The Tortured Poets Department

Kimberly: As readers of this space know, we have previously written together about all kinds of music, from country to heavy metal. We’ve had a particular focus on Taylor Swift, including attention to her film music, the recently reissued albums Speak Now and 1989, and the overall topic of Taylor’s genre-and-mind-bending variety and constant reinvention, which looks set to enter a new dimension with the upcoming April release of her 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department. Looking back on our work, it occurred to me that the “we” voice in which we’ve been writing obscures the frequent divergence and even occasional oppositionality of our reactions to music. (In private, we often find that one of us has an idea – like my notion that “Timeless” is similar to “Our Song” – that the other thinks is hilariously incorrect. Or one of us recoils from a track the other’s in the mood for, and so on). So, when Taylor made the bombshell announcement at the Grammy’s that she was releasing a brand new album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” I thought it might be more interesting for our readers if we wrote up our thoughts about it as a dialogue.

At first, I couldn’t believe Taylor had managed to write a whole album of new music while doing the Eras tour. Her tremendous energy and joy in her creative work are a huge inspiration to me, and it is one of the reasons she means so much to me. Of course, she’s also incredibly important as the artist who did the most to help my family and me recover from COVID and all that it wrought. As a person very interested in mass consciousness, I love how skilled she is at putting out song and album titles as well as images before the album release date in an attempt to get people imagining what the album is going to be like. She has such a diverse fan base that I expect different people imagine it differently. I think that in the case of the “Tortured Poets Department” her preteen fans are imagining something a cultural critic would describe as mashup of the Wednesday dance and dark academia, while their grandmothers are imagining something involving Grace Kelly (Gen-Z friends: she’s a famous actress from the fifties who married a prince). What do you think?

Sofia: I was also shocked when Taylor announced her new album. I was one of many who were anticipating the release of Reputation (Taylor’s Version), a re-recording of her 2017 album. The thought of a new album never crossed my mind, as I assumed she couldn’t possibly have the time and energy given the Eras tour. So far, fans know the names of all the songs, as well as snippets of what may be possible lyrics. Taylor is known for placing Easter Eggs and hinting at aspects of an album while still leaving a lot ambiguous. We saw this with Midnights when Taylor released the “Midnight Mayhem With Me” TikTok series. I think it is not unreasonable to expect more Easter Eggs between now and April 19th. We know that every time Taylor releases a new album, she moves into some new area of music that she hasn’t touched before.

So, what will this be? I am expecting something that builds on the country and folk elements she’s used before, but takes them in a more mature direction focusing on big-picture themes (mental illness or social problems) as well as traditional themes of love. I’m thinking she may have been inspired by the recent work of some of her close friends and collaborators (Lana Del Rey’s “West Coast” or Paramore’s “The Only Exception”). I know there has been a lot of speculation that this album is going to be about her break up with Joe Alywn, her former boyfriend, but I am not sure this is entirely the case given the song titles.

Kimberly: I have not looked at the song title list yet. I imagine it includes things like “Catastrophes,” “Daffodils,” “Oh my oh my,” “Kelsey’s Blues” and “Sarsaparilla.” Am I totally off?

Sofia: Hmm, not as far off as you could be. I will link a list of all the titles here. There is a song called “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)” which might relate to a catastrophe. Looking at the song titles, I see so many references to past song lyrics and am making connections to other songs. The first track, “Fortnight,” makes me think that the song may be about either the last two weeks of a relationship or two weeks in which she came to a realization. The third track, “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys,” makes me think of the Reputation hit “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” which has the lyric “Because you break them, I had to take them away.” With the fifth track, “So Long London,” I immediately think of “London Boy” off the Lover album which she wrote about Joe Alywn, the English man she’s recently broken up with. So maybe that’s what this song’s about. The sixth track. “But Daddy I Love Him.” reminds me of a lyric from “Ours” (Speak Now Taylor’s Version): “Any snide remarks from my father/About your tattoos will be ignored/‘Cause my heart is yours.” Track 9, “Guilty as Sin,” points to the lyric from “Carolina” which is the theme song for a murder mystery film: “Oh, Carolina knows/Why for years they’ve said/That I was guilty as sin/And sleep in a liar’s bed.”

Kimberly: Maybe she’s touching on ideas and themes that have been important to her for years, but is bringing a new approach and style to exploring them.

Sofia: Yes. I think another example may be the 11th track, “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can),” which is reminiscent of Taylor’s “Forever Winter” from the Red album as well as “Renegade” which was a collaboration with Big Red Machine. But there are still other tracks like “Down Bad,” “The Alchemy,” and “Florida!!!” that I can’t even speculate about!

Kimberly: I can’t wait to see what all the tracks are like. That’s why I decided to organize Oeuvre: Taylor Swift’s Eras, a community-listening event series that will take place in our home town of Newton, MA April 15th-19th. While our exact venues and schedule are still TBD, we’ll be getting as many people as possible together and listen to at least some selections from Taylor’s first ten albums, together with their neighbors in the last few days before her 11th album is released. Then we’ll be aiming to have as many of us as possible stay up till 12:01 on the 19th and listen to “The Tortured Poets Department” together! Watch this space for more details as the time gets closer.

kimberly and sofia jackson
Kimberly Jackson is a longtime contributor to KOM’s Poetry Corner. Sofia Jackson, her daughter, is a longtime Taylor Swift fan and a rising junior in high school. Together they attended the 13th concert of Swift’s 2023 Eras Tour. They can be reached through Kimberly’s website.

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