Roundtable Discussion: A Review of Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift
The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift
Atwood Magazine’s writers discuss Taylor Swift’s highly-anticipated eleventh studio album ‘The Tortured Poets Department,’ a poignant collection of heartbreaks that never were and fleeting moments that burn quick and bright.
Featured here are Atwood writers Blake McMillan, Emily Frances Algar, Josh Weiner, Lauren Turner, Nasya Blackshear, Rachel Leong, and Sam Franzini!

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

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To start, what is your relationship with Taylor Swift’s music?

Emily: I remember having to buy Swift’s first two albums from because record stores in the UK wouldn’t stock her music. I remember one particular record store said, when I asked about Fearless being stocked, “she’s just not popular over here.” The underlying comment being, she was a teenage country singer, singing about Romeo & Juliet, and not a serious indie male musician. Cue 2008, and Swift took over the world!

My relationship with her music is: It’s always been there for me, and always comes at a time when I need it.

Josh: A solid half of my lifetime ago now, way back in 2008, my 11th grade classmates were chatting about how awesome it was to drive around town with their newly acquired drivers’ licenses while blasting the Fearless album. I was intrigued and decided to listen to that album myself. And from then, it was on! I’ve been a Swift fan ever since.

Sam: I was in college when I really started connecting to her music, even though I vividly remember riding the school bus listening to 1989 and reputation, respectively. I was fully in it by the time Lover was released, and 2020’s duo albums really helped me during a tumultuous year. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Rachel: I very much grew up with Taylor Swift’s music, Fearless was the first album I ever bought. And I think it’s so true when people say that there’s a Taylor Swift song for every heartbreak you could ever go through! I would definitely say Taylor Swift’s music has always been on-off at the very least in the background of my life and what I listen to. I’m about to see the Eras show this summer so that will be a full circle moment I’m really excited about.

Blake: I was in second grade when her debut album came out, and since I am from the south, it feels like she was everywhere. Though I really hated the country music my mom and stepdad would choose to play, I loved when Taylor Swift’s songs would come on. In August 2017, I was in my first year of college and “Look What You Made Me Do” came out. I was really excited about the rebrand, she seemed very self aware and it was intriguing to read tweets from people who felt the same excitement that I did from this new phase. I then changed my username to @ablakespace, and have been obsessed with each new era since. Genuinely, her songwriting and literary style have inspired me to cover music and led me to this roundtable today. Dramatically, I don’t know if I would be alive today had she not gotten me through the hardest times and toughest heartbreaks.

Lauren: I have been a fan of Taylor’s since the beginning, without even fully knowing. Her debut album was released when I was only seven-years-old. But I remember constantly listening to “Teardrops On My Guitar” on the radio. I absolutely loved it. My parents had bought me the album because of it and next thing I knew I was just entranced. I remember playing “Tim McGraw” and “Our Song” an unhealthy amount for a seven-year-old. By the time Fearless and Speak Now released, all my elementary school friends knew her too – and she became our go to. So, by the time we were angsty teens, and Red, 1989 and Reputation were out in the world, that is all my nano ipod played the majority of the time. It truly feels like I have grown up listening to Taylor Swift soundtracking my life. Just like Emily said, it seems her music always comes at a time I need it the most.

Nasya: I have vivid memories of listening to the album Fearless as a kid, mainly because it was given to me as a gift and I didn’t want to be rude, but I remember there being something special about that album. The lyricism, the storytelling, it was pretty magical. I feel like, as I’ve gotten older, Taylor Swift has been like a passing ship in and out my life. I’d listen to her top hits that played on the radio, but it wasn’t until I started hanging out with Swifties at work that I really got into her as a musician. It’s crazy to see how one person can unite so many people, but she just has that impact.

When she started dating Travis Kelce, it was like my worlds collided, my boyfriend being a diehard Chiefs fan, I don’t know why, but it just felt like there was more common ground. Recently I’ve listened to her entire discography, in anticipation of this new album, and it was quite the roller coaster, but I’m loving the ride.

Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant
Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant

What are your initial impressions and reactions to The Tortured Poets Department?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: I have to be honest, I was dreading the album coming out. The track titles felt like a Lana Del Rey tribute album. A bit like she was trying too hard to be edgy. I also have felt really disconnected from Swift in the last year, which I realise is both inaccurate – we’re not friends – and hypocritical – who am I to judge her personal or romantic choices, or the faces she pulls are football games? At the end of the day, I only know Swift’s music, not her as a person.

