Home Blogs Death, Taxes & a Taylor Swift Gut-Punch: “The Tortured Poets Department”

Death, Taxes & a Taylor Swift Gut-Punch: “The Tortured Poets Department”

by Trash Sandwiches

Mother, I mean, “the Professor said to write what you know,” and if there are two things I know, it’s Taylor Swift and grief.

Grief or death is really the only universal human truth. The kids aren’t paying taxes, after all. But I’d argue that relating to a Taylor Swift lyric is almost as ubiquitous, and her latest release, “The Tortured Poets Department,” gives us 31 more songs, stories and soliloquies in which we can see ourselves.

In case you’ve been living under a rock without Wi-Fi, Taylor Swift released her 11th album at midnight on April 19, then promptly followed it up two hours later with another album’s-worth of songs, a move that did not surprise the Swifties.

It was highly anticipated to be the “breakup album” documenting the end of Swift’s relationship with Joe Alwyn. While it does have a healthy dose of those songs (as well as some breakup tracks about Matty Healy), it’s much more than that (not to mention the theories that “Midnights” was actually the Joe Alwyn breakup album). It’s still largely an album of heartbreak and loss, but that also includes the loss of innocence (John Mayer will never be safe).

It’s about losing the people and places you called home, having your heart and world broken, whether by a lover or the systems in which we are raised. This album encapsulates the isolation, anger and depression from those experiences, plus the processing and healing that follows.

“The Tortured Poets Department” is about the five stages of grief.

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Album Review: “The Tortured Poets Department” – Taylor Swift

Much as the surprise double album didn’t surprise Swifties, neither will this assessment. Of course, this album is about grief. Leading up to this release, Taylor Swift literally gave us five curated playlists with songs from her previous albums, one for each stage. And even though some Swifties were flabbergasted that songs like “Lover” were re-classified into the denial stage (oh, the irony!), it’s often much easier to look back from that final place of acceptance and see some of the red flags that were overlooked. Trust me, I know.

Now, let me be very clear:  The grieving process is non-linear. It’s a tangle back and forth between the various feelings. They overlap, they’re messy and it’s never truly done. That’s mirrored in the album, in which the tracklist goes back and forth in these feelings both between and even during songs. Some songs are clearly written from one stage or another and in others, the feelings and stages are evolving during the song. It’s almost as if we are almost healing right alongside Taylor Swift. Regardless of what kind of grief or emotions we’re working through personally – whether you’re grieving the love of your life, a friendship, a pet or even your youth – we have all experienced these kinds of feelings, and we are all working towards that final stage of acceptance and peace.

In the end, we are all trying to learn the lesson that I would consider the thesis of this album, a song with some of the album’s most depressing lyrics masked as an absolute bop: “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart.”

Grief, but Make It a Bop

This song is a microcosm of “The Tortured Poets Department” anthology in many ways. It maintains a fairly upbeat tone throughout despite the fact that just about every song on the album is sad in one way or another. The album is big and chaotic, much like these feelings, and at times, it feels over-the-top, although not in a bad way.

The excess of these emotions makes it more immersive than many of her other songs or albums. There are these grand, sweeping songs that evoke clear pictures, like running in a dress unbuttoned, screaming “But Daddy, I Love Him” because we can’t just contain it. But it also happens in the quieter songs that invite us to come in close and work through the stages of grief alongside her, whether or not we’ve been through this before. Although who among us hasn’t thought, “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)”? Spoiler:  You can’t. Unsurprisingly, that’s the denial stage and the song is caught up in the hopeless romanticism right until the end.

On the other hand, we have tracks like “So Long, London,” which is an angry song masked in a bright tune. “The Prophecy” is clearly an attempt to bargain for a different future and “loml” takes us from that to depression to acceptance all in one track. Like grief, the album is non-linear in moving between these stages and there are detours throughout, but many of the lyrics are much more gut-wrenching than the songs sound, especially upon first listen.

Of course, that brings up one of the album’s biggest criticisms:  Several Swifties feel like many of the songs sound the same. I don’t think it’s necessarily an unfair criticism, and it’s certainly not a new one. The same has been said after the release of many of her other albums. I definitely felt this about “Midnights” at first, and I don’t disagree that there are some similarities among songs on “The Tortured Poets Department” .

Some Swifties are calling for the end of the Jack Antonoff synth sound and demanding more of the soft Aaron Dessner piano. Although, as one person pointed out, those same critics are still bopping along to the Antonoff beats. Personally, I like that we get the variety on this album, although fans are not wrong to call out the stark dichotomy between the two producers. And yes, of course, producers generally have their “sound” and stick within that, but so do musical artists. We Swifties are blessed that Taylor has been somewhat genre-fluid throughout her career, so let’s not be too nitpicky that we don’t have endless explorations across sound types in one album.

