Taylor Swift’s The Tortured Poets Departments: The Anthology Review

Taylor Swift reigns supreme as literary queen and department head on The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.

Released this past Friday, The Tortured Poets Department, which quickly (note, within two hours) became The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, has already broken all-time streaming records including most streams by one album in a single day on Spotify, with over 300 million streams, and most streams by a single track in one day on Spotify (“Fortnight” ft. Post Malone). Anyone across the globe could explain that this comes as no shock, as Swift’s Swifties have always been ravenous for her work, and she is currently what many would call a musical phenomenon unlike any of her contemporaries. However, what still comes as an enigma is the way Swift continues to outdo herself.

The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology comes in the form of 31 tracks, and not one of them is simply filler. Each serves a purpose, adds another thread to the tapestry that she has woven with this work. With recurring motifs of celestial bodies, oceans and waves, magic, games, imprisonment, and of course, love, power, and heartbreak, Swift has created a two hour, two minute, and twenty one second masterpiece. She potentially alludes to great literary works, authors, characters, and pieces of cinema throughout the album, but only subtly enough for those who are truly reading her poetic lyrics to recognize – this album is more than Swift’s creativity. It is an homage to many works before it, and it is a beacon of gleaming light highlighting Swift’s media literacy as an artist herself. After all, one could not be the Chair of the Tortured Poets Department without being an art connoisseur herself.

“Fortnight” (feat. Post Malone) is a beautifully-written track that sounds like wispy strands of magic – the result of Jack Antonoff’s twinkling, synthetic production style, Swift & Malone’s voices layered delicately over one another, and lyrics somewhere between an “I Love You” and an “I Hate You.” To compare loving someone without it being reciprocated to Mondays stuck in an endless February is not just a great parallel, it also can be seen as a subtle nod to Groundhog Day (1993), which takes place on, you guessed it, Mondays repeating in an endless February in Swift’s home state of Pennsylvania. Alongside this, in the Fortnight music video, Swift gives tribute to Dead Poets Society (1989) when she is seen being treated with electroshock therapy by Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles. Another question to consider is whether the electroshock treatment itself is an homage to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – a film about doing anything to forget your former love.

Swift also chooses to not only recount others’ art in her own – she very often interpolates her own older works into her new ones sonically, as well as using plenty of lyrical allusions, and even visual ones. In “So Long, London” she gives up CPR, after previously saying she couldn’t find a pulse on Midnights’ “Your Losing Me,” which makes the two tracks feel more like volumes of a series than just songs on two albums. In “Guilty as Sin?” she refers to her bedsheets being ablaze as she fantasizes about an unnamed him, something she has used as a visual during “Wildest Dreams” on her current Eras Tour. But she also includes some more obscure references to her prior work. For instance, part-way through “Fresh Out the Slammer,” you begin to hear the beat that mimics that of both “False God” and “Wildest Dreams”.

While many would like to focus on the who’s who and what’s what that’s being alluded to on Taylor’s tracks, it is important to note that regardless of who is being implicated, it is not up to the media and fans and haters to be the judge, jury, and executioner. To boil a work so multi-faceted and heart-wrenching down into a string of diss tracks frankly crass and careless, especially when the work is so detail-oriented, and every crossed t and dotted i carries such heavy weight. Swift says it herself time and time again.

Photo by Beth Garrabrant

In “But Daddy I Love Him,” she says I’ll tell you something right now / I’d rather burn my whole life down / Than listen to one more second of all this bitchin’ and moanin’ / I’ll tell you something ‘bout my good name / It’s mine alone to disgrace / I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing as well as God save the most judgmental creeps / Who say they want what’s best for me / Sanctimoniously performing soliloquies I’ll never see / Thinking’ it can change the beat / Of my heart when he touches me. She has made it clear here that writing think-pieces about her relationship status, her career moves, or her personal life, does not change the decisions she will make. As an adult woman, it is trivial to expect her to give up any semblance of normalcy based on the court of public opinion, and this is a message she has delivered both firmly and flawlessly.

The topic does not stop there, however, as she continues to address public opinion and the double-edged sword of being one of the most notable women in the world in tracks “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?,” “Clara Bow,” and “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.”

On “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” Swift says she was “tame and gentle” until the circus life made her mean – and later implies that she has been hanged like a witch on the gallows (a potential allusion to Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, a timeless, witchy romance) and escaped, has been caged, controlled, and abused like a circus animal, and even makes the statement “You wouldn’t last an hour in the asylum where they raised me,” implying that growing into adulthood as a cultural icon is something absolutely not for the faint of heart. She reads off a list of slimy comments and derogatory claims that mimic those that have been said about her time and time again – that she’ll sue someone for stepping on her lawn, that she’s drunk on her tears, and so on and so forth. But then, in the most cathartic, Taylor Swiftian fashion, she credits those who have controlled her, manipulated her, and devastated her for making her the fearless, brave, and so much stronger than ever (also see “thanK you aIMee” for similar themes).

In “Clara Bow,” Swift recounts a string of some of the most successful women of all time being compared (first as a compliment), then one-upped as we go through the song. First it’s an unknown entertainer (musician, actress) being compared Clara Bow, then to Stevie Nicks, and then finally, to Taylor Swift, herself. She has come to realize that she is on that same level, and one day there will be girls who are compared to her, the way she has been compared to so many others, but they will pave their own way, just as she has, just as Stevie Nicks did, just as Clara Bow did.

