Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Taylor Swift The Tortured Poets Department


Historically, Taylor Swift has not been big on proper nouns. She’ll throw the names of cities into her lyrics, and sometimes she’ll specify neighborhoods or parks or streets. Every once in a while, she’ll toss in a namecheck, like James Taylor on “Begin Again.” But most of her songs are about the relationships between an obvious “I” and an unspecified “you.” The identity of that “you” is rarely secret.

Swift has often pulled cute little tricks — capitalizing letters in her lyric sheets, for instance, to spell out already-obvious meanings. (Last night, she brought that convention back for “thanK you aIMee,” her latest bonus track about how she’s still not over the whole Kim-and-Kanye situation.) If you’re a casual fan, maybe these are just songs that you like. Maybe you don’t even think about the identity of their subjects. If you’re an obsessive fan, you can map out every “you” on every Swift song. Increasingly, Taylor Swift does not have casual fans. Maybe that’s why she’s using so many proper nouns now.

On her new album The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor Swift reels off a few place names — Manhattan, London, LA, Florida, Texas, Destin — but those aren’t the proper nouns I’m talking about. I’m talking about the names that show us Taylor Swift’s frame of reference, the names that carry much of the lyrics’ weight. Dylan Thomas. Patti Smith. The Chelsea Hotel. Charlie Puth. Lucy and Jack — no last names given, but I think we’re supposed to understand that she means Dacus and Antonoff. Peter — no last name again, but she’s definitely using Peter Pan as a literary device. Sarahs, Hannahs, and various other first names used for generic purposes — these ones don’t have last names, but they’re just stand-ins, for actual people, for an ex’s potential hookups, or for the disapproving “wine moms” in Swift’s audience. Kens, as in the boyfriends of Barbies. The Blue Nile and “The Downtown Lights.” God, a bunch of times, though never in a worshipful sense. A Jehovah’s Witness suit. The Starting Line. Aston Martin. Cassandra. American Pie. Aristotle, which rhymes with “touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto.” Clara Bow. Stevie Nicks in ’75. Taylor Swift.

That last name, making its first appearance in the lyrics of a Taylor Swift song, pops up at the end of “Clara Bow.” It’s the last song on the proper-album first half of The Tortured Poets Department, and it might also be the best. On that one, Swift stops singing about matters of the heart, breakups and forbidden urges and so forth, and instead considers the dreams of some small-town artist who longs to stun the world. She takes meetings, and people tell her the things that she wants to hear. Maybe they’re blowing smoke up her ass, or maybe she really is a world-changing force waiting to happen. Either way, superstardom sounds empty: “You’re the new god we’re worshipping… It’s hell on earth to be heavenly/ Them’s the breaks, they don’t come gently.” Then, someone pays this person a noteworthy compliment: “You look like Taylor Swift in this light, we’re lovin’ it/ You’ve got edge she never did/ The future’s bright, dazzling.”

“Clara Bow” is probably about someone specific, and plenty of people will have fun speculating who. But that’s not really the point, is it? The point, seems to me, is that Taylor Swift, at least on some level, is ready for somebody else to pick up the burden of being Taylor Swift. This is a surprise. For more than half the time that she has been on this planet, Taylor Swift has endured levels of public attention that would reduce most people to gibbering insanity. In all of recorded history, very few musicians have achieved the level of omni-cultural presence that now belongs to Taylor Swift. My grandmother died a few months ago. She was 103 — old enough to remember horse-drawn buggies and silent films and polio. The last conversation that we ever had was about Taylor Swift. My grandma was a pretty plugged-in person, even at the end of her life, but it’s not like she ever asked me about Drake or Morgan Wallen or Olivia Rodrigo or anyone else who was operating in the pop-music space after her 100th birthday. But she knew Taylor. Everyone knows Taylor.

In the face of all of this attention, or even just a fraction of this attention, most people would go bugshit fucking nuts. We’ve seen different variations on that story again and again. Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson have complicated and divisive legacies, but I think we can all agree that they were not normal people. Taylor Swift has always conveyed the impression that she’s a normal person. It’s her superpower. She was able to play a main-character role in this year’s Super Bowl without ever touching a football, and she still has millions and millions of fans who think of her as a friend, whether or not she’s ever met them. Last summer, I watched Swift perform a fascinating mix of gratitude and pride as tens of thousands screamed their heads off for her. She does that again and again, night after night in city after city.

On her new album, Taylor Swift would like us to know that this was an act. She wants us to know that she’s a big weirdo, a crazy-passionate self-saboteur who has come to resent the gilded prison of overwhelming fame. She’s worked so hard and done so much, and as a result, millions of people feel entitled to tut-tut her life choices. That’s the message that I’m taking from The Tortured Poets Department, anyway. That’s a pretty interesting message, but it would be more interesting if it came attached to some bangers.

Taylor Swift was writing bangers before she was old enough to drive a car. Through every stage of her career, she’s made bangers. More than anything else, those bangers are the reason why people care about Swift’s personal life. Whenever she’s encountered a transcendent moment of joy, heartbreak, anger, fear, confusion, exhilaration, or anything else, her response has been to write a banger about it. But now, the lore has come to swallow the music. With some exceptions, the songs on The Tortured Poets Department are simply not strong enough to support the weight of all that fucking storyline. It’s starting to feel like the lore is all we have. It’s not enough.

It seems that Taylor Swift has found her aesthetic comfort zone. This is a problem. Musically, Swift has fallen into a holding pattern of soft-thrumming synthpop and even softer quasi-folk. The sounds and patterns — the gentle keyboard twinkles, the tick-tock drum machines, the shivery chords, the murmuring multi-tracked backup vocals — are all played out. Swift is still working with Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, the two collaborators who have been helping her steer the ship for at least the past half-decade. (This time, Antonoff worked on most of the proper Tortured Poets Department, while Dessner assisted on the bulk of the second disc tacked on to last night’s surprise drop The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.) Swift continues to sing almost everything in her sleepy, whispery, conversational lower register, going for some version of Lana Del Rey’s languor. The sound is pretty. It’s rich and pillowy and reassuring and low-energy, and it’s what we’ve heard from her over and over. In the past, Taylor Swift albums have presented some new idea, some sonic progression or wrinkle. At least for now, that’s over. Swift remains in the Midnights zone, and what we get is what we get.

Now: Taylor Swift can write a song. You know that. You know that even if you’re pretending that you don’t. The tracks on Tortured Poets are, for the most part, immaculately constructed. Some of the bridges absolutely kill. The quietest songs still build up to soft-thunder finales that can be truly gorgeous. The production offers almost nothing new, but there’s a whole lot of beauty in its genteel layers. On “Down Bad,” Swift crams in tons of syllabic syncopation without sounding like she’s trying to rap even a little bit, and she achieves the kind of offhand melodic grace that few of her would-be peers could hope to touch. The title track manages to make a full-on earworm out of its slightly labored lyrics about how you’re not Dylan Thomas and she’s not Patti Smith. Leadoff bonus track “The Black Dog” clashes Swift’s recent production style with her old-school Nashville-honed storytelling chops, and the contrast works nicely. “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart” arrives late in the proper album and presents what might be, at least for Taylor, a new aesthetic idea: A nervous, refracted house-music thump that fits her delivery and her keyboard-swirls beautifully. That song’s got a musical energy and inventiveness that I wish I heard on more of the record.

For the most part, though, The Tortured Poets Department sticks with the percolating wispiness that’s come to define too much of Taylor Swift’s music in recent years. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t grab me, either. These songs might grow on me, but on early listens, my attention wanders. That’s not a good sign. It’s especially concerning when Swift pulls the too-cute move of adding another album’s worth of bonus tracks a couple of hours after release, turning her new record into a drowsy marathon.

Swift has evidently decided that she’s not making any big musical statements with this album. Instead, she’s making all of her statements with her lyrics. The writing on Tortured Poets plays around with fictional signifiers. On opening track “Fortnight,” for example, Swift imagines herself unhappily married, living next to an also-married ex, ruminating on what might’ve been. But she’s not making up characters or stories here. She’s not singing, even obliquely, about other people. Instead, she’s chronicling a dense, chaotic period of her personal life, and she’s really getting into the messiness of it all. If only the messiness came through in the music.

For all the proper nouns that appear in the Tortured Poets lyrics, there are a few people who Taylor Swift never directly names. It would be fun to pretend that we don’t know who’s she’s singing about — picturing Travis Kelce banging away at an antique typewriter in some corner of Swift’s apartment — but that stuff should all be immediately plain to anyone who’s even halfway been paying attention. On many of these songs, Swift sings about the end of a relationship and the blame that must be portioned out in the aftermath: “You say I abandoned the ship, but I was going down with it/ My white-knuckle dying grip holding tight to your quiet resentment.” You know who she’s talking about there.

