Since 1923 • For a greater Loyola

The Maroon

Since 1923 • For a greater Loyola

The Maroon

Since 1923 • For a greater Loyola

The Maroon

“The Tortured Poets Department” review: Swift at her most vulnerable

Courtesy of Taylor Swift

As a new inductee of the Tortured Poets Department, my first order of business: a deep dive into the chairman’s 16-track composition of tortured, heart-wrenching, (and sometimes shady) poetry, lyricism, and masterful storytelling – a strength Taylor Swift has always been able to deliver to dedicated fans and casual listeners alike.

With this new black and white era, Swift gives us her most visceral, honest works yet. The artist has often described her work as “painfully autobiographical,” but with the pandemic “folklore” and “evermore” eras, she introduced us to her ability to transform fictional characters and scenarios into songs that would move us all.

“The Tortured Poets Department” seems to establish a black and white balance of fictional storytelling and autobiography, as many Swifties know of her devastating split from actor Joe Alwyn after six years, her summer fling with The 1975’s highly-problematic Matty Healy, and of course, her whirlwind romance with the guy on the (Kansas City Chiefs) football team Travis Kelce.

So without further ado, I call this meeting in order to discuss TS11, “The Tortured Poets Department.”

Fortnight (ft. Post Malone) – 8/10

Admittedly, I was least excited for this song, but I should’ve known that Swift wouldn’t have made this the album’s leading track, which she’s proven with her past work that the first track sets the tone for the entire body of work. “Fortnight” was no exception, along with the music video, which serves as a visual representation of the album’s thesis, if you will. Again, even after the first listen, I wasn’t a fan of this song, but after a few listens, the shock settled, and the serendipity of Swift and Malone’s vocals became the opening track’s best feat.

The Tortured Poets Department – 6.5/10

At nearly five minutes, the titular track has some pretty absurd lyrics, including how Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist, a tattooed golden retriever, and getting high and eating seven chocolate bars. But the song’s length and unconventional lyrics add to its charm. It may not be for everyone, but it has heart, even if it is tortured.

My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys – 9.5/10

The chorus of the song has been ringing in my head since my first listen. Swift’s vocals in this are immaculate. The only thing that could make this song better would be a hard-hitting bridge that Swift is best known for but even without it, this is one of the best tracks.

Down Bad – 10/10

“Down Bad” is one Swift’s most vulnerable songs, wherein she sings about the reality and complexity of heartbreak, including crying at the gym, saying “fuck it, if I can’t have him.” Lyrically, this song is one of Swift’s most simple songs, which is incredible considering the punch it packs, but this, I believe, can be credited to longtime collaborator of Swift, Jack Antonoff and his stellar production skills. When Swift and Antonoff get in the studio together, they never fail to produce Grammy-winning greatness, and this track is no exception.

So Long, London – 7/10

Since the beginning of Swift’s career, she’s deemed the track five spot on her albums the saddest of the collection. And of course, when this not-so-subtle follow-up track to 2019’s “London Boy” on her glitter gel pen album “Lover,” most Swifties had already clocked this song as the break-up song that would narrate and provide a lens for the dissolution of Swift’s longtime relationship with London boy, Alwyn, whom she said so long to just before she embarked on her record-breaking “eras” tour. With the song’s widely-known meaning, I was anticipating one of Swift’s most heart-breaking tracks – an “all too well” track for TTPD. While it’s definitely one of Swift’s best, it didn’t stand out to me amongst the other remarkable tracks on the album. And it also didn’t feel deserving of the distinguishable track five spot, as there were “sadder” songs on the album, but I think Swift knew this. She intentionally chose this song to affirm the departure from the man who inspired “Lover,” which seemed of greater importance given her most romantic songs and lyrics had been written about the love that they shared; however, Swift wants us to know that that chapter of her life is closed, and she’s saying so long, London.

But Daddy I Love Him – 6/10

The longest track of the album at nearly six minutes, in this song Swift returns to her country roots. If you’d said this song had been cut from the tracklist when “Fearless” was being made, I would’ve believed you. The song is speculated to be about Swift’s ridiculed relationship with Healy who has faced many allegations of sexism and racism, including against “Midnights” collaborator and friend of Swift, Ice Spice. She compares the backlash she received for her relationship from the public to that of a small town gossip mill, so it doesn’t matter. She sings that she cater to vipers in empath’s clothing; it’s all just “white noise” to her because at the end of the day it’s her “choice,” and after all, she loves him. Regardless, the best (and most unhinged) part of the song is when Swift sings that she’s “havin’ his baby” before immediately saying, “No, I’m not, but you should see your faces.”
I’d also like to point out an alternate fan theory that the song is about Kelce and the response she’s received that her relationship is all for publicity or that they’re too different for each other. But as she said to Time earlier in the year, she doesn’t care about pissing off a few “dads, Brads, and Chads,” and she seems to double down on that sentiment in this song calling out “Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday best.”
But the most emphatic lyrics are in the post chorus, “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.”

