For you see, it all comes back to the Lover house.

And with that, I become one of those mad women who perform augury on lyrics to divine tour dates. I keep saying, “I’m not one of those Taylor Swift fans” in exactly the same tone of voice as “I’m not one of those Christians.”

Nevertheless, evidence suggests that my girlhood is defined by repeatedly outgrowing and returning to Taylor Swift. And, perhaps ironically or intentionally, the theme of obsessive return dominates The Tortured Poets Department, to the album’s detriment. 

The album is repetitive. Words, themes, stories, musical motifs recall familiar bops, now shaded and jaded.

“So Long, London” seems an obvious foil to “London Boy,” or at least a bookend to it. “But Daddy I Love Him” is “Love Story” all over again, now with judgmental church imagery, anger, and a more realistic epilogue. “thanK you aIMee” is a more pointed “Mean.” “The Albatross” repeats the feel and musical motifs of “willow.” “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me” mixes the monstrous imagery of “Anti-Hero” with the narrative elements of mad women, crashed parties, scandals, and houses from “Last Great American Dynasty.”

The varnish on the autobiographical details in this album seems particularly thin in fact, the way the symbols in teenage poetry make up for what they lack in originality and subtle with feeling and verve.

“I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” is about the break-up that kicked off the Eras Tour. This heartbreak at the highpoint seems to be the genesis of the album. And this track certainly evokes the dazzling pop Lover house backdrop. 

That Barbie Dream House structure looms over Tortured Poets as it did over the Eras Tour.

Once so tenderly described as a place of year-round Christmas lights and cozy hospitality in the song, “Lover,” the house has become a location of abandonment or imprisonment in Tortured Poets. References to houses and homes occur in almost every song. 

In “I Look in People’s Windows,” the shortest song on the album and an unexpected gem, the singer peers into houses during Christmas dinner looking for her ex-lover. It’s a piercing, tight tragedy that accomplishes more through brevity than the rest of the album does through repetition. In this song, Swift is outside looking in. In several other songs, she’s locked inside the house.

In “Fresh Out the Slammer,” the parallels to songs on Lover are slathered on with the subtlety of a landlord applying white paint. The song references porch lights, “the girl of his American dreams,” “imaginary rings,” and going home to a lover. The sweet lyrics contradict the clear message that the formerly dream-like relationship has become a prison—the slammer. 

Swift has sung about chafing romantic or domestic expectations before: “Only kinda girl they see is a one-night or a wife” (“Lavender Haze”). 

Clearly, Swift feels confined inside the dollhouse. It’s juvenile, and she is outgrowing it. Her ex-lover is not. That’s the problem. Swift refers to her ex-lover repeatedly in juvenile terms, like “baby.” “My Boy Breaks All His Favorite Toys”:

I felt more when we played pretend
Than with all the Kens
Cause he took me out of my box
Stole my tortured heart 

Swift paints a picture of a limiting pretend universe. The sweet becomes sinister in constraint. She doesn’t want to be a play thing. And while he remains stuck in childhood, in a childish dream he seeks to impose on her, she is losing her innocence, burdened with emotional labor.

The earlier tracks on this theme are angry, but “Peter,” which appears late on the album, is the best articulation.

“Peter” is about Peter Pan. The chorus repeats, “you said you were gonna grow up then you were gonna come find me” three times. He didn’t keep his promise.

Like the broken vow, the loss of innocence is one of Swift’s favorite themes. Sometimes innocence is symbolized in a childhood escape that has been left behind. She clearly tries to recreate these fantasy lands in her work, as she says in “I Hate It Here”: “I will go to secret gardens in my mind.”

“I Hate It Here” is the thesis of the album and it should have been the first track. The themes of innocence, escape, and art that comes out of heartbreak are braided together. 

Overall, the album works, especially as an examination of what it means to outgrow a person, a place, a dream—bittersweet. But Tortured Poets is too long, messy, and overwrought. It feels, in both good and bad ways, girlish. 

I think I like this album because it feels so much like the agonies and clichés I wrote as a teenager, when we were all tortured artists, scrawling brilliance in frantic spurts of bloody feeling.

The tortured poet is an overdone trope. Makes me wonder if the title is a little tongue-in-cheek. I want to believe Taylor Swift is more self-aware and does not see herself, really, as a tortured artist. That title just doesn’t ring true on a billionaire pop icon.

Instead, I think this is a whole album about the youthful, messy feeling of making art out of experiences. I think she clues us into this in what is rightfully the final song on the album: “The Manuscript.”

At first blush, the song is “All Too Well” again. We know it all too well to miss it so thinly veiled. In the story, early, painful heartbreak is the source of hard-learned lessons and artistic expression. Swift has made this experience into multiple songs, versions of songs, and a star-studded short film. 

In “The Manuscript,” a character called “the professor” tells the protagonist to “write what you know.” The Tortured Poets Department follows that advice. It follows all the steps of slowly refining experiences and themes through repetitive creation until we get to the last handful of truly good songs. 

This is what Swift does: she filters relatable experiences of love and loss through a lens of girlhood, carefully cut from rose-tinted crystal. She spins the lens and we project doll houses, dream boys, fractured fairy tales, societal standards, secrets, performance, young love and fresh heartbreak, revenge on the bullies, sex appeal, and innocence.

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