“I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” is a saccharine-melodied, fast-paced track with Antonoff’s fingerprints all over it, and it is the embodiment of one of the many dark sides of stardom, and the complexity of walking on the sharpened edge of that sword. Swift recounts pushing through performances with a smile on her face, her choreography on point, her hitting every mark, while being absolutely gutted internally: Lights, camera, bitch smile / In stilettos for miles / He said he’d love me for all time / But that time was quite short / Breaking down I hit the floor / All the pieces of me shattered / As the crowd was chanting “MORE!” / I was grinning like I was winning / I was hitting my marks / Cause I can do it with a broken heart. Though she has chosen to be a performer, there is a high price that comes with having to put on your best show for your fans who are over the moon for you, while also privately experiencing your worst heartbreak, or the loss of your life as she describes it in “loml.” It ties right back into her circus animal analogy in “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” and is both heartbreaking and a thorough representation of what a magnificent performer she is.

With The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, she has put her ink pen where her mouth is, and has made sure each critic, regardless of who they are, knows exactly where she stands. She is no one’s toy, no one’s plaything, placeholder, or wind-up doll. She is an artist, and one who continues to do what she does best – offer up a breathtaking view into the garden of her mind.

It is a cumbersome task to truly digest an album of such great length – even ten listens through, there will still be new discoveries being made by listeners, because Swift is methodical, meticulous, and has such acute attention to detail in her writing. She is, above all else, a writer. A songwriter, a poet. And it shows – in the way her songs flow with universal truths in waves from one track to the next – it shows.

In regards to The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, Swift, as a true poet, so strongly rooted in her album’s theme, has just delivered (pun intended…) the manuscript for a beautifully assembled adventure. A modernized, hybridized Greek tragedy and epic. She checks every box, beginning with a prologue (poem “For T and Me…” by Stevie Nicks), followed by a tale where our characters are introduced in episodes of agonizing heartbreak (“loml,” “So Long, London,” “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”), sepulchral tones (“How Did It End?”), and immovable determination to fight against fate (“The Prophecy”). In the midst of this winding tale of woe, we also see light shed on the glorious moments created by both past and present-tense romance. Moments of innocence and youth (in tracks like “So High School”), moments of sexuality and passion (“Guilty as Sin?”), and moments of blissful chemistry and magic against any and all odds (“But Daddy I Love Him,” “The Alchemy”), are all intertwined, creating an exquisite image of love.

Ponderings and reflections of wisdom, growth, innocence, and reinvention also make up quite a hefty portion of the album, and they are just as much a haven for Swift’s lyricism, imagery, and melodies to sparkle and shine.

“Florida!!!” (feat. Florence + The Machine) may hold the title of Swift’s best collaboration to date – with a pulsing beat that radiates behind Swift’s soft and sultry vocals on the introduction, and then an amazing crescendo into the chorus, “Florida!!!” crashes like an ocean wave and does not hold anything back. Florence Welch comes in solo on verse two, and her fierce, sweet, raw vocals cut like a knife, making the story that is being told one that is even more arresting than it already was from the start. There’s always a risk that comes with collaboration, but combining her own skills with that of another performer who also shares such a refined, strong vision was an incredible move.

Photo by Beth Garrabrant

In songs like “thanK you aIMee,” Swift looks back on adversity and acknowledges that though the song’s antagonist, Aimee, may have gone out of her way to harm Swift, all she did was give Swift an opportunity for resilience and growth, both of which have paid off as she has become who she is today. “Cassandra” alludes to the myth of Cassandra, a Trojan priestess who was fated to bring true prophecy but never be believed – perhaps an allegory for the moments in her own life where she has warned others about experiences she’s had, and has not been believed, later to see the same experiences happen to others. Songs like “The Bolter” discuss the idea of being a “runaway bride” of sorts, in a very gentle, casual way – whereas “The Albatross” also discusses the protagonist as a heartbreaker, but more intensely, as being “sent to destroy you.” Tracks like “Peter” and “Robin” feel like odes to childhood, “Peter” alluding to Peter Pan, who is known for his immortality and childlike mentality, and his permanent lack of maturity. This serves as a letter to a lost love who still has some maturing to do, while “Robin,” (note, the name of producer Aaron Dessner’s son), simply feels like a love letter to childhood and innocence itself.

Swift is a multi-faceted storyteller, and knows exactly how to conclude her tales. “The Manuscript,” a stripped-down piano piece, gives account of a fiery romance and heartbreak of a lifetime, and ends with The only thing that’s left is the manuscript / One last souvenir from my trip to your shores // Now and then I re-read the manuscript / But the story isn’t mine anymore. This concludes her tale, and to further drive her point home, fans who possess physical copies will find a Letter from the Chairman of the Tortured Poets Department (Swift herself) as a prologue. In true Shakespearean approach, she gives her conclusion and farewell, and it is one that will leave fans and critics alike so entirely awestruck.

The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology is truly work of art like no other, and one that is technically well-done, unabashedly heartfelt, and strikingly beautiful.

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