Elsewhere, Swift sings about a giddy whirlwind affair with a charismatic dirtbag: “He was chaos, he was revelry/ Bedroom eyes like a remedy.” You know who that is, too. That dalliance goes to some fun places in little sketches that feel like they must’ve happened in real life: “You tried to buy some pills from a friend of friends of mine/ They just ghosted you/ Now you know what it feels like.” Travis Kelce, the third guy in this equation and the only one who has no evident sad-artist sensibility, only gets a few vaguely sly big-game allusions on “The Alchemy” and the aforementioned Aristotle/Grand Theft Auto rhyme on the pretty-good bonus track “So High School.” That song makes this guy seem like a blessed relief, but it’s frankly difficult to imagine Swift conjuring flowery language to describe any experiences that she might be having with him.

The whole poetry angle behind The Tortured Poets Department — the Spotify-stamped parchment being strategically placed in places where it’ll be photographed, the actual poems being promoted — is probably the least interesting thing about the record. It’s not really all that important to the final product, but Swift brings major English-teacher energy to some of her writing here: “My friends all smell like weed or little babies,” the line about “sanctimoniously performing soliloquies.” Some of that stuff is a little bit much, but it’s overwritten in an endearing way. The Swift lyrics that initially grate often reveal themselves to be the most fun ones after multiple listens. I like that she’s really trying with that stuff. More than that, I like that she’s now directing some of those lyrics at her fans.

The people sanctimoniously performing soliloquies? Those are the Swifties, the people who profess to love Taylor Swift. They are the people who have made her a billionaire and who now have extremely-online parasocial relationships with her. They’re the ones devoting vast numbers of Reddit threads to her romantic decisions. If I’m reading Tortured Poets right, Swift is sick of this arrangement. Again and again, she sings about the “most judgmental creeps who say they want what’s best for me,” the village elders telling some guy to stay away from her, and the gilded cage that she once liked just fine. There are only so many ways that one can interpret this line: “I’ll tell you something right now, I’d rather burn my whole life down than listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning.” That’s a bar. Like so many of us, Taylor Swift is tired of the Taylor Swift discourse.

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Swift would never cop to this in an interview or an Instagram post or anything, but The Tortured Poets Department sure comes off as a record about falling in love with Matty Healy and then feeling bottomless contempt for the public disapproval that — again, my interpretation — forced them to break up. Healy comes across as a real dickhead in certain lyrics — “You said normal girls were boring, but you were gone by the morning/ You kicked out the stage lights, but you’re still performing” — but she mostly sings about him with lust and adoration. It also can’t be a coincidence that Tortured Poets sounds a lot like a recent 1975 album.

But there I go again, talking about the narrative rather than the music. The sheer voluminous weight of all that fucking lore keeps forcing its way in there because the music can’t push through the noise that surrounds it. It’s frustrating. Taylor Swift is singing about rage and lust and passion over music that evokes none of those things. It’s an album that you can play pretty loud late at night without worrying about waking up anyone else in your house. “Florida!!!,” a mid-album Florence Welch duet with a lot of half-baked Bible-belt imagery, doesn’t earn one of the exclamation marks in its title, let alone all three. I wish I could hear those exclamation marks.

Tortured Poets sounds like an album of bonus tracks, songs that will probably sound a lot better when Swift plays solo-piano renditions of them at her stadium shows. Maybe she’ll even get to play more surprise songs, and maybe that’ll allow her to sit down a little bit longer during a live show that’s physically exhausting even when you’re just watching it. I like Taylor Swift bonus tracks, but I’ve gotten a lot of them over the past few years, and she has just dropped another 31 of them — a same-sounding chunk that lasts for more than two hours and almost never cranks the energy-level up. It’s excessive.

At least judging by early online reaction, a lot of people have been waiting for a chance to turn on Taylor Swift. A sizable portion of the public is not rooting for the anti-hero. This was probably inevitable. Swift is as overexposed as a celebrity can possibly be today. She’s broken every record and won every award. She’s not an underdog. She’s an overdog. She’s the overdog. If anything, The Tortured Poets Department steers into the inevitable backlash. Taylor Swift isn’t exactly pulling a Doja Cat, telling her fans that she’s not their friend, but she’s doing her own version of that move. I can’t remember another moment when a gigantic stadium-status superstar made such a quiet, inward album about how all their entitled fans won’t let them fuck who they want. That’s interesting. A lot the meta-text stuff around Tortured Poets is interesting — the proper nouns, the concrete allusions, the frustrated longing at its core. Too bad about the songs.

The Tortured Poets Department is out now on Republic.

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