However, I do think there is some valid criticism to be made about repetition, although it’s less in the melody and more in the lyrics.

It’s Not THAT Deep (but Sometimes It Is)

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I saw some Swifties commenting that this album is not her best musically but her deepest lyrically. I think there are certainly some tracks or moments about which that may be true, but I don’t think that’s true of “The Tortured Poets Department” as a whole. Not that it’s not deep, just that it’s not the deepest.

Now let me preface this by saying, Swifties, please don’t come for me! I do really like this album. But I also think that some of the references and repetition on this album feel a little overdone. I love it when Taylor Swift connects new songs to old ones with references or symmetry in the lyrics or structure. As a whole, Swifties are rabid to find Easter eggs and connections between past and present songs or speculate on the subject or any number of big-brain conspiracy theories. But at some points on this album, it feels like she’s leaning too much into this (although she does love to mislead us with the red herrings!), and the various references and Easter eggs just feel like fan service.

There are times when she repeats references beautifully, like the motif of breathing across this album. There’s a narrative from “So Long, London” in which “every breath feels like the rarest air when you’re not sure he wants to be there” to “How Did It End?” when “the death rattle breathing silenced as the soul was leaving.” “But as she was leaving, it felt like breathing,” and the story comes full circle in “The Bolter” as our protagonist regains her freedom and starts her life again.

However, there are times when it’s almost a little too much. The whole thing is packed with references to poets, musicians and other artists. Some are well done, like the parallels between “Clara Bow” and Taylor Swift and the perfect Kim Kardashian diss track in “thanK you aIMee,” but others just feel like name dropping or cramming in as many references as possible. It was almost exhausting trying to remember all the bits and pieces from my high school English classes or stopping mid-album to Google.

That said, I do think part of the Taylor Swift charm is her ability to work in so many references and clever wordplay that requires multiple listens (and reading up on theories from Swifties, who have much more free time than I do). But this album feels like she went a little overboard with this approach, and I think that’s some of what people are hearing when they criticize songs for sounding the same. Some of these instances are referencing songs from previous albums, and I think these are generally the ones that land a little better, while others are self-referential among “The Tortured Poets Department” tracks.

This is where it loses some of the impact for me, like adding them was a game that went a little too far (“it wasn’t fun now”). For example, she takes the “brand new, full throttle” lyric in “So High School,” a song about her new boyfriend, Travis Kelce,  and harkens back to it with, “hand on the throttle, thought I caught lightning in a bottle” on “The Prophecy.” But that’s a song of bargaining after a breakup in hopes of finding love again, not the burgeoning new feelings that make you feel like you’re a teenager. At times like this, it feels as though her references are working against each other, and the callback cheapens the original emotion rather than adding depth to the story.

Finally, I would be remiss in criticizing this album if I didn’t mention that “imgonnagetyouback” is basically just “get him back!” by Olivia Rodrigo. Neither song uses a new concept, but they came out eight months apart and the two have a little history with this kind of thing after Olivia was forced to give Taylor songwriting credits on “deja vu” for its similarities to “Cruel Summer.” Just saying…

You Already Know, Babe

Despite my critiques, I do love this album! Of course, I do, and that’s not just my Taylor Swift fandom speaking! I’ve been listening almost non-stop since it came out.

This album excels in giving emotional gut-punches. That’s something that Swift has done throughout her career, but it really shines here with songs that feel more vulnerable, angry, powerful and bigger than any previous album. It’s the raw, “You don’t get to tell me about sad” in “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” and the quiet “You’re the loss of my life” at the end of “loml.” It’s the heartbreaking metaphors of “Fresh Out The Slammer” and it’s screaming along to “FUCK ME UP, FLORIDA!!!”

It’s the way that we can always find that lyric we relate to in a Taylor Swift song. Sometimes, it’s the deepest and most painful cuts, and sometimes, it’s hilariously shady (truly, “who uses typewriters anyway?”). It’s how we feel seen and understood, like entire songs were written just for us.

Death will always be part of the human experience, but the only tax is the emotional one from yet another Taylor Swift album that hits you right in the feels.

Death, losing yourself in a Taylor Swift album and feeling seen. She does it again with “The Tortured Poets Department.”

Now, please give me one business week to emotionally recover from these feelings.

Thanks for reading my review of “The Tortured Poets Department”! If you like my kind of trash, you can read more here and follow me on Twitter @trashsandwiches.

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