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Taylor Swift

TAYLOR SWIFT: THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT

 (REPUBLIC RECORDS; 2024)

“Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift, TAYLOR SWIFT!” Say the name three times, really fast, like the Maitlands did with BEETLEJUICE in Tim Burton’s dark comic drama about hauntings, but instead of Michael Keaton’s titular character suddenly appearing to enact some supernatural nonsense, how about if Taylor appeared to solve your pesky relationship problems? Wouldn’t that be awesome? “This guy is obviously trouble,” the all-wise Swift apparition might say to you. “Get rid of him yourself by NOT responding to his text messages, or say something simple and direct like ‘Can’t trust you after last night. Think I better just tell you good bye right now.’” Or Swift could just quote from one of her many, many songs about spooked relationships, such as the motherlode you’ll find on her new album THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT. It’s fun to imagine such a thing!

TAYLOR SWIFT, Nashville Tennessee, May 07, 2023 (photo credit: JOHN SHEARER/TAS23/GETTY IMAGES for TAS Rights Management)

These days, you only have to say Taylor Swift’s name ONCE, anywhere, and the person next to you will likely voice a reaction. Everything from “Oh I LOVE her music, it’s like a personal soundtrack for me!” to “Man, I just don’t dig that kind of music, and I’m sick of hearing about her!” Taylor has become the most famous entertainer in the world and one of the most awarded of all time; she’s in rarified company, having become a self-made billionaire strictly on the basis of her art. When’s the last time THAT happened? Thing is, when any product becomes TOO successful, the army of detractors is just WAITING to speak up, to NOT participate in the kind of unprecedented enthusiasm that greeted Taylor’s sold-out ERAS tour, the boundary-breaking concert film made from the tour, or the widespread love for her most popular albums such as RED, 1989 and FOLKLORE. And she even won a record setting FOURTH “Album of the Year” Grammy at last year’s ceremony with her tenth album MIDNIGHTS. Commercially it has seemed like Taylor can do no wrong, and Swifties, as they are called, will defend her every move and musical change-up. So this has generated anti-Taylor commentary more and more in recent years, and even if it wasn’t a hateful sort of tone, some listeners have begun to sound jaded or just EXHAUSTED from all the Taylor product out there. Eleven studio albums now. Four remade albums in her notorious reissue campaign to stick it to Scooter Braun so she can own her masters again (you can read about that anywhere), with two more to come, probably. A concert film and a documentary. The ongoing ERAS tour. Alternate vinyl and CD versions of various albums with bonus cuts. Tons of magazines and books (go into any Barnes and Noble and you’ll find an entire display rack with nothing but Taylor publications). Photos appearing EVERY DAY and news updates of an ordinary human being who has to be one of the most TRACKED individuals in the world. You and I can NEVER know what it’s like to be at Taylor Swift’s level of fame. And you or I can probably NOT avoid getting into conversations about her, sometimes, with SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE. In a word, she is omnipresent.

TAYLOR SWIFT, circa 2020 (photo credit: BETH GARRABRANT)

So let me say, at this point, that I AM a fan. I have my own past with Taylor’s music that doesn’t need to be part of this story, but I’ve admired her sparkly pop craftsmanship, her often irresistible melodies, and her truly singular journey through the wilderness of pop music (and culture). I probably became a “Swiftie” when FOLKLORE appeared during the pandemic. That album grew on me quickly, and expanded Taylor’s sonic palette with indie folk stylings, third-person narratives here and there and a much more introspective and melancholy world view. I still LOVE that album and consider it Taylor’s best. It is aging really well. But we’ve had a couple more since, and now here we are in the TORTURED POETS era. This one seemed to arrive out of nowhere, long before the typical “calendar” would seem to indicate it’s time for a new Taylor release. But Taylor follows her own calendar, that’s for sure. So this thing arrived with a big splash, surprising even in-the-know Swifties by coming out, at least digitally, as a DOUBLE album – there being a batch of 15 additional songs announced as THE ANTHOLOGY the very day of release. Were fans ready for another 31 new Taylortunes?. If you read any of the grumblings that greeted the leaked early release, not ALL. Predictably, some listeners (and even a few popular reviewers) chose to vent their “Taylor exhaustion” at this point, and plenty of less than flattering opinions were voiced. This sort of thing rarely matters in the Taylor-verse.

