Arts·Group Chat

Where does The Tortured Poets Department fit in the story Taylor Swift is telling?

Culture critics Tyler Foggatt and Adam Sternbergh join Ali Hassan to give their thoughts on the gigantic new album The Tortured Poets Department from Swift.

Tyler Foggatt and Adam Sternbergh give the first impressions of Swift’s latest album

A black and white photo Taylor Swift looking into the camera with a body of water behind her.
Taylor Swift's eleventh studio album The Tortured Poets Department is now out via Republic Records. (Beth Garrabrant)

Taylor Swift dropped her 11th studio album The Tortured Poets Department at midnight last night. Featuring 16 tracks and an arsenal of biting lyrics, this might be her most personal album yet.

But wait, there's more! At 2 in the morning, Swift surprise released the second half of her new album, titled The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, adding 15 more songs to the tracklist.

Swift's new album comes at a time when she's been quite inescapable. In the last year, between the Era's Tour, winning multiple Grammys — including a history-making fourth Grammy for album of the year — and supporting her boyfriend Travis Kelce at his football games, Swift has seemingly been everywhere. 

Is it the right time for a new album? Where does it fit with the story Swift has been telling?

To answer these questions and to give their first impressions of The Tortured Poets Department, The New Yorker senior editor Tyler Foggatt and culture critic Adam Sternbergh join guest host Ali Hassan on Commotion.

We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, plus a chat about Conan O'Brien's new docuseries, Conan O'Brien Must Go, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast on your favourite podcast player.

LISTEN | Today's episode on YouTube:

Ali: Tyler, I'm going to start with you. How are you feeling about the Taylor album?

Tyler: I'm honestly still processing it, given how much new music she gave us in such a short period of time. I feel like I was still listening to the 1989 re-recording that she released in October, and the fact that we have a brand new album now — a double album — is a bit hard to process. But, I think in some ways I'm slightly disappointed by the sound. I feel like it does very much feel like an extension of the work that we've seen her do before. The two main producers on the album are Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, who she's been working with for quite a bit.

I think in some ways I was kind of hoping for a new sound, because the aesthetic of the album, the whole dark academia thing, made me think that maybe she was going for more of a soft rock sound or just something that we hadn't really heard before. But, I will say that the entire rollout and the songs themselves, even if they're not brand new in terms of sound, I do think that the entire thing has been delightfully unhinged in a way that I really appreciate.

Ali: Taylor surprised fans with these extra 15 songs. You actually had to rejig your interview. You were ready with an interview, and then in the middle of the night, more stuff. How do you feel about those extra cuts?

Tyler: Fifteen new songs, in addition to the original 16, were released at 2 a.m. And it was interesting because the second half of the album, those are songs that she made mostly with Aaron Dessner, who is one of the founding members of the National. She worked with him on Folklore and Evermore. And I think that the second half of the album is very much in that vein of music. It's very indie, it's deeper, the songs are more intimate. I have only listened to the second half of the album a couple times at this point, but I think that the second half of the album might even be better in some ways. It's hard. I feel like she's given us almost too much music to absorb at once. And I wonder whether we actually could have used a bit more curation.

Ali: Adam, what are your thoughts on the album?

Adam: I agree with Tyler in that, it's a lot. And yet, it feels very familiar in a lot of ways. I should say that I feel like I'm the requisite neutral observer on this panel now. By no means do I have my PhD in Swiftology. But I'm impressed with the rollout of the album. I think dropping a completely surprise second album is actually a baller move.

I'm generally a fan of prolific artists. I like artists who produce a lot of work. I like novelists who write a lot of novels. I feel like sometimes in our current moment, people can be a little bit overly precious about dropping things into the world with an eyedropper. She is not an eyedropper artist. She is a floodgates artist. And I feel like she's the one artist who you can look at and say, 'Maybe take your foot off the gas pedal. Maybe just release the 15 best songs rather than 31 songs.' 

But of course, it's not just about the music. And as a neutral observer, I am always impressed that there's a concurrent phenomenon that happens. There's the critical reaction to music. But then, the Swiftology begins. The deciphering of the lyrical meanings, the Easter eggs and all that sort of stuff, which even at arm's length, has a thrilling adventure quality to it. So I'm envious of all the people who are just poring over these lyrics, the images and the QR codes to decipher all that there is. There's an abundance to that, which I actually think is really exciting right now.

Ali: Taylor is known to be quite calculated, so I did want to ask this: Tyler, did the anthology come out as a reaction to the album being leaked, or do you think this was planned all along?  

Tyler: I had thought that since the leak had already gone out, maybe this was her way of giving people new music, even if the new music had been spoiled a bit. And that maybe there was initially a plan for it to be like Folklore and Evermore, where it's two albums that are recorded at roughly the same time, but then they're spaced out, so that they're not coming out the exact same day. So I think maybe she could have moved up the release a little bit, but I do think that, as a Swiftologist, she has been giving us a lot of peace signs lately. Swifties have seen that as the number two. And so I think that there have been a lot of hints that this was going to be a double album. And so maybe the release date changed slightly. But I think that there was always a larger plan here.  

Excerpt from But Daddy I Love Him: And I'm running with my dress unbuttoned / Screaming "But daddy, I love him!" /  I'm having a baby / No I'm not / But you should see your faces / I'm telling him to floor it through the fences / You're not coming to my senses. I know it's crazy, but he's the one.

Ali: That is a song called But Daddy I Love Him. It's off the new album that is officially out today. Tyler, this one's got a lot of people talking, yourself included. