On The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor Swift Has Grown Up, Is Telling the Truth and Letting Go of the Past

Maybe you start at the end to make sense of the beginning. “Clara Bow,” the opening track on Taylor Swift’s wildly anticipated new album, traces the crystal in circles until the “next young heroine” can run, screaming at the same tone as the expensive glass. The lovely, ethereal “Bow”—which praises the authenticity and freshness of the newest young diva—also invokes Stevie Nicks, as well as a meta Taylor, all soon to be emulated and replaced. Ahhh, the wages of the female supernova.

Once upon a time, Swift probably filled the margins of notebooks with snatches of Nicks’ lyrics the same way young girls have tattooed their own schoolbooks with Swift’s lines. Making real life reflect dreams, The Tortured Poets Department opens not with a song, but a poem by no less than the double Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee. “For T — and me...” weighs the delusions, realities and truths of being a female artist in the throes of love and creative transformation, never quite blaming, but utterly clear-eyed.

And so it is with TTPD, which sifts through seemingly an entire lifetime of romantic—and on the teasingly taunting “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” business—(mis)adventures. It is canny, measured, confessional. Having spent most of her career emptying her diaries into collections of songs, the 14-time Grammy winner delivers 17 songs that merge her recent work with the personal pearl diving that’s made her the voice of a generation.

At times, a bit of a fluttering mess, but ultimately, utterly true to the music and woman driving its life. People may obsess playing tic-tac-toe of the supporting characters, but what matters: she’s honed in on melodies that swirl around the listener, drawing them closer—and found an edge.

That is part of what compels and repels: that game of pin-the-tail-on-the-paramour. Remember, this is a young woman who brought Carly Simon, rock’s ultimate secret keeper, out for a vampy “You’re So Vain” at Gillette Stadium, so the drama of mystery is a commodity she understands. But there’s also the matter of privacy, of keeping something for yourself. Where is the line of owed versus offered? Sharing with fans versus devoured by entitled hordes?

“I just found these people try to save you—because they hate you,” she half-whispers on “But Daddy I Love Him.” There is duplicity everywhere, those who say one thing, but feel another. And for a barely teen chasing the dream, there are the stains of how she came into adulthood, which she concedes later in the same song, “Growing up precocious sometimes means not growing up at all.

Just as Midnights and Folklore broke from the sleek pop gleam and almost self-mutilating lyrics people craved, it was only a matter of time until Swift spun it all into a superTay cocktail of expansive songwriting with hooks that embedded and confessional lyrics that clawed to the bone. Tortured Poet’s delivers on those, profoundly.

Beyond the wiseass tweaking of compounding the declaration “But daddy I love him” with the checkmate announcement of a pregnancy that isn’t (“You should see your faces”), she reminds people that it is her life. HER life, full stop. She will live it on her terms.

Agency is something women can’t take as a given. Not anymore. Beyond the political restrictions of a woman’s autonomy over her body, there’s the trend of men punching random women in the face—and running. So to think a female can think, act, believe for one’s self?

“I’m telling you something right now, I’d rather burn my whole life down / Than listen to one more second of all this / bitching and moaning / I’ll tell you one thing about my good name / It’s mine alone to disgrace / I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing.”

It’s a siren’s claim on her own life; crash on these rocks if you choose. “Fresh From The Slammer,” “The Alchemy,” “Guilty As Sin?” all make the case for pick who you want, sleep with who you please, feel the hard shudder of release. “Down Bad” metaphors an alien abduction with a lover who ghosts, her own rage at herself for wanting what she wants—and dropping F-bombs like $100s at the craps table. Indeed, the gently churning “Fortnight,” which opens the album, features a pensive Post Malone as the man she had a raging affair with; now coping with his and his wife’s presence in her neighborhood is triggering.

Who does one trust? Who do you believe? People say so many things, and yet—here she is shards of “loml” (love/loss of my life) and other promises, caving into her feelings like razors contrasting the lullingly tender, piano-anchored arrangement. “I Can Fix Him (No, Really I Can),” with its a sinister, minor key, suggests the doomed delusion of the vulgarities clearly seen, while “The Smallest Man In The World” has a formidable double entendre to the punch that lands as much in the groin as in the details, like the confessional “You said ‘normal girls are boring,’” as the arrangement builds to almost fugue-like fury before receding into the ultimate, intimate damnation, “I’ll forget you, but never forgive.”

“I Can Do It With A Broken Heart” may be the skeleton key to it all. Closest to a classic pep club Taylor single, it juxtaposes what’s seen onstage with what’s under her skin: pain, depression, rage. But the propulsive, Casio-keyboard-driven arrangement suggests a euphoria that blinds as she hits a double chorus that proclaims, “Cause I’m a real tough kid, I can handle my shit ... lights camera bitch smile, even when you want to die ... I was grinning like I’m winning, I was hitting my marks, cause I can do it with a broken heart,” before painting the true state of mind, “I’m so depressed I act like it’s my birthday, every day,” and later, “I cry a lot, but I’m so productive.”

Beyond the who’s who—and there are plenty of Frankenparamours, amalgams of the men in her life behind the metaphors and references—powerful truths about being a woman at any age, but especially coming of age in this time of social media and instant judgment drive Poets. A cascade of reckoning, not just with cads, but what it means to be single, successful and in the spotlight, judged without being known and finding your own truth in the glare, Swift throws down what can only be known by living it. Equally radical—on “The Manuscript,” one of the bonus tracks—she recounts in script form the conversations that led to the entire full-life examination, from the older man who shouldn’t have gone there to dating boys her own age “with dartboards on the backs of their doors,” the man’s deflection of blame because she “was so wise beyond her years, everything had been above board” and her own in that later moment realization, “she wasn’t sure.”

It’s not an excuse, but leveling up. She is here now. It had all happened. She endured it, invited it, explored it, felt it. But as the strings lowed, and the keys rippled, she knew, “And at last / She knew what the agony had been for.”

To get caught up in the name game is to miss a supreme cri de coeur, one that allows for mistakes, chasing one’s hormones or heart, finding that wanting it to work won’t make it work. For Swift, agency is the ultimate destination. That agency includes a sense of humor about it all, whether announcing she and the tattooed golden retriever aren’t Dylan Thomas and Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel on the title track or joking about outrunning one’s past or regrets with Florence Welch on the screechy, slightly crazed “Florida,” an escape of tinny elation and little substance.

For a serious work of art, and this is perhaps the album stans have waited for, Swift delivers an album where she weighs and measures all that has happened. An honesty about what she wanted and why, and even knowing better, exonerates the humanity within any woman chasing a dream or desire, but it also offers freedom from the person people expect her to be.

As is Taylor’s way, she holds people accountable with direct telling. But it’s damning by the details, not calling names for the sake of names. In her “summation,” the written afterword, she pleads temporary insanity from the unnatural way her life has been shaped, but she also honors and owns it all:

“It was a mutual manic phase.
It was self harm.
It was house and then cardiac arrest.
A smirk creeps onto the poet’s face
Because it’s the worst men that I write the best.

And so I enter into evidence
My tarnished coat of arms
My muses, acquired like bruises
My talismans and charms
The tick, tick, tick of love bombs
My veins of pitchblack ink.
All’s fair in love and poetry.”

As “The Manuscript” starts to fade, she confesses in her softest voice, “Now and then, I re-read the manuscript / But the story isn’t mine / anymore.”

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