Monday, May 20, 2024

REVIEW: Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department' needs more than one listen to be fully appreciated

April 19, 2024

Only one listen of Taylor Swift’s "The Tortured Poet’s Department," or TTPD, isn't enough to make a fair judgement. When I first heard the songs on TTPD, I was not impressed. As an avid "Folklore," "Evermore" and "Reputation" stan, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by Swift’s recent, sometimes oversaturated releases.

That being said, Swift does not need my approval. She’s just come off an extremely successful year, with the immense popularity of "Midnights," an even more popular tour and concert film and award of Time’s Person of the Year— and I could go on.

Swift does not make music you can fully absorb in one listen. She makes music with complex metaphors and storylines requiring you to re-listen, Google words like "calamitous" and maybe even look at the Genius breakdown of her lyrics. And even after all that, you might still be missing something.

At first listen, lyrics like "we declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist/I scratch your head, you fall asleep like a tattooed golden retriever," ample name-drops and the sometimes too-flowery, specific narrations didn’t exactly hit my ears just right.

However, after letting TTPD marinate for a few hours, I can confidently say that this album takes the crown of Swift’s saddest album (a competitive title) and a body of work with punching lyrics, strong vocals and devastating themes.

Here’s my ranking of TTPD, before the 15 surprise songs dropped:

16. I Can Do It With a Broken Heart

While I understand what Swift was going for (being so depressed and heartbroken, yet being successful and denying sadness), the beat change would fit better in Mario Kart’s Royal Raceway track. Lyrics like "I’m so depressed I act like it’s my birthday" will absolutely be a TikTok sound, and I don’t think that’s by accident. This song is a very obvious reference to the Eras Tour’s success, especially with a man counting (one, two, three, four) before the post-chorus. I do like when she laughs about how miserable she is, and how no one knows. This song is intentionally tongue-and-cheek but is on par with “ME!” in being pretty unlistenable, unless ironically.

15. The Tortured Poets Department

With this song as the title track, I expected more. Rumored to be about ex-boyfriend Matty Healy, it discusses how Swift does not consider her romance, contrary to Dylan Thomas and Patti Smith’s, to be spectacular. It’s also about the storm of media coverage and scandal surrounding their short lived two-month relationship. Swift drops a reference to getting married in this song, as well as throughout the album. Lyrics like "you smoked, then ate seven bars of chocolate/we declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist" cheapen the song. 

14. The Alchemy

Referencing sitting on the bench, touchdowns, teams and trophies is either the laziest nod to Travis Kelce or a complete misdirection ... I’m guessing the former. "The Alchemy" touches on Swift’s readiness to date again after a breakup and not fighting the chemistry between her and the Kansas City Chiefs tight end. She also throws in a jab to the English men she usually dates, saying, "these blokes warm the benches." All in all, this track does not stand out with its relaxed production.

13. I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)

With "I Can Fix Him" existing in the same universe as "But Daddy I Love Him," this song feels a bit redundant. The western-sounding denial ballad comes with notable lyrics, but simply slips through the cracks of the album’s better songs.

12. loml

"loml" sonically reminds me of "New Year’s Day" from "Reputation." Obviously, the themes are a stark contrast, not unlike the twist at the end of the song. The acronym typically stands for "love of my life," but Swift flips this assumption on its head by instead declaring the song’s muse as the "loss of her life." A ballad chock-full of marriage (or almost marriage) references, the song sees Swift lamenting that she’s "felt a hole like this never before and ever since." Likely about ex-boyfriend Joe Alwyn, Swift claims his desire to be the love of her life is inauthentic. Lyrically and thematically, this song really works, but sonically, it’s kind of a snoozer.

11. The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived

Another Healy song, Swift gets at Healy’s supposed pettiness following their breakup. Swift hints that the appeal of the romance was over after it was not a secret, that she no longer wanted him after an unspecified deed and he crashed her party, saying, "I just want to know if rusting my sparkling summer was the goal." Swift claims her muse does not measure up to "any measure of a man." It’s searing, but not particularly out of the ordinary compared to other scathing Swift songs. It takes a while to build up, and the payoff doesn’t quite hit the mark.

10. My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys

Swift compares herself to a shiny new toy that her ex-boyfriend destroyed in this song with a vocally strong chorus and even stronger bridge. “But you should’ve seen him when he first got me” demonstrates that Swift was something initially seen as exciting but got broken by her lover. Interestingly, she finds a way to defend her ex throughout this song and views herself as the problem, showing nuance and self-blame in the relationship’s deterioration. The various references to Barbies, Kens, army dolls, plastic smiles and puzzle pieces also add to the song’s theme.