Coming back to the question, on first listen, the music itself felt like it bled together a little, and some of the tracks felt a bit samey. Plus, listening to 31 tracks in one sitting makes it hard to have opinions on every one. However, the second and third time around, I found myself responding to her rage in the first half, and tears rolling down my cheeks in the second half. There are songs that stood out for me, ones that I keep coming back to, and ones I keep discovering. The Tortured Poets Department is like finding yourself in a bookshop of all your favourite books, and not knowing which one to pick up first.

Sam: I actually wasn’t too impressed when it came out. It was too sonically similar to Midnights, an album I still have quite a bit of apathy toward. But it grew on me immensely over time — I think constantly spinning it that first day allowed me a lot of deeper understanding towards its lyricism, which is much deeper and smarter than its predecessor. As a 31-track effort, it blended all together at first, but I’m (still) differentiating them and developing my favorites. The ‘learning period’ wasn’t as long with folklore and evermore, which is interesting as they’re way more sonically together — I think this is a factor of TTPD’s general sleepiness in tone. I agree with Emily, though, the tracks’ titles scared me as I thought were in for another dose of Millennialisms and labored writing, but thankfully, it was better than I expected.

Josh: It’s another very good record by one of the 21st Century’s defining solo artists. You don’t have to be the biggest Swiftie to admire how consistent Taylor has been and how culturally relevant she’s remained throughout the past nearly-20 years. The Tortured Poets Department should help her to retain that status.

Rachel: This record to me is kind of like a mix between Midnights and a bit of 1989, with a hint of folklore / evermore. To be very honest it isn’t my favourite of hers. I find this album a lot more fragmented than her other works, in terms of both sound and lyricism – but I appreciate that too in some ways because I think it makes the project feel more raw and candid overall. I like that, I feel like in the trajectory of her career she’s kind of done it all now so her releasing this double album also gives a bit of an insight to her creative mind, unattached from the expectations she might have from the industry if she was, say, earlier in her career.

Blake: I liked the loftiness of the titles, it was something Taylor has never done before. The first half of the standard edition were all instant hits on my first listen, though when I got to “Florida!!!” some of the shine of the newness started to fade. It picked back up during “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.” The Anthology, which I was listening to at 2 a.m., began to overwhelm me, and by 3 a.m. I started to fall asleep. To be so honest, I had trouble answering this question because I don’t entirely remember what I was feeling after 31 tracks in one sitting. I admire all the songs and their sounds now (like Sam said, I am also finding ‘new’ ones), but I wish she had waited a day or two before giving more, because I think my brain was in a fog by the final track.

Lauren: I honestly really like it! I truly think she ripped the bandaid off in this one and just gave the world the key to her mind. I do like the first one a bit better than The Anthology. But overall, I love how it takes a very chill pop wave throughout the record. I think by making this artistic move, it allows people to really focus on her storytelling and take it all in – because it was a lot to take in.

Nasya: For me personally, it feels like one of her best works to date. I think this album combines all the years of narratives, storytelling, and unveils parts of Swift that have been in front of us all along. It’s no surprise that the world loves to speculate when it comes to her personal life, but this record felt like subtle answers to overarching questions that many of us have had for years. To then also release a second album on top of this one, I mean 31 songs in one day was overwhelming, but I feel like it gave a better look at the whole picture if that makes sense.

How does this album compare to Swift’s most recent records – Midnights, evermore, and folklore – and what are the most striking similarities or differences?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: It has the songwriting and storytelling of folklore, the exquisite sadness of evermore, and the pop sensibilities of Midnights. I can also hear elements of RED with the deluge of emotions and the can’t-stop-writing and lack of sonic cohesiveness. I also like that she brings the rage of reputation, “Mad Woman” and “Tolerate It” to the record.

In terms of differences, it feels like a beautiful coalescence of all her music. There is no single song on the record that screams top 10 hit or radio friendly single. It all feels like music by and for her.

Sam: It’s most similar to Midnights in sound, but hints of folklore and evermore come though (usually on The Anthology) with its winding melodies and momentum. But I really think this is the most brutally honest of all her records. It is deeply immediately personal and complex, and while Midnights attempted this level of writing, it just didn’t feel like it made a splash. I haven’t enjoyed reading the lyrics to her album more since 2020’s records.

Josh: I agree with Sam in that it sounds close enough to Midnights – far from identical, but definitely enough whiffs of it to catch one’s attention. This is understandable enough, given that (a) Midnights didn’t come out all that long ago, and (b) Jack Antonoff is back as the album’s central producer– a pairing which, as I explained in our roundtable on Midnights, I am perfectly content to see endure.

