exes, Joe Alwyn and Matty Healy, who allegedly became muses of this project.

“Move to Florida,” she declares at the end of the song, making a subtle connection to the main gem of the album, Florence & The Machine link-up “Florida!!!”. As in the opener with Post Malone and as always, she stylishly uses harmonies here, carefully diminishing roles of her collaborators… in a good way. Florence Welch’s chants are used as an instrument here which doesn’t conflict with the main voice of the song and paint the track in more emotional colors. Only these two cuts already perfectly show the crucial changes in Swift’s music, but there’s more.

Jack Antonoff finally reduced her bright pop sound to as minimal and synth-based tunes as possible. With Aaron Dessner’s and Taylor Swift’s help, he beamed her sonics up, by laying all her signature pop structures into an almost National-like sound. Even the cover of The Tortured Poets Department’s standard edition is reminiscent of the light color palette of their later LPs. Sonically, Tortured Poets continues the synth-based direction with the intimate electronic production of Midnights, but in an even more lightweight way, as if it’s no longer midnight but early morning just after dawn. Soaring, weightless, and extremely minimalistic, this album is meticulously crafted with different details like 8-bit classic JRPG-evocative synths in “Down Bad”, marching drums in the way of My Chemical Romance in “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys”, or club-ready heart-punching beats mixed with Flaming Lips-evoking cosmic synths in “So Long, London”. Best-Little-Moments-from-Songs-Lovers will find here a lot of enjoyable music nerd-worthy details.

Before the release, I stumbled upon a lot of comments on the internet which were saying that “it’s likely to be average” and that commenters probably “will not give it a listen”. I had a nice little chat with one of them, and when I asked, “Why so?” they answered that Taylor Swift’s crazy popularity and the almost aggressive attention from her fans prevent them from listening to her music. So, if one felt something similar or considered her songs as an average pop for youngsters, now it’s the best time to jump in. Because Swift never sounded so sophisticated and highbrow while her core fans never were so disappointed.

According to RYM and AOTY, this album has the lowest user in her entire catalog, yet it receives a lot of praise from critics at the same time. “They said I was a cheat”, she sings in “Florida!!!”. Well, what will they say now? This new period can be defined as one of the turning points in her career like 1989. After that album, she also tried to stray from pop on Folklore and Evermore, but here it turned out more consistently. 

Sometimes, this simplistic, indie-ish, and almost muted production feels a bit separated from Swift’s stadium-worthy choruses and lush delivery. It’s hard to get rid of the feeling that her voice is too pompous and solemn for such intimate and tranquil music, but mostly they come hand in hand and suit each other perfectly well. Unusual but well. Even all too well sometimes. Sadly (or happily), with Taylor Swift, it’s always hard to say if she will stay on the same track in a next album and continue to develop a newly founded sound or if she will make a step back to safer decisions. She always moves in zigs and zags, returning to previous steps and reinventing old achievements. Still, in general, if we compare Tortured Poets to any of her antecedent works, it will be obvious that it sounds like a big step or even jump forward. Considering the main hits of her back catalogue, it looks as a well-thought-out movement to less poppy and more exquisite sound… or sometimes even its absence.

We all know Taylor Swift as a professional cryptographer of personal life occasions and pop culture stuff, and Tortured Poets are full of, as she might tell, that fucking fan service shit too. New wave synths and drums, reminiscent of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” and Lorde’s “Team” at the same time, are colored with Lady Gaga-indebted “Oh-oh, oh-oh” and positioned adjacent to an actual homage to Barbie in “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys”.

“Down Bad” with vocals under simple hum and twinkling synths in the vein of the indie games Fez or Sea of Stars enlightens the young generation about an iconic misquotation from the Star Trek series of the 1960s. “I laughed in your face and said, ‘You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel, we’rе modern idiots,’” she sings, continuing the mission of Better Oblivion Community Center, in the title tune “The Tortured Poets Department”,  which may also be perceived as a kind of homage to Dead Poets Society with a reference to Swift’s favorite series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Returning to the comment of my new e-acquaintance, mentioned above, it’s safe to say that now you can listen to Taylor Swift not only because of big pop killer hooks and heartbreaking teenage breakup anthems but also because of fine-spun sonics and scintillating lyrics. They don’t match perfectly well, and it’s pretty evident who was on songwriting and who — on producing. You can even clearly hear that the first, more poppy and synth-based, part of the whole Tortured Poets: The Anthology was definitely produced by Antonoff while the second one is more acoustic, i.e., a handiwork mostly of Dessner, who also was in charge of folky Folklore and Evermore. This is not the perfect record with a lot of unevenness, but they found the right approach which means that to master it and finally reach a perfect match, they need to do another one with the same settings. One day, historians would call it a Swift-Antonoff-Dessner Trilogy. 

Giving credit to all production finds, the most amazing thing in The Tortured Poets Department and, more broadly, in the whole of Taylor Swift’s oeuvre, is her ability to write about personal struggles as if they are universal knowledge, which is crucial for every listener on Earth. It’s hard to deny her talent for forcing millions of people all over the world to dig into the lore of her personal romances and breakups in her lyrics. Just look into the Genius page of this record — dozens of analyses had appeared there right in the first hours of the release. It’s hard not to count, Mr. Albarn.

RATING 8 / 10