It’s Taylor Swift Day, Again

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Tyler Foggatt
Senior Editor

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Don’t be surprised if the Swifties in your life showed up to work today with dark under-eye circles. At midnight on Thursday night, Taylor Swift released her eleventh studio album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” a mix of dream pop and Southern gothic, which runs for sixteen tracks. Just as fans were finishing up their first listen, Swift revealed that the project was a “secret DOUBLE album,” and released fifteen more songs, at 2 A.M. on Friday, as part of “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.” The new music, which Swift somehow managed to record in between her Eras Tour performances, comes on the heels of “1989 (Taylor’s Version),” released in late October, and was first announced by Swift this past February, as she accepted a Grammy for her tenth studio album, “Midnights.” How did Swift pull this off? “I cry a lot, but I am so productive,” she explains, on “I Can Do It with a Broken Heart,” a maximalist, synth-heavy track produced with—you guessed it—Jack Antonoff. Fans who prefer Swift’s collaborations with Aaron Dessner, her other creative soulmate, will relish the second half of the anthology, which feels like an extension of Swift’s indie albums, “folklore” and “evermore.” The first half leans more “Midnights,” though some of the best songs are infused with the country-ish vibes of “No Body, No Crime,” from “evermore.” Swift has learned how to make sure that there’s something for everybody.

The Eras Tour.Photograph from ZUMA Press / Alamy

A point of speculation among Swifties, ever since the album’s announcement, has been whether “The Tortured Poets Department” signifies a departure from the “Eras” project, Swift’s creative conceit of separating her albums into distinct genres and vibes, which exist on a sort of continuum. For “reputation,” released in 2017, the artist clapped back at her haters (the press, and Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, among them), by wearing black lipstick on the cover and singing about revenge and gossip. Two years later, during the “Lover” era, she cosplayed as a grownup version of JoJo Siwa: rainbows and sequins, all while singing songs about love and female empowerment. But “The Tortured Poets Department” resists being era-ified. The first hint is the title, which, at a staggering four words, is long enough to merit an acronym. (“T.T.P.D.” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Fearless,” or “Red.”) And then there’s the fact that the album cover for “Midnights” features Swift holding a lighter. What is she burning? At the Eras Tour, Swift performs in front of a big house, in which each room might represent a different era, and by the show’s end the house is doused in flames.

Swifties theorized that “T.T.P.D.” would be about the artist’s breakup with her longtime boyfriend Joe Alwyn, the British actor who, on “Lover,” seems to have inspired heartfelt lyrics such as “He got that boyish look that I like in a man” and “You know I love a London boy.” One of the tracks on the new album is called “So Long, London”; others include “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” and “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can).” Though Swift certainly does seem to be singing about Alwyn at times, one of the shocks of the album is the number of songs that appear to be about Matty Healy, a different old flame. In public, Swift and Healy’s short-lived relationship never seemed that serious. On the new album, she leads us to believe that they both threatened to kill themselves if the other ever left.

Swift has a knack for surprising her fans. She allows them to think that they know everything about her, before pulling the rug out from under them. Days before “T.T.P.D.” ’s release, she prompted a collective reëvaluation of her old music, by sharing five playlists that sorted her songs into Elisabeth Küber-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Some fans found the playlists jarring. How could “Lover,” a song from Swift’s happy, rainbow era, which is often played at weddings, be on the “denial” playlist? (“This is a list of songs about getting so caught up in the idea of something that you have a hard time seeing the red flags, possibly resulting in moments of denial and maybe a little bit of delusion,” Swift said, in an intro message.) The truth is that there has always been something off about “Lover.” This is evident from the very first line: “We could leave the Christmas lights up ’til January.” (Is there something revolutionary about keeping your lights up for six days?) Like the Christmas lights, lovers are ephemeral, and Swift yearns for a more permanent label. The song’s bridge is a kind of wedding waltz, which culminates in Swift getting blue-balled at the altar: “Ladies and gentlemen, will you please stand? / With every guitar-string scar on my hand / I take this magnetic force of a man to be my . . . lover.”