TAYLOR SWIFT (photo credit: BETH GARRABRANT)

And quite frankly, I’m having none of it. As a musician myself and an experienced music writer, all I want to know is, does this new collection of Taylor music stir my emotions and make me think about things from a few new angles? The answer is definitely YES. It’s a more demanding album than some of her others, and there aren’t as many “bangers” (apparently that’s the hip word for an instantly grabby pop confection) as many fans would like. But TTPD is among Taylor’s most contemplative, introspective and melancholy albums. For my personal taste, that works just fine. But let’s get one thing out of the way here. Many reviews and fan commentaries have spent a LOT of space wondering which songs applied to recent Taylor beaus such as Joe Alwyn or Matty Healy from The 1975, given that Taylor clearly DOES write about her love life and LOST LOVE life, and has created a kind of intrigue about these things with her base. But I won’t be taking that kind of approach here. I’m going to discuss other things about some of the songs and how they make me feel. Who inspired them is not particularly important to me.

TAYLOR SWIFT (“Mine” video capture)

You’ve all heard “Fortnight” already; it’s a somber little dark-pop collab with Post Malone, featuring the memorable line “I love you, it’s ruining my life.” Plenty of us can relate to that more than we’d like. The title track memorably addresses the concept of the “tortured poets” Taylor’s self-analytical character and her less than profoundly inspired love interest think they are, by name dropping Dylan Thomas and Patti Smith, something that caused the latter to write Swift a note thanking her for coupling those names together. It has an air of deep sorrow and resignation, but on a personal note, I couldn’t help feeling tickled that some future music list might see me and Taylor Swift paired together because she discusses “typewriters” in the lyrics here, and one of my own best-known songs is “Goodbye Typewriter.” Hey Taylor, proud to be with you in that sure-to-come-someday reference! But anyway… the first tune to really stick with me was “Down Bad,” in which Taylor curiously compares the experience of being swept up by a compelling lover to that of being kidnapped and prodded by space aliens. A low throbbing synth tone holds our ears captive, while additional glowing keyboard sounds adorn other parts of the mix. It’s a pleasantly spacey production featuring regular Tay collaborator Jack Antonoff. Taylor harmonizes with herself throughout, a blend I greatly enjoy, and she also curses a lot in this song. In fact she curses quite a bit on this album overall. I make this point because many pundits try to speak about what a “role model” Taylor is, and how she often portrays what we think a “good girl” is supposed to be like. Does a real lady swear this much? Well, screw all that. She’s a human being and a woman and a visionary artist. No reason in the world why she can’t say “shit” and “fuck” as much as the rest of us. I first noticed Taylor’s freedom to swear on FOLKLORE and it made me grin. This uber successful artist, with all the material things a person could want and more power than any of us could DREAM of, is gonna just go with her REAL emotions, song by song. THAT helps make her more relatable, you see. Remember the lines “Do you see my face in the neighbor’s lawn?/Does she smile?/Or mouth the words ‘Fuck you forever?’” from the angry tune “Mad Woman”? Or the balls-out tune “Vigilante Shit” from her previous album, in which she sings “I don’t start shit, but I can tell you how it ends.” I guess the point here is that swearing is a pretty natural response to stress for most of us, and you don’t hear it in music lyrics that often outside the world of rap. When Taylor swears, it absolutely commands attention, as it does on the chorus “I’m down bad crying at the gym/Everything comes out teenage petulance/Fuck it if I can’t have him/I might just die, it would make no difference.” I thoroughly GET that this songwriter is putting the full emotion INTO the song. It doesn’t matter if the situation is ruling any part of her life anymore or detracting from her happiness. We’re allowed to experience the full disappointment and angst she expresses IN the composition, IN the sound. That’s when music really grips you and becomes ultimately relatable.

