Taylor Swift’s new album is about a reckless kind of freedom. If only it sounded as uninhibited | Laura Snapes

Estimated read time 7 min read

As The Tortured Poets Department (TTPD) finally sees its official release, the intention behind the title remains as enigmatic as it was when Taylor Swift announced it two months ago. The title track seems to mock one such tortured poet who carts a typewriter around and likens the budding couple to Patti Smith and Dylan Thomas. “We’re modern idiots,” Swift laughs. The album’s aesthetic wallows in anguish and Swift’s liner notes and social media captions are littered with self-consciously poetic proclamations. And the erratic period captured in the lyrics couldn’t be further from a life of cloistered studiousness.

TTPD depicts a manic phase in Swift’s life last year, the reality behind the perfect stagecraft of the Eras tour. Wild-eyed from what sounds like the slow dissolution of a six-year relationship, she lunged at a once-forbidden paramour with a taste for dissolution, a foul mouth and a well-founded bad reputation. The latter, she makes clear as she sings repeatedly about flouting paternalistic and public censure, was a central part of the attraction: “He was chaos, he was revelry,” Swift sings on But Daddy (evidently about the 1975’s Matty Healy).

Perhaps inevitably, she got burned, causing wounds that are now healed: “And upon further reflection, a good number of them turned out to be self-inflicted,” she wrote in a new Instagram caption, with a primness that belies the unbridled hunger behind the album’s lyrics.

“Growing up precocious sometimes means / Not growing up at all,” Swift sings on But Daddy I Love Him, a self-aware remark about how living up to adults’ expectations of maturity can prevent developing it on your own terms – repression primed to explode.

In outlook, the contents of TTPD are quite thrillingly immature. Swift captures that unhinged period after a big breakup when your centre is gone and with it any sense of reason; when friends’ concerns go unheeded, horniness is high and oblivion has never looked more inviting. She reveals on Guilty as Sin? that fantasising over the idea of someone helped liberate her from her stultifying long-term relationship. And once imagination has sprung you Fresh Out the Slammer, as she sings – “Get the matches / Toss the ashes off the ledge” – you can easily get high on the idea of where else wishful thinking might take you: “I can fix him / No really, I can,” she sings on a song of the same name.

The short length of the tryst in question – six to eight weeks in the public eye, at any rate – just ups the volatility, and the word “crazy” appears repeatedly. The delulu era had found its soundtrack – or at least it would have if TTPD sounded anything like as feral and feckless as its themes.

Since 2020’s Folklore and Evermore, Swift’s only co-producers have been Jack Antonoff and the National’s Aaron Dessner. TTPD largely bobs between their sounds, muting Antonoff’s gated Bleachers boom and stretching Dessner’s composerly intricacy to pop heights it can’t quite buoy. It drains the sparkle from both, and seems to beat a bruised retreat that structurally confines the lacerating lyrics.

It’s a strange contrast. Maybe there is some kind of logic in it. The post-high crash is prone to leave you feeling flayed, grasping at familiarity. Moreover, following rejection in love and by a public who threw tantrums over her association with Healy, perhaps the fame-weary TTPD marks Swift taking her ball home: the sole upbeat moment, I Can Do It With a Broken Heart, sparkles with satire and finds Swift taunting fans as she reveals that she was psychotically miserable as she still hit her marks on the Eras tour once Healy had left the frame. “You know you’re good,” she smirks. “And I’m good.” Revealing that she can play the role perfectly well when she wants to suggests that she really, really doesn’t want to on TTPD.

But that logic doesn’t quite hold when you consider how the album conforms to the demands of the wider entertainment ecosystem. Given Swift’s scale, she can hardly slip out a record below the radar. But at 2am EST on Friday, she revealed that TTPD was in fact a double album – the second half closer to the fictional narratives of 2020’s Folklore and Evermore than the sharp disclosures of the first – and added 15 additional songs to streaming services.

Swift’s streaming dominance makes it easy to forget that a decade ago she pulled her music from Spotify, lambasting them for monetarily devaluing music, and wrote in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that she perceived the value of an album to be “the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work”. (She returned in 2017.) Where her pre-2020 albums stuck to a pretty tight artistic vision, the inessential 31-track sprawl of TTPD just feels as though it feeds a streaming machine where volume is everything.

And as much as elements of TTPD exhibit a distaste for the conversation around her – Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me? follows Blank Space and Look What You Made Me Do in satirising her reputation by embodying it – it also feeds a gossip-focused media. Naturally, Swift should write about her life however she wants, and her fame means that even her most inscrutable lyrics will be scoured for “clues” (although she has said she’s “trained” fans to behave that way by leaving crumb trails everywhere). But there comes a point when she’s rehashing ancient battles – take a deep breath and spell out the highlighted letters in thanK you aIMee, as she styles it, from the album’s second side – and you have to ask why.

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The likely answer feels dispiriting. Although the song is a backhanded message of gratitude for “the way you made me heal”, it also doubtless lights the way to the release of Reputation (Taylor’s Version), the re-recording of her 2017 retort to the Kim and Kanye drama likely due later this year.

Much as parts of TTPD rebuke parts of her audience for revealing the conditions by which they’re willing to accept her, it still keeps both parties trapped in the dance that created that entitlement. Even in such a loose record, Swift is unwilling to relinquish her trademark Easter eggs (But Daddy I Love Him references The Little Mermaid, released in her birth year/album title 1989, as was the Blue Nile’s The Downtown Lights, cited in Guilty as Sin?) and each discovery of a new one hits like a hammered nail. The allusions and retreads play into an IP mentality (surely when the Eras tour resumes in Paris in May, the setlist will get a TTPD refresh) as well as the assumption she once rejected that her songs are puzzles to be solved.

They’re not hard to solve these days. The Alchemy, full of football metaphors, couldn’t be about anything but Swift’s current relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. “So when I touch down / Call the amateurs and cut ‘em from the team / Ditch the clowns, get the crown,” she sings. “We’ve been on a winning streak.”

After toying with a reckless kind of freedom, triumph is a retreat to first principles, a game she knows inside out. For all the online guides discerning the veracity of each song, it’s ultimately the risk aversion of The Tortured Poets Department that undermines its unvarnished truths.

Source: theguardian.com

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