I can see what Sam and Emily are saying about how this album featured some lyrical echoes of her two pandemic year albums, folklore and evermore. But (as I also explained in our roundtable on Midnights) those two records were exceptional in her catalog because they were recorded under unique circumstances, in which Swift made the most of her limited lockdown-era resources to make more minimalist-sounding, acoustic-dominated music. I didn’t expect any of her future, post-COVID albums to go back to that sort of sound, and neither Midnights nor The Tortured Poets Department has proved me wrong in that regard thus far.

Rachel: I think folklore and evermore are my favourites of her whole discography and you could really see her push the boundaries on her music on those records – so I hope she does do more along those lines! But I think with live music being back post-pandemic I would think no, because the shows have always been such a big part of her experience.

Blake: For me, – and I am so scared writing this because I know fellow Swifties do not respond well to criticism – Midnights did not age all that well. Just for me personally! Maybe I overplayed it. While the folkmore era was very toned down sonically and lyrically, Midnights felt like it wanted to exist somewhere in between big and small (which is the concept of a ‘what keeps you up at night?’ album; you could be sitting in anguish or you could be partying!).

The ones I can always return to, though, are “Maroon,” “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” and “Labyrinth.” I feel like TTPD carries the vibes from those tracks over onto this album, so obviously I am all for it.

Lauren: I truly think that this album isn’t just similar to her latest records, but has a little something from every record she has ever released. Although it’s got some similar instrumentals to Midnights and the storytelling of evermore and folklore, I think it has the honest truth of Red, the emotion of Fearless and some fun pop bangers like in 1989 and Lover. It has the dreams and hopes of Speak Now but the badassery of Reputation. Truly, a little something from each era. But I think that is exactly the point. Midnights was a compilation of songs written over the course of her career. I think The Tortured Poets Department is the same idea. It’s the same ballgame and the two albums are the two different teams. Midnights is the fun, pop-infused version the world thinks they fully know. But The Tortured Poets Department is the darker and more heartbreaking truth with an occasional happy twist. I agree with everyone above when they say it’s her most honest album yet.

Nasya: As someone who recently listened to her full discography, I feel that this album is very reminiscent of folklore and evermore in its narrative style. I would say those are her albums that I’ve loved the most. I agree with Lauren, that The Tortured Poets Department feels like two albums on different teams, but I think that’s why it works. It is gut-wrenching, but full of levity, something only Swift could pull off. To build on what Emily said, this record does have the same pop essence that Midnights had, but with a little more weight. For me, Midnights felt like Swift was dipping her toe in a pool of pop melodies with harrowing undertones, but The Tortured Poets Department goes at that concept in full force.

Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant
Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant

Swift has described The Tortured Poets Department as “an anthology of new works that reflect events, opinions and sentiments from a fleeting and fatalistic moment in time – one that was both sensational and sorrowful in equal measure.” How do you feel this album lives up to this description?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: The more I listen, the more I agree. The Tortured Poets Department is obviously an incredibly personal album to Swift. Perhaps more so than RED, something I thought I’d never say. For me this album is not only about Swift, but it’s about human emotion, experience and life. I see my stories, my events, my opinions, my sentiments in this album. Certain songs make me remember a long-term relationship that ended. Other songs reflect the overwhelming female rage I’m experiencing right now as a 30-something year old woman.

Sam: Totally. Swift has always been known for her big emotions and ease in transfering them to her audience, but this time, her rage and joy and sorrow is so palpable. “But Daddy I Love Him” and the title track portray a relationship in a happy upswing, the idea of failure not even in the rearview mirror, all to come to a crashing halt on “loml” or “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived.” It’s a raw, real look at reality; previously, Swift has relied on fairytale endings, but this time, she sticks with painful situations, and TTPD is all the more refreshing for it.

Josh: I mean, sure, Taylor’s music is known to be pretty diaristic, and The Tortured Poets Department continues that trend in ways that my Atwood colleagues have identified. What might this one “fleeting and fatalistic moment” be, though, I couldn’t tell you off-hand. Her split from Joe Alwyn last year, perhaps? If anyone has any other suggestions to share, my ears are open.

Rachel: I really like that, I feel like the songs still retained that element of relatability, and really captured those individualistic moments that burn bright and fast and fizzle out quickly – which I think is what she wanted to capture. Thematically too I think that really fits more along the lines of Midnights, and I love how she’s structuring her albums in these moments that are more profound than they might’ve been in her earlier works.

Lauren: I can definitely see that. Like everyone has said, this album is very open and honest. I think the openness and honesty is where that description lies within her album.