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9. But Daddy I Love Him

One of the rare fun, playful songs on the album, this track jeers at Swifties "sharing their concern" for her dating life. She pokes fun by telling listeners she’s having her muse’s baby, and the track draws clear comparisons to "Love Story" and other early Swift songs. Unlike "Love Story," however, this song is intentionally and knowingly naïve. Sandwiched between songs that make me completely rethink everything, "But Daddy I Love Him" adds some much-needed levity to a heavy tracklist, and its country-esque production also helps the album breathe.

8. Fortnight

Starting off strong, the album's first track features Post Malone sharing an enjoyable back-and-forth with Swift, similar to Bon Iver on "Exile" and Gary Lightbody on "The Last Time." On this song, Swift has not moved on from her ex, and has to live with that fact. Bitter Taylor Swift is my favorite Taylor Swift, and if the song wasn't so dreary, it could easily fit on "Midnights." Post Malone seems a bit out of place on this track, but I’ll admit, it’s catchy.

7. Clara Bow

"Clara Bow" is a masterpiece. Somehow, Swift takes the unrelatable topic of fame and all its trappings and still makes it gut-wrenchingly pertinent to listeners. A song about being the "it girl" in Hollywood, this is not the first time Swift has tackled the topic of what you think would be her fleeting fame and public interest. "Clara Bow" is essentially a grown-up version of "The Lucky One," and referencing Clara Bow draws comparisons to both starlets' beauty, fame, mental health struggles and public scrutiny, as well as the cut-throat energy and pressure of the music industry. The production is fantastically heartbreaking in a way every girl — famous or not — can understand. Ending the song with "you look like Taylor Swift in this light ... you’ve got the edge, she never did," Swift demonstrates this never-ending cycle of Hollywood greed and how it emotionally taxes those we worship.

6. Florida!!!

"Florida!!!" is the ultimate baggage-dropping, escaping-your-problems song. Florence + the Machine is an excellent addition to this track, seamlessly blending her powerful voice into the production, a tactic reminiscent of her "Hurricane Drunk." Swift often uses places to represent her lovers, referring to ex-boyfriend Alwyn as London, and Florida as the escape from him. When their relationship ended, so did her association to London with Alwyn. While she aimed to plant roots in London, she could only stay in Destin, representing her disappointment in what she got out of the relationship. The pair’s belting at the end of "Florida!!!" is extremely powerful.

5. Down Bad

"Down Bad" is a pretty straightforward Swift breakup song that put a unique spin on a popular phrase. What’s most special about this song, is the sincerity in Swift’s breaking voice and how she layers it. She uses the metaphor of being abducted by aliens (stay with me here), her lover showing her there’s more to the world, making her feel special and then unceremoniously planting her back where she was before. The techno, futuristic, sometimes alien-like layering (especially when she says heaven-struck) adds a layer to this otherwise-standard breakup song. "Down Bad" is so helpless, that it’s perfect.

4. Guilty as Sin

This sultry track is like a smutty romance novel in the best way possible. Like "Don’t Blame Me" and "False God," Swift makes comparisons of love to religious experiences. Swift recalls things she and her muse never did and asks, "without ever touching his skin, how can I be guilty as sin?" It’s not the most groundbreaking track ever, but it’s definitely fun and catchy. Out of all these songs I’ve listened to in anticipation of this ranking, this is the one still bouncing around my brain.

3. Who's Afraid of Little Old Me?

This was certainly the most surprising track on the album. Like most people, I expected TTPD to be a breakup album – which it was –, but this song was akin to the angsty "Reputation." "Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?" comes out of nowhere. Like "Reputation," Swift takes a stance against the music industry and her critics. She also has no problem boasting about her success on this song, pointing the finger back at the cutthroat industry and her public perception. She gains her power on this track, and the buildup and payoff are tremendous. It made me wonder if I’d been too hard on Taylor Swift myself. Am I part of the problem? I did rip into "I Can Do it With a Broken Heart" pretty harshly.

2. Fresh Out the Slammer

This was the first song that I immediately liked on the album. From Swift’s use of vocal range to metaphors of being handcuffed to her ex-boyfriend to the knockout chorus, not only is this song a side of Swift we haven’t seen, but the production is also flawlessly executed. The song explores themes of going back to a person Swift was previously in love with after being tied to Alwyn. It’s a love song through and through, and a fresh start.

1. So Long, London

Swift’s track fives are meant to be the most personal on the albums. "So Long, London" is the most "track five" track five yet. Seriously, it’s absolutely devastating. The beginning of the song mimics a church choir, and Swift’s delivery comes off like a poetry slam, each line more punching than the last. Swift referred to Alwyn previously as her "London Boy" in "Lover," so this is a clear reference to their breakup. It perfectly epitomizes the feeling of wanting and trying to make a relationship work, but having to move on despite the love felt for the other person. With complex and vivid lyrics, the bridge adds a layer of intensity, making "So Long, London" the clear standout of TTPD.

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