If “Down Bad” is a mostly effective and memorable tune, the first genuine classic here is “So Long London.” The song begins with several ethereal Taylor voices singing that title in a repeated, choir-like manner. Then the stomping beat kicks in with a simple but resonating synth pop reverberation. Whatever you call this style – synth pop noir might work – it sure grabs yours truly. As Taylor unspools lines like “I pulled him in tighter each time he was drifting away,” she achieves a perfection between sound, lyric and mood that had me marveling. The first time I shivered listening to this album was hearing her sing “How much sad did you think I had/Did you think I had in me?/Oh, the tragedy… ” Her voice is clear and upfront, the way I like it (Scandinavian singers typically mic their vocals this way, but it’s not always the case with American singers, who sometimes overdo the production). Taylor rarely overdoes the drama in her vocalizing, and that actually makes her a much more authentic and appealing vocalist than some give her credit for. I absolutely LOVE her weary sounding resignation here, as on this superb verse: “And you say I abandoned the ship/But I was going down with it/My white knuckle dying grip/Holding tight to your quiet resentment.” If you have EVER had a painful relationship or one that failed despite your best efforts, Taylor writes the ultimate soundtracks for such things, and this is absolutely one of them. And I personally relate to the notion of surrendering your attachment to a certain PLACE you liked because of the person you shared it with. In her case, London; in mine, I had a series of amazing times with a woman in Springfield, Missouri some years back, and now I can never experience the town in quite the same way. So you see, the SENTIMENT here is what is hugely relatable… apply “So Long London” to any place in YOUR romantic past, and suddenly this song gains emotional relevance. But it’s simply superb, every second of it, including when Taylor sings certain lines in double octaves, a musical choice we songwriters respond to right away when we hear it.

TAYLOR SWIFT, 81st Annual GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS (photo credit: STEVE GRANITZ/FILMMAGIC)

“But Daddy I Love Him” is a startling song lyrically, a co-write with the amazing Aaron Dessner. Taylor is fantastic at aiming the camera at herself musically, and freely being self-reflective. She started being more ruthlessly honest on her controversial REPUTATION album, when that whole Kanye insanity had taken its toll and a certain faction of her audience was turning on her. She had to shy away from the spotlight a bit, and it could be argued that the two sublime pandemic albums, FOLKLORE and EVERMORE, were an attempt to shift the focus from her own relationship doings and simply tell stories about people and their experiences, whether mirroring hers or not (sure, they did at times). When the publicity machine got cranked up to “11,” and that gigantic tour started after the release of MIDNIGHTS, Taylor had to be thinking about her level of fame and all the many, many things people were saying about her. Here is a woman, after all, who has her life (especially her LOVE life) under a microscope at all times, dissected to the nth degree. Who can withstand all that without going a bit nutty? And yet by all reports, Taylor is a completely delightful and friendly soul in person, interested in the same topics we all are, and wanting to just live her life as an energetic artist and make her mark on the world. She donates generously to charities, takes good care of her huge staff, has brought incredible economic benefits to every city she performs in, and is more than just “appreciative” of and openly demonstrative to her eternally reverent (and GIGANTIC) fan base. But the constant judgments from strangers surely has to take its toll. Hence, one of the most revealing and self-aware moments she has ever written appears in this powerful song: “I’ll tell you something right now/I’d rather burn my whole life down/Than listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning/I’ll tell you something about my good name/It’s mine alone to disgrace/I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing/God save the most judgmental creeps/Who say they want what’s best for me… ” Just plain WOW. I had to read those lines a few times as I was writing this, marveling at how they appear in a slowly starting tune that appears to be about having to defend romantic choices all the time. Surely exhausting for the most famous woman in the world! And this recurring lyric is a genuine hoot: “Now I’m running with my dress unbuttoned/Screaming, ‘But Daddy I love him!’/I’m having his baby/No, I’m not, but you should see your faces.” A heck of a lot going on in this song, and the more you’re into Taylor, the more you’ll begin to truly appreciate what this kind of revelatory songwriting means in her career trajectory.