Swifties have started to connect “Lover,” once thought to be Swift’s most romantic song, with “You’re Losing Me,” one of her most explicitly devastating. The latter, a bonus track on “Midnights,” was released after Swift’s breakup with Alwyn. “I wouldn’t marry me either,” she says, going on to call herself “a pathological people pleaser.” Now on “loml,” a track from “T.T.P.D.,” she sings, “You shit-talked me under a table, talking rings and talking cradles.” Maybe we romanticized the eras, in the same way that Swift romanticized her lover. But one thing’s for sure: Swift will always find a way to get us talking about the same old songs, even as she gives us new ones.

Pick Three

Tyler Foggatt shares her picks for Swift’s most quietly devastating, or “tortured,” tracks to date.

1. Swift first established herself as a “tortured poet” in 2020, when she surprise-dropped the indie album “folklore.” The album is a feat of lyricism, and it is also unbearably sad; if you ever see videos of young women sobbing at the Eras Tour, it is likely while Swift is singing the bridge of “illicit affairs” or of “my tears ricochet.” Screaming these songs is cathartic, but the most beautiful song on the album (and perhaps the most underrated) is “peace,” a minimalist track that could be mistaken for a serene prayer. The song is actually about how Swift can never find peace—and how her romantic partners can’t, either—which makes for an interesting sonic juxtaposition. She revisits many of the themes from the “reputation” album—her frenemies and haters are now “robbers to the east” and “clowns to the west”—but she does so with an alarming self-awareness and maturity. Swift has spent years singing songs about exes who wronged her. Here, she reflects, “Your integrity makes me seem small / You paint dreamscapes on the wall / I talk shit with my friends / It’s like I’m wasting your honor.”

2. “The Tortured Poets Department” is more tortured than it is poetic, especially for the first half of the album. Some of the lyrics are almost distractingly literal. (A viral line from the title track: “You smoked then ate seven bars of chocolate / We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist.”) I’m inclined to think that the whole “tortured poet” thing is a bit: Swift recognizing that she’s being overdramatic and emo by singing songs about ex-boyfriends who were equally overdramatic and emo. “The Black Dog,” a bonus track on the album, is a good example of this. When the song was announced, many fans assumed that it would be complicated and elegiac, because the black dog is a known metaphor for depression. But, in the first few lines, we learn that Swift has broken up with someone, who has apparently forgotten to turn off location-sharing on his phone, and so she is able to track him as he walks into “some bar called the Black Dog.” The premise is so simple, so flip, that it might drive you mad, given how much praise Swift has received over the years for her storytelling abilities. But the song is good. It’s petty (“I hope it’s shitty in the Black Dog”) and self-obsessed (“If I die screaming . . . I hope you hear it”), in the best way. Swift has sung before about her inability to get over things, but what’s even more painful is her inability to understand how other people can get over things. “It kills me,” she sings. “I just don’t understand how you don’t miss me.”

The Reputation Stadium Tour.Photograph by John Shearer / TAS18 / Getty

3. Swift herself has finally acknowledged that “Lover” is one of the saddest albums she’s ever written, if only in retrospect. Songs like “Afterglow,” in which she takes accountability for damaging her relationship (“I need to say / Hey / It’s all me, in my head / I’m the one who burned us down”) now sound like odes to being gaslit. But the most tortured song on the album, and perhaps Swift’s most tortured song ever, is “Cruel Summer.” (I would argue that the song is even sadder than the conventional-wisdom pick “All Too Well.”) It’s easy to recognize how toxic a relationship was once you’re out of it. In “Cruel Summer,” Swift is singing, seemingly in real time, about how her lover is destroying her. And the toxicity is baked into the attraction. In her words, “What doesn’t kill me makes me want you more.” The song has been lauded for its bridge, in which Swift famously asks, “ ‘I love you,’ ain’t that the worst thing you’ve ever heard?” But, for me, the melancholy is all in the chorus. Although Swift produced the song with Jack Antonoff, the chorus brings to mind an earlier collaborator of hers, Max Martin, who is known for using major and minor chords in unexpected ways. The result is a happy song that sounds sad (think ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”), or a sad song that sounds happy. This is why “Cruel Summer,” despite being so devastating, is the kind of song that people like to scream in the car on the way to the beach.

Our About Town listings will resume next week.

P.S. Good stuff on the Internet:

  • Isabel Kaplan’s ketamine diaries
  • The commitment of these sheep
  • Edwidge Danticat on her youth


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