Thursday, May 30, 2024

Taylor Swift’s “The Tortured Poets Department,” Reviewed

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In the past several months, Taylor Swift has become culturally ubiquitous in a way that feels nearly terrifying. Superstardom tends to turn normal people into cartoons, projections, gods, monsters. Swift has been inching toward some sort of tipping point for a while. The most recent catalyst was, in part, love: in the midst of her record-breaking Eras Tour, Swift, who is thirty-four, began dating Travis Kelce, a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs. Whenever Swift appeared at one of Kelce’s games, the broadcasters whipped their extra-high-definition cameras toward her, sending legions of amateur lip readers scrambling for their phones. I’m paid to give legibility to such things, and even I couldn’t help but think that we were crossing some sort of Rubicon with regard to our collective sanity. Swift was everywhere, beheld by everyone. She is one of the most-streamed artists of all time on Spotify; Billboard reported that at one point, she accounted for seven per cent of all vinyl sales in the U.S. Swift is a capable and hugely savvy businesswoman (a billionaire, in fact), yet I began to worry about her in a nearly maternal way: How could anyone survive that sort of scrutiny and retain her humanity? Detaching from reality can be lethal for a pop star, particularly one known for her Everygirl candor. I thought of the oft-memed bit from “Arrested Development,” in which Lucille Bluth, the oblivious matriarch, asks, “I mean, it’s one banana, Michael—what could it cost? Ten dollars?”

This month, Swift released “The Tortured Poets Department,” her eleventh studio album. She has now reached a level of virtuosity within her genre that feels nearly immutable—she’s too practiced, too masterly, to swing and really miss. But “The Tortured Poets Department” suffers from being too long (two hours after it was released, Swift announced a second disk, bringing the total number of tracks to thirty-one) and too familiar. Swift co-wrote most of the record with Jack Antonoff and with Aaron Dessner. (The two producers have oppositional melodic sensibilities: Antonoff sharpens Swift; Dessner softens her.) The new songs suggest that after a decade, her partnership with Antonoff has perhaps run its course. The tracks written with Dessner are gentler, more tender, and more surprising. The raw and stirring “Robin” seems to address a child—either a very young Swift (the album contains several references to her hijacked youth, including “The Manuscript,” a sombre song about a relationship with an older man), or maybe a future son or daughter.

“The Tortured Poets Department” was released following the end of Swift’s six-year relationship with the actor Joe Alwyn, and the album is mostly about the utter unreliability of love—how bonkers it is that we build our entire lives around a feeling that can simply dissipate. “You said I’m the love of your life / About a million times,” Swift sings on “Loml,” a wrenching piano ballad. “You shit-talked me under the table, talking rings and talking cradles.” Shortly after Swift and Alwyn split, she reportedly had a fling with Matty Healy, the front man for the British rock band the 1975. (“I took the miracle move-on drug / The effects were temporary,” she sings on “Fortnight.”) Healy is a provocateur, prone to making loutish jokes; onstage, he smokes, eats raw steak, and makes out with strangers. The rumored relationship sent Swifties into spasms of outrage, and revealed the unusual extent to which Swift is beholden to her fans. She has encouraged and nurtured a parasocial affection (at times she nearly demanded it: inviting fans to her home, baking them cookies), and she now has to contend with their sense of ownership over her life. On “But Daddy I Love Him,” she scornfully chastises the “judgmental creeps” who relentlessly hounded her about her love life: “I’d rather burn my whole life down / Than listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning.” (She saves the nastiest barb for the final verse: “All the wine moms are still holding out.”) Regardless, things with Healy ended fast, and, a few months later, she did the most wholesome thing possible: she started dating a football player whose team would go on to win the Super Bowl.

Quite a few of the album’s lyrics seem to evoke Healy: “You’re not Dylan Thomas / I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel / We’re modern idiots,” Swift sings on the title track, a shimmering song about broken people clinging to each other. I like that line—it suggests self-awareness—but it’s followed by one of the weirdest verses of Swift’s career: “You smoked then ate seven bars of chocolate / We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist / I scratch your head, you fall asleep / Like a tattooed golden retriever.” Other lyrics lack Swift’s signature precision: “At dinner you take my ring off my middle finger and put it on the one people put wedding rings on,” she sings. Even the greatest poets whiff a phrase now and then, but a lot of the language on the record is either incoherent (“I was a functioning alcoholic till nobody noticed my new aesthetic”) or just generally bewildering (“Florida is one hell of a drug”). My favorite lyrics are the simplest, and are delivered with a kind of exhausted calm. On “Down Bad,” a woozy song about feeling like shit, Swift admits defeat: “Now I’m down bad, crying at the gym / Everything comes out teen-age petulance / Fuck it if I can’t have him.” Feel you, dude.