Fresh Out the Slammer – 9/10

This song is also speculated to be about Healy, as she compares her relationship with Alwyn as imprisonment which he disguised as privacy. To which Swift further responds by singing that fresh out the slammer, she knows who she’ll call because she served her time. And in the bridge, she says, “Ain’t no way I’m gonna screw up now that I know what’s at stake here”

Florida!!! [ft. Florence + the Machine (and Emma Stone)] – 10/10

The moment I found out Swift was collaborating with Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine, I knew my life would never be the same – and I was right. “Florida!!!” did in fact fuck me up, just as Swift and Welch sing in the song. Swift sings about escaping one’s life and going to – you guessed it – Florida!!! In her Amazon Music track-by-track, Swift said it was inspired by the true crime show “Dateline,” where people run away to the state to start new lives. I’m not sure where the idea came to collaborate with Welch, but it’s one that is literally changing lives, especially for those of us who’ve been massive fans of both artists for years. Fans of Swift already know about her dedicated partnership with Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dessner, so many wondered about the mysterious credit to Emily Jean Stone – better known as Emma Stone – who has been friends with Swift for years and inspired “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)”’s “When Emma Falls in Love.” While it remains unknown what Stone’s actual role in the song is, we can only hope the truth will be revealed by one of the two performers very soon. In the meantime, we’ll just be grateful for whatever Stone contributed to this masterpiece and continue to be captivated by the hell of drug that is “Florida!!!”

Guilty as Sin? – 9/10

Too often with Swift’s work, I find myself overlooking some of her best work because it’s simply overshadowed by on-repeat lead singles or gut-wrenching melodies that leave me questioning my sanity. Unfortunately, “Guilty as Sin?” almost fell into that trap for me. It’s no secret that Swift can produce hits and stuck-in-your-head harmonies, but is she guilty of producing too many hits? Too many that they don’t all get to shine? “Guilty as Sin?” probably won’t be a chart-topper, but it has some of the best lyrics on the record, and her voice also shines with the toned down production. This song contains some of Swift’s best lyricism, including “I keep these longings lockеd in lowercase, inside a vault / Somеone told me, “There’s no such thing as bad thoughts, only your actions talk.”

Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me? – 10/10

In this triumphant track, Swift declares,” You don’t get to tell me about sad” and shouting, like a record scratch, “Who’s afraid of little old me?” before retorting “You should be.” This song echoes that of 2020’s “mad woman,” wherein Swift responds to critics and industry executives who call her “crazy,” even though they’re the reason she’s this way, that she has to protect her peace and artistry so earnestly.

I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can) – 9/10

Another song speculated to be about Healy, Swift claims that his jokes may be revolting and far too loud, but she can fix him (no, really, she can). This track is one of many on the album that utilizes religious imagery and ideals; in this one, Swift exhibits a God or God-like complex when declaring that she can fix him, and “your good Lord doesn’t need to lift a finger.” The shortest song on the tracklist, but it hits hard. The ending line of, “Woah, maybe I can’t” was the perfect ending to this song, and it rings true. Oftentimes, we believe we are capable of changing the people we love, but in the end, we never really can, no matter how determined or steadfast we are.

loml – 9/10

If I had a say, this song would be the album’s track five. Not only does Swift turn, “You said I’m the love of your life” into “You’re the loss of my life” in the last few seconds of the song, but this is one of the few tracks that Swift returns with a bridge that has the power to leave you shattered about something you’ve never even experienced – which is what Swift has always done best. The lyrics of the bridge are as follows “You shit-talked me under the table, talkin’ rings and talkin’ cradles / I wish I could un-recall how we almost had it all / Dancing phantoms on the terrace / Are they second-hand embarrassed / That I can’t get out of bed / ‘Cause something counterfeit’s dead? / It was legendary / It was momentary / It was unnecessary / Should’ve let it stay buried.” If those alone aren’t enough to convince you that this should’ve been the album’s track five, then maybe you don’t know Swift at all.

I Can Do It With a Broken Heart – 9.5/10

Coming at track number 13, “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” immediately follows “loml,” which is an interesting choice, but it exemplifies how Swift is moving forward, even with a broken heart. When news broke that her relationship with Alwyn had come to an end, fans has already been wondering why the British actor hadn’t made any appearances at “The Eras Tour,” and when their split was confirmed publicly, Swift was about a month into the world tour, but the artist seemed unphased, performing as if it were any other day. In this song, she sings, “I can show you lies.”

The singer’s first show post announcement was in Tampa, Florida, where she sang “Treacherous” and “Speak Now” as the city’s surprise songs. “Treacherous” is from Swift’s album “Red” and is about how love can be reckless, but she still wants it and will still follow them home, even if it’s treacherous. This is heartbreaking to look back on as Swift sings in this track, “All of the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting, ‘More.’” Also featured in the track is the audio from Swift’s in-ears during her concert performance, which contains repetitious counting and the beat of the metronome. Swift really bares her soul in this song and finally lets fans into her world in a way that she didn’t in the moment, continuing on with the show, never letting the crowd down, always giving us more.

The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived – 8/10

In this song, Swift asks someone to give a message to the “smallest man who ever lived.” The tone of this song feels bitter and cold. Swift left her gel pens in the “Midnights” era, and her quill and fountain pens did not hold back. And for the uninitiated, quill pen songs are songs Swift describes as if she was inspired to write it “after reading Charlotte Brontë or after watching a movie where everyone is wearing poet shirts and corsets,” and while fountain pen songs are similar, these are songs that are rooted in the modern day. Swift describes these songs as “confessions scribbled in an envelope, too brutally honest to ever send.” And if you ask me, “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” feels like a searing letter she wouldn’t send but instead, would write a four minute song, using a fountain pen.

The Alchemy – 9/10

Swift’s highly-publicized relationship with a Chiefs football player has made a sweet appearance in this tortured collection of music, and how the artist manages to merge football with alchemy is a true testament to her songwriting abilities. This song is poignant and again, sweet. It’s a special inclusion to this haunted album that seems to indicate a page turner in the musician’s life and artistry.

Clara Bow – 7/10

Initially, I was not the biggest fan of Miss “Clara Bow,” which is inspired by the 1920s actress of the song’s namesake. Bow was the original “it girl,” and Swift seems to look back at “it girls” of each generation from Bow to Stevie Nicks to herself, saying the future is dazzling. Although I’m not a fan of the slow, calamity that is “Clara Bow,” written and produced by Swift and Dessner, the song doesn’t diverge from Swift’s melancholy ballads in terms of sound and in message, it’s similar to that of her song “Nothing New” with Phoebe Bridgers, but it’s not a stand out in her extraordinary body of work. However, I do think its role as the album’s final track is intended to serve as a reflection of how Swift feels about her role as one of the biggest artists in the world currently and how she isn’t the first, and she knows she won’t be the last.

As for rest of the album, Swift released an additional 15 tracks in what she calls “The Anthology” at 2 a.m. on April 19, following many references to the number two, including her announcement of TTPD at the 66th annual Grammy Awards where she held up two fingers, saying she’s been working on the album for the past two years. Immediately, fans knew that this meant something because Swift is nothing if not intentional.

When “The Anthology” was released, it was in a collection with the original 16 tracks, despite being a “secret double album,” according to Swift. So I wonder if we should consider “The Tortured Poets Department” and “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology” two separate albums after all?

Regardless, “The Tortured Poets Department” is some of Swift’s most poignant work, and I’ve found myself getting lost in her lyricism and languish. Swift’s music has been the soundtrack of my life the past few years, and I’m honored to be the newest inductee of the tortured poets department. Her music and her storytelling will continue to narrate my life in ways I’ll never fully understand, but when Swift asks, “Who could stay?,” I can proudly say, “I will stay, Taylor.”

And if you want to stay, too, then click here to read my thoughts on the 15 tracks of “The Anthology.”

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About the Contributor
Maleigh Crespo
Maleigh Crespo, Editor in Chief
Maleigh Crespo serves as the Maroon's Editor in Chief. Maleigh previously served as the Maroon's  Managing Editor for Print, Design Chief, Equity and Inclusion officer, and Op/Ed editor. When she’s not writing, she can be found listening to Taylor Swift on repeat, online shopping, or feeding the squirrels in Audubon.

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    Bonnie LassApr 21, 2024 at 5:07 pm

    your thoughts help me enter Taylors thoughts and her processing system of living a life well lived and that we all struggle no matter who we are. Taylor’s sharing her life struggles r helpful especially we she moves on with her life despite pain and disappointment