The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology

By Chloe Stiens

Taylor Swift’s hotly-anticipated album, The Tortured Poets Department, came out on Friday, accompanied by another LP that forms the second volume of a double album. Listening to 31 songs in a row can be overwhelming, so I suggest taking a break after Clara Bow, the closer of the single album.

Arriving after the end of her six-year relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn, it was speculated to be her first ‘break-up album’ since 2012’s Red. We do find Swift reeling in the aftermath of not one, but two important relationships, although the focus of the album is more on her depressed state of mind following these relationships.

Across the album, her lyrics do read like poetry

Moreover, only Swift could rhyme ‘teenage petulance’ into the chorus of one of the most poppy songs on the album, Down Bad. Here, we get the sense that Swift does not take herself too seriously. On But Daddy I Love Him, she mocks her fans too, joking “I’m having his baby / No I’m not, but you should see your faces”, in response to the outrage she faced after going public in her relationship with Healy. The songs that address what it is actually like to be Taylor Swift are some of the most interesting on the album, of which I Can Do It With A Broken Heart is a highlight. Against the backdrop of the Eras Tour soundtrack, and voices in the background shouting cues, she reveals “All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting, ‘More’”. Her fans must feel more than a little guilty.

Themes of adulthood are woven through the album, such as on loml, where Swift describes how her lover wooed her by “Talkin’ rings and talkin’ cradles”. On So Long, London, her goodbye to Alwyn, her voice breaks as she sings “I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free”. With these songs, Swift suggests that she didn’t just lose the men she loved, but that she feels she is losing her chance at the future she imagines for herself.

The two love songs for her current boyfriend, Travis Kelce, see that dream renewed, and as the penultimate track of Volume 1, The Alchemy provides a sort of happy ending

But ultimately, the album is dominated by songs that allow Swift to process the end of her two previous relationships. The gorgeous piano-based loml shifts from presenting an ex as the “love of [her] life” to the “loss of her life” as she moves from reminiscing about the beginning of the relationship to accepting its end. While listeners will speculate who this song is about, to do so is to miss the point. Similarly, in the haunting song Peter, rather than penning another song about a specific ex, Swift completes the story of a fictional love triangle from her 2020 album Folklore (signified by the shared chord progression with Betty and the Peter Pan reference first made on Cardigan) but imbues the track with the emotion of her current heartbreak.

However, the sheer number of songs on this subject presents the first of the issues with the album, which is that it is too long. All of the songs on the album are well-written, but for reasons besides their subject matter, many of them sound the same. TTPD did not need all three piano-based, sad breakup songs (loml, The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived, Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus), and while Swift may have felt all three were necessary, to a listener they all blend into one. Meanwhile, both So Long, London and The Smallest Man are based on a chugging synth bass, while The Smallest Man and The Black Dog both begin with stripped piano and build to a climax complete with orchestral instrumentation. While Antonoff and Dessner may be responsible for these repetitions in instrumentation, it is Swift who wrote three songs with almost the same chorus melody, based around the second note of the scale (Down Bad, Guilty as Sin? and The Alchemy). Perhaps this is due to the poetic nature of her lyrics, which translate almost like spoken word. Or perhaps it is because after writing 274 songs, a songwriter will inevitably begin to repeat themselves (The Prophecy verse is extremely reminiscent of Seven from Folklore). Secondly, while I am impressed with the clever rhymes Swift uses, at times her vocabulary sounds contrived; for example, the second instance of the word ‘precocious’ is one too many.

Almost all the songs are very well-crafted when taken in isolation, but when thinking of an album as a single entity, The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology is not cohesive, and often repetitive. Swift told fans that she ‘needed’ to write The Tortured Poets Department, and as a listener, we get the impression that it took 31 songs for Swift to get over these relationships. However, we did not need to be privy to each individual step towards catharsis.

Illustration credit: Hayleigh McLean

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