Taylor Swift is poetically vulnerable in ‘The Tortured Poets Department’


Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department' Arrives - The New York Times

Recommended Tracks: “Fortnight”, “loml”, “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”
Artists You Might Like: Ariana Grande, Olivia Rodrigo, Selena Gomez

Everyone experiences love and loss, but no one makes you feel heard and seen like singer-songwriter and pop icon Taylor Swift. Writing your feelings into words on a page has become second nature for Swift — filled with heartfelt sentiments, chaotically vulnerable lyricism and infectious melodies. But with Swift, you’re never alone. She’s the friend you didn’t know you needed. Now she is blending wit with catharsis in her most personal project to date: her highly-anticipated 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department

Swift wrote this album alongside Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, while on her 2023-2024 tour The Eras Tour, and finishing up working on her 2022 studio album Midnights. She announced the release of the album at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards in February.

The album, which she’s called a “lifeline” — something she felt she needed to make — follows us through the despair, anxiety and heartbreak that deals with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But for Swift, there’s a humor to it, as she takes us through her psyche, introspecting on her public and private lives. The album touches on themes of love, loss and personal growth.

The album opens with the lead single, “Fortnight,” a synth-induced track that features American rapper Post Malone and is the primary illustration for the album’s themes. The word “fortnight” is an archaic English word for “fourteen nights,” correlating with her heavily publicized breakup and the subsequent rumors some 12 days later. She capitalizes on this enduring agony in “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys,” singing, “My boy only breaks his favorite toys / I’m queen of sand castles he destroys / ‘Cause it fit too right, puzzle pieces in the dead of night.” The song explores the emotional turmoil and chaos that follows the end of a relationship, connecting its demise to her partner’s habit of dismantling dolls and destroying sandcastles.

Swift spends several songs reeling from the aftermath of this relationship. She’s overwhelmed with betrayal and abandonment in “So Long, London.” The title symbolizes the conclusion of a chapter or phase in her life, with many thinking this song is dedicated to her high-profile relationship with actor Joe Alwyn, who was raised in North London. In “But Daddy I Love Him,” Swift explores her struggles and defiance entangled in said tumultuous relationship, including societal pressures and expectations, tying into the rumors and rejection of societal norms Swift has undergone during her publicized relationships. 

There’s a seamless shift in the album’s lyrical tone during “Fresh Out The Slammer” when she compares her relationship to jail. She describes her relationship as something that requires an escape — and now she sought freedom. In the song’s outro, she sings, “But it’s gonna be alright, I did my time”; it suggests this restriction and restraint for Swift in this relationship. This freedom is further emphasized in the ethereal “Florida!!!” with Florence + The Machine, which highlights this chaotic and gritty perspective on the state of Florida. Florence’s voice adds this otherworld component to the track, beautifully capturing this dreamy, escapism feeling. We all need an escape sometimes — an escape from reality and a lasting freedom to give us some relief. The Tampa, Florida, shows were the first Eras Tour stop following Swift’s highly publicized relationship with Alwyn; for Swift, Florida was an escape for her, comparing it to a “drug.”

How does one finally move on from pain? No one just moves on without a little help — whether all they need is time, an escape, or something entirely different — it’s never overnight. Swift finds humor in the coming tracks of the album, addressing and mocking the frequent rumors that surround her professional and personal life, beginning with the 1980s-inspired “Guilty as Sin?” But it’s “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” that shines in all of the media’s degradation. In the song, Swift sings about contained scandals and crashed parties, “Is it a wonder I broke? / Let’s hear one morе joke / Then we could all just laugh until I cry.” Sonically, the song is a mirror to her sixth studio album, reputation, where she discussed her struggles facing media backlash. In the song’s entirety, it serves as a reminder that even in our darkest moments, we have the strength within us to rise above and reclaim our power.

Swift blends raw emotions and poetic imagery in the ballad “loml,” which is stylized in all lowercase. But this time, “loml” does not mean what you think; “loml,” which usually means “love of my life,” is actually “loss of my life,” in this track. Swift uses the slim divide between love and loss, with the repeated refrain of “You said I’m the love of your life.” This sentiment captures the bittersweet nature of memories and the lingering impact of her breakup. It makes you feel pained, distraught and agonized, just like her. What was once love turns into loss, which leaves an indelible mark on your heart. It becomes something you cannot seem to shake. With the flashing lights and sold-out shows, she says she was only “faking it until she made it” in “I Can Do It With A Broke Heart.” Even with a facade, Swift capitalized on emotion and humor, continuing to echo words of frustration throughout the album.

In the album’s concluding track, “Clara Bow,” Swift’s vivid imagery and comparison shine through, her beautifully poignant lyricism echoing throughout. The imagery of “breath of fresh air through smoke rings,” suggests a purity and the haze of superficiality. It instead serves as a metaphor for clarity amidst life’s confusions, mirroring silent film star Clara Bow. Swift’s raw vulnerability in the track is both heartbreaking and cathartic, offering a sense of solace to anyone who has ever felt the sting of lost love. Even after the notes fade away, Swift captures the essence of her journey authentically, giving listeners more reasons to come running back.

With hand-typed lyrics, The Tortured Poets Department is a testament to Swift’s evolution as an artist and storyteller. Simultaneously, Swift revealed that the album would be a secret double album called The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, which features 15 extra songs. It’s an anthology of new literary works that capture specific moments in Swift’s life, characterized by sensational and melancholic intensity. Rather, she turns to liberation and freedom in The Anthology, with bonus tracks like “The Manuscript,” “The Bolter,” “The Albatross” and “The Black Dog.”

In the words of renowned poet, F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside you or else it is nothing.” Swift’s album The Tortured Poets Department invites listeners into her cathartic world with honesty and vulnerability. With clever wordplay, evocative imagery and infectious melodies, it leaves us aching for and wanting another re-released album from her past collection of music. Despite the agony and freedom depicted in the album, which captures Swift’s life, we get a beautiful compilation of emotionally raw, tortured poetry.

Keep up with Taylor Swift: Instagram // Spotify // YouTube // X // TikTok // Website

Clare Gehlich
Clare Gehlich
Clare is recent Stony Brook University graduate, holding a BA in Journalism. She was a journalism intern at Melodic for the spring 2024 semester and currently serves as the album release assistant and is a freelance writer for the magazine.

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