Nasya: I think she hit the nail right on the head. Like I said before, this album feels like a peak behind the curtain on so many things that were happening in plain sight, but rather than allowing society to speculate, Swift is taking the narrative into her own hands. Josh encapsulated Swift’s essence perfectly, her discography’s are diaristic in nature. If anyone’s able to tell this story it’s going to be Swift and Swift alone.

Swift went on to write how she believes “our tears become holy in the form of ink on a page. Once we have spoken our saddest story, we can be free of it.” Do you agree with this sentiment, and how is it borne out in her music?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: For me, personally, no. I write things down to get them out and to see them on a page. I don’t necessarily feel free of them once they have been written down, but then, I’m not a songwriter. However, I do like that with this album she has said that she’s given it to us. It’s now ours, no longer hers. Swift has closed and sealed up the box.

Sam: Sort of. I definitely feel better when I journal rather than let my thoughts ruminate about an event, but I can see how for her, letting an audience receive your most private rituals can somehow feel like you don’t own them anymore. For her, a fervent and prolific writer, it feels like she does a lot of excavating on her own.

Josh: Taylor Swift proved this point twelve years ago with 2012’s “All Too Well.”

Rachel: Yes, definitely! I think letting your stories and thoughts out onto the page releases you from it inside – and it can be so liberating to do that to be honest. Her doing that so earnestly just shows that everyone goes through the same experiences just packaged differently.

Blake: For sure, and I believe the closer on The Anthology says this well enough.

Lauren: I completely agree with that sentiment. Depending on how you interpret it. Some of the most painful and heart wrenching moments in our lives, also tend to be the most pivotal and transformative. To get through such times, unfortunately, you have to marinate in it for a bit. You have to try to understand it. More importantly, and the hardest part of it all – you have to come to terms with it. It tends to be an excruciating experience that comes with a lot of growth and change. Majority of the time, it leads us to a newer version of ourselves. Once you can speak your story, I feel like that is the final ah-ha moment to realizing you can be free of it – because you are speaking about it. You have done the work to get to the point where you can speak about it. While you are in it, speaking about it tends to be a hard thing to do. So, very long story short, yes I agree. I think this is borne out in her music through her storytelling. I know that is a simple answer, but it is true. Her lyrics tell her story. She has made it very clear, from the beginning, that once a piece of work is out in the world for her, she has moved on from that chapter in her life.

Nasya: As a writer I completely agree. Being able to take all that you feel, sadness, pain, anger, and put it on paper is a freeing experience. It allows you to rid yourself of it. What I think Swift does amazingly is write such personal experiences, that can almost feel niche at times, but somehow still incredibly relatable. In freeing herself, she allows listeners to also experience that freedom in their own right.

Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant
Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant

The Tortured Poets Department’s first single is its opening track “Fortnight,” which features Post Malone. How do you feel this song introduces the album, and how does it set the tone for what’s to come?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: “Fortnight” is a very soft opening compared to her other albums, but I think it sets the tone of the record really well and gives you clues that this isn’t a typical Swift record. I think Post Malone complements the song beautifully. The music video is also so interesting.

Sam: I feel like it’s one of her worst openers, but only against beats like “Mine,” “State of Grace,” “the 1,” “Willow,” “Lavender Haze,” etc. It’s a little sleepy, and one of the songs on the record I come back to the least, but her and Post sound good together.

Josh: I’ll side more with Emily than Sam on this one, inasmuch as I think it’s a good song and indeed comes with an interesting music video. It also serves as a sample of Swift’s vocal style, Antonoff’s production approach, and the message of “we had it so good before; too bad it didn’t last” that gets replicated throughout much of the rest of the album.

In other senses, though, “Fortnight” doesn’t really set the stage for what’s to come. Not all of the other songs here are as radio-ready as this one, and there’s only one other song, even including the deluxe edition, that features other guests (“Florida!!!” feat. Florence & The Machine). Putting Post Malone on the first track of the album may have caused one to suspect otherwise… but no.

Anyways, it’s a decent track and I like how it encapsulates the ensuing record in some ways, but not others– that should prevent listeners from playing just the opening track of the album and then calling it quits.

Rachel: I loved this song, there was something about their voices together that just worked so well. I think the song really set the tone for the record in terms of that fleeting aspect the record captures thematically. Sonically and production wise I felt this song was the fullest one of the record.

Lauren: “Fortnight” has actually ended up being one of my favorite tracks on this album. I think it is such a beautiful song with haunting melodies and deep-cut lyricism. It almost acts like a prelude to the rest of The Tortured Poets Department.

Nasya: I have to agree with Emily, I think that “Fortnight” really sets the tone of what Swift wanted this album to be and featuring Post Malone only adds to that sentiment. It’s not a pair that’d you’d expect to work, but it just does and next to “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived,” is one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Critics have said one of Taylor Swift’s faults is her autobiographical hyper-specificity – with names, places, etc. Do you agree with this assessment? Does this songwriting style bring you closer to her, or is it alienating?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: The singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles once said, “there’s universality in specificity,” and I agree. The question is also a little presumptuous – “bringing you closer to her.” Music shouldn’t just be about aligning your experiences with an artist; it should be about you finding yourself through the artist and her music.

What has not helped is that the media is now using art as an extension of tabloid gossip. Swift hasn’t helped this narrative either. In her way to connect with her fans through “Easter Eggs” whether that is capitalisation of letters in her song lyrics (see debut through to RED) or puzzles in the run-up to albums or hidden treasures in her music videos, Swift has fuelled this hyper-fixation with her day-to-day life. With her ascent and pronounced visibility, it’s not only fans looking for these clues, it’s the media too.

For me, this has sucked a lot of the joy out of her music, and also other artists’ music. It has also made being a fan of Swift feel stifling. I’m sure Swift feels the same way – see the lyrics from :”But Daddy I Love Him” and the open letter fans sent to her about her dating a musician they didn’t like.

So to answer the question: no, her specificity does not alienate me. However, how fans and the media react to her music and her life, is unquestionably alienating, and it concerns me what music criticism is turning into. Will art just be another form of gossip?

Sam: I disagree this is a hindrance to her music — I’d much rather hear about Cornelia Street, a dive bar on the East Side, her relationship to women like Clara Bow, Rebekah Harkness, or the James/Betty/Inez trio than hear a pop song with lyrics that anyone could have written.

I do think it’s interesting she’s tracked who she writes about so firmly through her Easter Eggs, like Emily mentioned — it does paint the portrait of a story a little deeper, so that the story of one specific partner is filled in with the gaps. Though I do really enjoy her playing with the songs here so it’s not clear who she’s specifically talking about. It’s interesting, because part of the record is about her disconnecting from the turbulence of fame, meanwhile littering the songs with references to specific people — “imgonnagetyouback” referencing a The 1975 song in the same style, “thanK you aIMee” pretty obviously spelling out “KIM,” songs about a rebellious character her fans disagree with — it’s like an addiction she can’t stop.

Josh: Which “critics” say this, exactly? I agree with Sam that it’s been a pleasure to see her describe certain locations in depth in certain songs of hers– a couple I would add to his list are the catchy “London Boy” from Lover and even catchier “Wonderland,” a bonus track from the deluxe edition of 1989. It’s nice to see her do the same for another batch of locations on The Tortured Poets Department, particularly on “Florida!!!” which finds her detailing the Sunshine State in a number of intricate ways – although it seems there may be some shady metaphors at work here.

Rachel: As a woman I really love that she’s basically made her whole empire from, essentially being girly and wearing all her emotions on her sleeve, not even just in her songs but her shows and the way she’s carried her career. I think as women we often feel guilty for speaking our truths so unapologetically, and to be honest I think that’s a lot of the real reason why people feel so close to her and her music. For that, it definitely makes me feel closer to her – but it also does let me see myself through her music too.

Lauren: I think it depends on the song, but the majority of the time, I think it brings me closer to her and what she is trying to say. For example, I immediately thought of “Cornelia Street” from her album Lover. I never knew this street existed, where it was or anything about it, but by the way Taylor writes her music, you kind of don’t have to. One line is, “And I hope I never lose you, hope it never ends/ I’d never walk Cornelia Street again/ That’s the kinda heartbreak time could never mend/ I’d never walk Cornelia Street again.” While we may not all have a street we know named Cornelia, we definitely all have a place that would be hard to go back to after a heartbreak.

Nasya: This is exactly what I meant when I said her writing style can feel so personalized and niche, but in no way polarizing. The reality is, to some degree at least, everyone has felt these highs and lows of heartbreak and while her lyrics are subtly specific at times, I think that we’ve all encountered one person in our lives that’s made us feel these things. There’s a universal experience that can be found in music, at the end of the day it’s at the mercy of the listener’s interpretation and how they’re able to create parallels from their own life to the lyrics they hear.

Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant
Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant

Which song(s) stand out for you on the album, and why?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: “But Daddy I Love Him,” “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?,” “loml,” and “Peter.”

The first two are songs I’ve been waiting for Swift to release, without knowing I’d been waiting. She addresses her public persona and the public’s response to that persona, which she has had a hand in cultivating. “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” is resonating with me a lot at this point in my life.

Loml” interpolates “White Horse,” which is genius. It hits a little too close to home for me.

Anything that refers to Peter Pan and Wendy, will always have a place in my child-like heart. This isn’t the first time Swift has referenced this story. “Cardigan” painted the two protagonists as Peter and Wendy, but that Peter and Wendy had a happier ending. This time around, Peter never came back. “And you said you’d come and get me, but you were twenty-five, And the shelf life of those fantasies has expired.”

Sam: “Guilty As Sin?” is a jam that clicked with me immediately — its innocence, delusion, hope of a relationship that hasn’t even started. “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart,” amongst a sleepier tracklist, also perks the ears up. Her deadpan delivery amongst this glittery heartthrob beat, singing about her depression and the expectations her fans have for her — it’s so hooky. Same with “Florida!!!” with its headbanging sections, and its (very funny!) lyricism. Opening a song about discombobulating, maddening state with “You can beat the heat if you beat the charges too”: Genius!

Josh: I like a number of them for a variety of reasons. “Fortnight” is a memorable debut collaboration between two of the most dependable hitmakers of our time. “The Tortured Poets Department” gives us more insight into the concept referenced into its title, which is valuable. “So Long, London” provides an effective and somber antithesis to 2019’s “London Boy.” Then, “Florida!!!” takes us on a tour of some of the less sunny parts of the Sunshine State.

I’m sure I’ll add more to this list as time goes on, but it’s encouraging to see Swift has released another album with plenty of songs that I like at first listen.

Rachel: It will definitely change with more listens but on the first one, I really like “loml” and “Guilty as Sin?”

Blake: Jack Antonoff coined the term ‘augustheads’ for the swifties who stan folklore track 8 “august.” I feel like “imgonnagetyouback” is for us augustheads. I don’t know to explain it.

Lauren: I cannot stop playing “Guilty as Sin?” and “Down Bad.” They are on a rotation. I think it’s because I can’t tell if I want to cry to them or dance along to them haha. But I will say I have a very special place in my heart for “loml” and “Peter.” Normally, I love looking for and hearing Taylor’s random and unique one-liners. But this time around, I really found myself drawn to the simpler lyrics with unique metaphors. I feel like “loml” and “Peter” really capture that. For example, we all know loml means love of my life, but Taylor gave it the meaning of loss of my life. It’s such a simple reverse and play on words, but it just works so well. Especially for the theme of this album. The song is just also so beautiful in such a heartbreaking way. It’s slower tempo and shaky breaths make you feel the loss in your bones. For “Peter,” I loved how she played with the classic tale of Peter Pan, especially because she has done it before in “Cardigan” (one of my personal favorite TS songs). Peter Pan, in general, is also just one of my favorite stories. To see how she has used that story to tell hers is so creative. This song screams “right person, wrong time.” When one person is ready to give it their all and the other cannot yet because they still have some soul searching and growing up to do. But the idea of coming back someday and hoping for it all comes to the forefront. Just like Wendy though, a lot of the time, time just flies by. You are forced to move on and let Peter stay in the fantasy of Neverland – because it might never happen. It’s a creative metaphor for a unique song told in such a simple way.

Nasya: “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” immediately stood out as a favorite for me. From the lyricism to the tone of her vocals, you could just feel the anguish. You could feel what seemed like years of bottled up feelings and experiences that finally broke the barriers of the dam. I know in my time I’ve encountered men like this and maybe that’s why, for me, it cuts so deeply.

Taylor Swift is known for her descriptive storytelling. Do you have any favorite lyrics so far? Which lines stand out?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: So. Hard. There are so many. Swift can really paint a picture with her lyrics. I don’t know how, but she somehow always releases an album that says the things I needed to hear or needed to say, just in time. So for the sake of brevity…

“So Long London” with “Pulled him in tighter each time he was driftin’ away, My spine split from carrying us up the hill” is so descriptive I can see it and feel the weight and desperation. Also from “So Long London,” “And I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free,” as a woman in her 30s, this resonates so deeply.

The following two lyrics sum up female rage for me perfectly and I absolutely love it! Swift has tiptoed around this edge, dipping her toe in as necessary, but this record feels like one giant “fuck you” to everyone.

“But Daddy I Love Him,” “I just learned these people only raise you, To cage you” and “God save the most judgmental creeps, Who say they want what’s best for me, Sanctimoniously performing soliloquies I’ll never see.”

“Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” “So I leap from the gallows and I levitate down your street, crash the party like a record scratch as I scream, “Who’s afraid of little old me?”

Sam: I won’t apologize for saying “You know how to ball, I know Aristotle… / Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto” is one of the best things she’s ever written. I said previously this is one of her rawest albums, and this portrait of a simple but fun relationship is gorgeous. A previous Swift would have rolled her eyes at the self-inflation of “knowing Aristotle,” but she’s just speaking truth here. On that same song, too: “You knew what you wanted and boy, you got her,” referencing Kelce writing his number on a friendship bracelet in hopes of it getting to her on tour… It’s just too romantic.

On a wildly different note, her admonition of her own fans in “But Daddy I Love Him” has really stuck with me. These are people who feel way too close with their own personal superstar and violate her boundaries by either signing a note telling her to break up with her boyfriend or show up unannounced to a private wedding. To hear Swift bite back is exhilaratingly out of character: “I’d rather burn my whole life down than listen to one more second of all this bitchin’ and moanin’… / I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing.” A stunning visual.

I gotta say, too, “Lights, camera, bitch, smile / Even though you wanna die” is a pretty alluring line on “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart,” making anyone who went to the Eras Tour probably questioning their involvement in Swift’s mental health.

Rachel: This is a bit of a funny one but I really liked the line in the chorus of “I can do it with a broken heart” where she goes “I cry a lot but I am so productive, you know you’re good when you can even do it with a broken heart.” I thought that was great.

Josh: I liked the name-checking of other singers that occurs on the title track, especially the line “You smoked, then ate seven bars of chocolate. We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist.” I’m not sure what sort of history T.S. and C.P. share– they’ve never recorded a song together, to the best of my knowledge – but it’s sweet to see the former give the latter a shout-out, and apparently the effects of her doing so are already visible across the Internet.

Blake: On the title track: “Sometimes I wonder if you’re gonna screw this up with me / But you told Lucy you’d kill yourself if I ever leave / And I had said that to Jack about you, so I felt seen,” and the entire last minute and 15 seconds of “imgonnagetyouback” is simply so dreamy I want to dance like the Peanuts characters while Schroeder bangs out a jam on that tiny piano.

Lauren: In my opinion, the imagery in this album is insane. She has painted such vivid images in my mind of the stories she is telling in this album. One of my favorite lyrics in this album, for this exact reason, is in “So Long, London.”

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/ And my friends said it isn’t right to be scared/ Every day of a love affair/ Every breath feels like rarest air/ When you’re not sure if he wants to be there/ So how much sad did you think I had/ Did you think I had in me?/ How much tragedy?/ Just how low did you think I’d go?/ Before I’d self-implode?/ Before I’d have to go be free?

I can picture her in my mind holding on for dear life to that sinking ship. So, to have that image in my head, but to hear the continued words of the song come out of her mouth and why she feels such a way, it puts that image into such a descriptive perspective. And truly, one that is relatable.

Nasya: The lyric I can’t get out of my head is “I would’ve died for your sins/ Instead I just died inside/ And you deserve prison, but you won’t get the time.” It paints a picture of unrequited love, watching someone you’d do anything for getting away with the most atrocious crimes against you. You can feel the love and wrath all at once.

Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant
Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant

At 31 songs and 2-plus hours in length, The Tortured Poets Department is unapologetically unfiltered. How would you characterize this “era”?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: Catharsis, diaristic, unleashed songwriting.

Sam: Unashamed writing with drowsier instrumentals. It felt like she said everything she needed to say, though.

Rachel: Like I had said earlier, it feels very fragmented and quick, even with the 31 songs. I would characterise this era as an era of change or experimentation perhaps.

Josh: The Victory Lap Era. She’s fresh off the most successful concert tour of all time and completing a box set of 10 hit albums– her 11th one can be whatever she wants it to be, given all that.

Lauren: I would characterize this new era as her “I’m over it” era. This was such a big FU to everyone… and I mean everyone. And rightfully so. The Tortured Poets Department was her not caring what people thought anymore. It was her giving the world everything and saying, “Do what you want with it and think what you want of it, I do not care.” It feels like she just gave the world a diary she has spent years venting in. And to me, it seems like she is over hiding everything in it.

Nasya: As cliché as this might sound, poetic. This album was a masterclass in storytelling in its rawest, purest form.

What musical inspirations do you hear in the The Tortured Poets Department? What do you think Swift was listening to?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: Lana Del Rey, obviously. Stevie Nicks. Carly Simon. Carole King. Dolly Parton. Young Taylor Swift (see “loml”).