Each of Swift’s records has a distinct visual component—this is more or less the premise of the Eras Tour. “The Tortured Poets Department” is preoccupied with writerly accoutrements, but the vibe is ultimately more high-end stationery store than musty rare-books room. Initially, the title seemed as if it might be a smirking reference to Joe Alwyn (he once joked about being part of a WhatsApp group called the Tortured Man Club). But I find that the phrase works well as a summation of Swift’s entire self-conception. She has always made a big deal about her pain being generative. “This writer is of the firm belief that our tears become holy in the form of ink on the page,” she wrote on Instagram. She has talked about this album as if the songs were mere monuments to her suffering: “Once we have spoken our saddest story, we can be free of it.”

An unusual number of Swift’s songs portray love as combative, perhaps because she is so prone to working from a place of wounded longing. On “Better Than Revenge,” a song she wrote at eighteen, Swift sings about art as a useful weapon, a way to punish anyone who does her dirty: “She thinks I’m psycho / ’Cause I like to rhyme her name with things.” It’s a funny lyric, but, by Swift’s current age, most people understand that love isn’t about winning. (Art isn’t, either.) Yet in Swift’s universe, love is often a battlefield. On “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?,” she catalogues the ways in which fame can pervert and destroy a person: “I was tame, I was gentle, till the circus life made me mean,” she sings. She is paranoid, wild-eyed: “Tell me everything is not about me / But what if it is?” (After the year Swift has had, she’s not wrong to ask.) The song itself is so tightly produced that it doesn’t sound dangerous. But midway through, her voice briefly goes feral. I found the moment thrilling, which is maybe part of the problem.

In the weeks before “The Tortured Poets Department” was released, it seemed as though a backlash was inevitable. Swift’s lyrics are often focussed on her perseverance against all odds, but, these days, she is too omnipresent and powerful to make a very convincing underdog. Still, interest in Swift has yet to diminish or fully sour. She announced the album at the Grammys, in February, as she was accepting the award for Best Pop Vocal Album, for her previous record, “Midnights.” I found her speech so profoundly mercenary it was sort of funny. “I want to say thank you to the fans by telling you a secret that I’ve been keeping from you for the last two years, which is that my brand new album comes out April 19th,” Swift said. “I’m gonna go and post the cover.”

As I’ve grown older, I’ve mostly stopped thinking about art and commerce as being fundamentally at odds. But there are times when the rapaciousness of our current pop stars seems grasping and ugly. I’m not saying that pop music needs to be ideologically pure—it wouldn’t be much fun if it were—but maybe it’s time to cool it a little with the commercials? A couple of days before the album’s release, Swift unveiled a library-esque display at the Grove, a shopping mall in Los Angeles. It included several pages of typewritten lyrics on faux-aged paper, arranged as though they had recently been tugged from the platen of a Smith Corona. (The word “talisman” was misspelled on one, to the delight of the haters.) The Spotify logo was featured prominently at the bottom of each page. Once again, I laughed. What is the point of all that money if it doesn’t buy you freedom from corporate branding? For a million reasons—her adoption of the “poet” persona; her already unprecedented streaming numbers—such an egregious display of sponsorship was worse than just incongruous. It was, as they say, cringe.

Among the other clues Swift doled out were five exclusive playlists for Apple Music (sorry, Spotify!), comprising her own songs and organized according to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. At first, I thought the playlists were just another bit of overwrought marketing, but the more I listened to “The Tortured Poets Department,” the more germane the concept felt. Anyone who has grieved knows that these categories are not a ladder you climb toward peace: it is possible, instead, to feel all of them at once, briefly or forever. Each stage is evident on “The Tortured Poets Department.” Sometimes they oppose one another: Swift is cocky and self-loathing, tough and vulnerable, totally fine and completely destroyed. She is free, but trapped. Dominant, powerless. She wants this, but she doesn’t. Those sorts of contradictions can be dizzying, but, in the end, they’re also the last things keeping her human. ♦

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