TAYLOR SWIFT, Sydney Australia February 23, 2024 (photo credit: DON ARNOLD/TAS24/GETTY IMAGES for TAS Rights Management)

I’m not that impressed with “Florida!!!,” a much ballyhoo’d collaboration with Florence and the Machine. It’s catchy, sure, but not really one of the album’s highlights. By the time you get to “Guilty As Sin,” you are probably becoming aware that many songs here are mid-tempo in nature, and there’s a “familiarity” setting in. That is what was probably happening with some of the early comments about this record – Taylor has found her chosen groove and is mostly going to stay with it. Production-wise, much of the sound is shaped by frequent collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, and you can find some longtime fans grumbling that Taylor needs to work more with others. Personally, I LOVE what those guys add to her music. The trick here is, as a LISTENER, you also have to “stay with it.” These songs are multi-layered and rather sophisticated; they don’t always totally grip you on first listen. It’s worth it to give them repeated plays, and you’ll come to realize you are truly listening to an evolved artist, one of our finest songwriters, who is in an introspective mode that occurred at the same time she was outwardly experiencing the biggest successes of her career. And having to let go of TWO failed relationships while welcoming the promise of a NEW one – that being Travis Kelce, of course. It’s an awful lot, don’t you think? And these songs represent Taylor’s mindset over the past year and a half, maybe longer. They have depth and detail, and yes, they are worth your patience going through them all, if you’re a fan.

TAYLOR SWIFT (uncredited candid photo)

Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” is another very self-aware Taylor song, more interesting lyrically than musically. But various lines from it will stay with you. “You don’t get to tell me about sad” is one of them. And this one had me pausing a bit to reflect: “I was tame, I was gentle ‘til the circus life made me mean.” Not to mention her repetition of that title, which at least a few times, she answers with “You SHOULD be.” Hey, this is a woman who got unprecedented revenge on former label boss Scooter Braun by going to the trouble and expense to RERECORD the albums she originally did for him, just so she could own the rights to her own masters. Don’t MESS with Taylor! That’s a message that has been coming through in various songs of hers since 2020, and TTPD is full of moments revealing that Taylor is pretty dang clear about who she is.

TAYLOR SWIFT (photo credit: BETH GARRABRANT)

A sparse, sinewy and rather sombre production is given to the short song “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can),” done with Jack Antonoff. I like Taylor’s lower-register voice on this one; it sounds like it could have been on FOLKLORE or EVERMORE. It has some of that kinda vibe. So does the piano-centric “loml” (an acronym for “love of my life”), co-written by Aaron Dessner. This is a beautiful, epically sad piece that is going to make some fans cry. It’s full of regrets and the full-on confrontation of romantic failure, something a bit too easy for me to access if I let it. Lines like “I wish I could un-recall/How we almost had it all” and “Our field of dreams, engulfed in fire” are unambiguous, signature observations of love’s sad failings. “Love of my life” too often turns into “LOSS of my life,” which this song seems to point out.

TAYLOR SWIFT (uncredited publicity photo)

Taylor saves three of this album’s best songs for the final stretch; each one is a bona fide classic. “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” is the genuine “banger” on this record, a Tay gem. It seems to perhaps be about Taylor’s ability to convey an upbeat, celebratory attitude to her public while knowing that darker emotions are churning inside. She sings it with real joie de vivre, over a positively zippy keyboard run and a catchy rhythm. “I can read your mind,” she says, “‘She’s having the time of her life/There in her glittering prime/The lights refract sequined stars off her silhouette every night/I can show you lies.’” Doesn’t all of that but the last line sound like how the audience likely perceives her each night of the sold-out ERAS tour? But something else is clearly being expressed here. As the song reaches its conclusion, the most famous woman in the world sings, “You know you’re good when you can even do it/With a broken heart/You know you’re good, I’m good/Cause I’m MISERABLE!/And nobody even knows!/Try and come for my job.” Man, that last line is killer. Really, the whole song is. It’s one of Taylor’s greatest, most honest and revealing songs. An instant classic, probably. Fans will be talking about this one forever.

TAYLOR SWIFT, Nashville Tennessee, May 06, 2023 (photo credit JOHN SHEARER/TAS23/GETTY IMAGES for TAS Rights Management)

If you have read any reviews at ALL of TTPD, you’ll know that “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” is one of the most talked-about songs here. It’s another Dessner co-write, and it begins with an audible sigh by our girl, like she KNOWS she’s about to lay down one of her most potent vocal and lyrical workouts ever. Doesn’t matter to me WHO this song is about; it’s plainly devastating, Taylor at her MOST wronged. “I would’ve died for your sins/Instead I just died inside/And you deserve prison, but you won’t get time/You’ll slide into inboxes and slip through the bars” is just one of the unforgettable verses here. While primarily a delicate and lovely piano composition, it soon builds into a dark synth-pop classic that reaches a pounding climax featuring such lines as “Were you sent by someone who wanted me dead?” and “Were you a sleeper cell spy?” I’m not sure anyone is writing better songs about betrayal and romantic deceit in the current musical environment than Taylor Swift. Songs like this simply KILL, and if you have even a HALF open mind, this one is gonna stick with you. And like millions of her regular fans, you’ll be wondering “who the fuck was that guy?” Taylor sings those very words in this classic.

TAYLOR SWIFT (“Safe and Sound” video capture)

The final “regular” song on TTPD is another major piece of Swiftian musical craftsmanship called “Clara Bow.” Utterly sublime. Over a potent four-note descending bass line, the lyrics explores the “It girl” phenomenon that has chewed up and spit out hot female stars for literally decades. The promise of fame and attention that talent scouts have lured young starlets with (the titular silent era actress being an early example), telling them how “special” they really are until the NEXT one comes along, is an undeniably oft-told story. The bridge is just a killer: “Beauty is a beast that roars/Down on all fours/Demanding ‘more’/Only when your girlish glow/Flickers just so/Do they let you know/It’s hell on earth to be heavenly… ” I felt a terrible ache inside listening to the song, pondering all the excited young women in pop culture history who were noticed and elevated to a special level of fame. But eventually abandoned. Taylor addresses this topic with searing insider wisdom, and the music is poetic and timeless enough to deepen this major tune’s four-star impact. And you want more classic Tay self-awareness? Dig the last verse, but picture some cigar-chomping Weinstein type about to address an eager new nubile actress or singer saying this: “You look like Taylor Swift/In this light/We’re loving it/You’ve got edge she never did/The future’s bright/Dazzling.” The music ends suddenly after Taylor sings that last word. The impact is profound. We’ve just heard yet another classic Swift song, and it’s NOT about an unfaithful boyfriend, or a lover who won’t commit. It’s about a potent reality for female stars in today’s entertainment industry, both aspiring and established. And how the biggest star in the world right now can take a moment to contemplate the whole phenomenon and make us feel its sadness and inescapable nature in three minutes of riveting modern music. That is part of Taylor Swift’s particular genius… enabling us to relate to things that feel HUGE and inevitable, but like we could sit and talk to her about them easily. Or to our friends. Because being a vulnerable human being MATTERS, it’s true for all of us. And couldn’t we ALL strive to do better in our relationships, and how we treat others? Taylor’s songs always have such questions lurking in the background, even if the answers sometimes prove elusive.

NOTE: In this review, I did NOT tackle the full set of songs contained in the digital ANTHOLOGY. Most of those songs are quiet and introspective, not dissimilar to Taylor’s two pandemic albums. But they deserve a close look of their own, which I may do at a later date. What I covered in this review is the material on ALL standard versions of Taylor’s THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT release.