Sam: Yeah, it’s clear a lot of Lana rubbed off on her this time. Maybe even some Maggie Rogers in the mix as well?

Rachel: Definitely agree about Lana Del Rey, I think production wise you can definitely hear the Bleachers-Jack Antonoff sound coming through a lot more as well.

Josh: Man… I couldn’t tell you. But the others seem convinced that Lana Del Rey is the answer, and the two of them have a well-documented personal and creative friendship, so I won’t argue with their reasoning on this matter.

Blake: Quite a bit of Bleachers new album crossing over, specifically on the title track.

Lauren: For sure her good friend Lana Del Rey. She also mentions Stevie Nicks in this album, which I can see too. If I had to bet on it, I’d say she listened to a lot of female influences who have that idgaf energy in their music and who have spoken their truth, regardless of what people might say.

Nasya: Lana Del Rey for sure. Haunting melodies and sleepy instrumentals has Lana written all over it.

Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant
Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant

Is this record Taylor embodying ‘female rage’ that she referred to in folklore’s “Mad Woman”?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: Oh my God, yes!!!

Sam: She definitely lashes out the most on this album in a thrilling way, which perfectly sets the stage for what fans hope is the next-rerecording…

Rachel: Yes! But it also feels a lot more unapologetically unfiltered – which I love.

Josh: To me, she seemed sad / upset more than flat-out angry on this record – never once did the scowling zombie from the “Look What You Made Me Do” music video cross my mind, at any rate. Maybe that “female rage” is intricately embedded into the lyrics in some other subtle ways, though? I’ll have to see what I can find on my second listen (although, having just completed my two-hour marathon listen of “The Anthology” as I type this, I may have to shuffle my playlist up with music from other artists for the time being – sorry, Taylor, you know I’m still a big fan).

Blake: You hear the literal sampling of “mad woman” on “Cassandra,” too, right?

Emily: Blake, oh my god! I never heard it until you mentioned it, but you’re so right. Swift interpolating Swift is just perfect!

Lauren: I’ll let the art speak for itself on this one, but most definitely! 😉

Nasya: Absolutely. There’s a subtle complexity to the idea of “female rage” and I think Swift captured it perfectly.

Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant
Taylor Swift © Beth Garrabrant

Where do you feel The Tortured Poets Department sits in the pantheon of Taylor Swift’s discography?

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

Emily: I hate ranking music, and I find ranking an artist’s music amongst their previous releases impossible. This release was an obvious necessity for Swift, which explains why it isn’t as slick and polished as previous releases. The original is 16 songs, and with the Anthology it’s 31 tracks long, which is long!!! There has been criticism that it’s too long and Swift lacks the ability to edit, which is fair. I guess it all depends how you view art. How art should be consumed, how it should be packaged, and how it should be packaged and marketed.

Sam: I would say it sits in the top half, but it keeps getting better with every listen, so it might move up as well. I would say it lacks the superstar songs (the “Mine”s, the “Style”s, the “Delicate”s) that you can play endlessly, but it’s a solid release.

Rachel: I think coming off the success of the eras tour it symbolises her releasing a record that is perhaps more unapologetic and not as coherent. I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite but it’ll definitely grow on me and I don’t doubt it’ll be just as iconic as the rest of her work.

Josh: In my mind, there ain’t no toppin’ my longtime Top Two Taylor albums, Red and 1989. But I’ll give The Tortured Poets Department a chance and predict that it will go down as a successful “veteran era” release for her.

Blake: For sure in my top 3, behind reputation and folklore.

Lauren: I’m right behind, Josh. I’m a big Red and 1989 girly. Everything else, kind of depends on where I am in life at the moment. There are times I cannot stop listening to Reputation, then there are other times I have solely Lover playing. It truly depends. I don’t think I can rank them because my mind is constantly changing. I will say though, I genuinely like this album the more I listen to it and I can easily see it becoming one of my favorites.

Nasya: For me, it lands in good company alongside folklore and evermore. Those albums were the first time I truly felt like I’d seen a different side of Taylor Swift and what she’s capable of, and this album builds upon that.

— —

:: stream/purchase The Tortured Poets Department here ::
:: connect with Taylor Swift here ::

A Review of Taylor Swift's 'Red (Taylor's Version)'


A Review of Taylor Swift's 'evermore'


A Review of Taylor Swift's 'folklore'


A Review of Taylor Swift’s ‘Lover’


– – – –

The Tortured Poets Department - Taylor Swift

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📸 © Beth Garrabrant

The Tortured Poets Department

an album by Taylor Swift

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