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19 April 2024updated 26 Apr 2024 12:21pm

The tortured Taylor Swift

On The Tortured Poets Department, Swift portrays herself as a woman tormented by her exes, her haters, and even, at times, her fans.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In the week that Courtney Love called Taylor Swift “not important” (“She might be a safe space for girls,” Love said, “but she’s not interesting as an artist”) comes The Tortured Poets Department, Swift’s 11th album, a self-defence against such critiques. Released alongside monochrome social media posts containing typewritten lyric fragments, this record deliberately positions Swift not as the billion-dollar global pop star of the Eras tour, still making its way around the globe to the UK, but Taylor Swift the prolific songwriter, Taylor Swift the sensitive artiste, Taylor Swift the tortured poet.

If this is a poem, it’s an epic – the album proper contains 16 songs, with an extra 15 released shortly after on The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology. And she certainly sounds tortured. This is an armoured, resentful record, and Swift portrays herself as a woman battered and bruised – tormented by her exes, her haters, and even, at times, her fans. (In this, it is a less camp, less bombastic and altogether sadder version of her sixth album, Reputation, though it sonically more reminiscent of 1989 and Midnights.) “All my mornings are Monday/Stuck in an endless February,” Swift drawls on the echoing opener, “Fortnight”, “I took the miracle move-on drug/The effects were temporary”. This is her first “break-up album” in a decade (it comes after the end of Swift’s six-year-long relationship with the British actor Joe Alwyn and a brief but much-publicised, controversy-courting love affair with the 1975’s frontman, Matty Healy), and it contains plenty of satisfyingly cutting lyrics, full of her characteristic defensive vulnerability. But they are delivered in a deadpan, conversational vocal in her lower register, full of run-on lines on songs co-written by Aaron Dessner; or set to a subdued musical backdrop of ambient Jack Antonoff-produced synths and mid-tempo percussion. There are references to white wine, alcoholism, narcotics, depression, heroin, and that miracle move-on drug: on The Tortured Poets Department, feelings of rage, sadness and freedom are all slightly sedated.

These songs are like messages from a distant place, the memories of an emotion no longer felt. “So Long, London” is a frustrated slow-build about the desperation of clinging on to a dying relationship that seems to reference Alwyn, a Londoner. It begins with a staccato choral arrangement of those four syllables – so long, Lon-don – that sound like distant alarms, before she sings: “I saw in my mind ferry lights through the mist.” That mist falls over the record.

On “Down Bad” a pouty track which contrasts floaty, lightly melodic verses about “cosmic love” with a crash-down-to-Earth, one-note chorus about finding oneself “down bad, crying in the gym”, Swift sings: “Everything comes out teenage petulance.” There’s a lot of that here, and it provides some of the album’s lyrical highlights. “I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free,” she sings on “So Long, London”. There are devastating character assassinations of a Healy-esque individual in a “Jehovah’s Witness suit” who “didn’t measure up in any measure of a man” (“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”, which contains Swift sighing heavily); a “con-man” selling “a get love quick scheme”, “Mr Steal-Your-Girl, then make her cry” (“loml”).

On the bratty, winking “But Daddy I Love Him”, Swift refuses to yield to paternalistic advice to stay away from a bad boy, with a burst of fun: “Now I’m running with my dress unbuttoned/Screaming, ‘But Daddy I love him!’/I’m having his baby/No I’m not – but you should see your faces”. Here, for the first time, she seems to channel some of her anger towards her fans – at least the ones who chastised her for her relationship with Healy, a provocative and divisive figure: “I’d rather burn my whole life down/Than listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning… I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empaths’ clothing/God save the most judgemental creeps who say they want what’s best for me/Sanctimoniously performing soliloquies I’ll never see.”

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Elsewhere, her adolescent resentment has the power of a great punchline. This record undoubtedly has some of her funniest, most self-mocking song titles. On vengeful battle-cry “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” she howls, “Who’s afraid of little old me? Well, you should be,” and leans in to characterisations of her as a self-obsessed and litigious professional victim: “So tell me everything is not about me… But what if it is?… I’m always drunk on my own tears, isn’t that what they all said?/That I’ll sue you if you step on my lawn/That I’m fearsome and I’m wretched and I’m wrong.” On the title track, she ridicules the tortured-genius stereotype: “Who uses typewriters anyway?… You’re not Dylan Thomas/I’m not Patti Smith/This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel/We’re modern idiots.” But it’s where she also offers some of her most novelistic lyrics: “At dinner you take my ring off my middle finger/And put it on the one people put wedding rings on/And that’s the closest I’ve come to my heart exploding.”

On “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)”, “Fresh Out the Slammer” and the title track, the songwriting shows the influence of Lana Del Rey: “You left your typewriter at my apartment/Straight from the Tortured Poets Department” carries an echo of Del Rey’s line, “You took my sadness out of context/At the Mariners apartment complex”. “Florida!!!”, featuring Florence Welch, is more vivid for being influenced by Florence and the Machine’s richly instrumental, harmony-laced production style.

A couple of bright pop tracks shine through the fog. The sexy, dreamy “Guilty as Sin?” is a taken woman’s fantasy of a new lover, with a sensual melody, as looping as a lover’s handwriting: “What if he’s written ‘mine’ on my upper thigh only in my mind?” And the album’s single all-out banger, “I Can Do It with a Broken Heart”, is a swaggering boast to singular brilliance, and a glimpse of Taylor Swift the superstar: “I’m so depressed I act like it’s my birthday, every day!” she announces in a faux-cheerful sing-song voice, punctuated with little synthetic dings that sound like exclamation points, or a video game’s chimes of victory. “I cry a lot, but I am so productive – it’s an art!/You know you’re good when you can even do it with a broken heart!” (It’s notable that the album’s most colourful moment is undercut by lyrics about the sublimation of emotion.) Highlights from the greatly extended version include “So High School”, which, in a full-circle moment, feels influenced by a generation of Taylor Swift-inspired bedroom-pop artists like Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail; the pleading loneliness of “The Prophecy” (“Please/I’ve been on my knees/Change the prophecy/Don’t want money/Just someone who wants my company/Let it once be me”) and the warm, string-laden “The Bolter” – a The Pursuit of Love reference, or just a pleasing literary overlap?

This is a tortured record in a second sense. At times it feels laboured, drawn out, more self-conscious than self-aware, its personal revelations shrouded in bitter humour and protecting, ironising distance, its anger muted by synths and reverb. It rambles and meanders, adding another “and”, turning back to offer up another piercing insult, determined to get the last word. This is not a collection of the powerful sparkling feelings, compressed into a tight formulaic construction, that characterised her best, most bulletproof songwriting. (To put it in Swiftie-friendly language – English (Taylor’s Version) – it is what you’re left with when you subtract “All Too Well” from “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”.) If her earlier songs were fizzy cocktails of undiluted emotions bottled, shaken up and ready to pop, this is something moodier, woozier and more subtle – black and white, not screaming colour.

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger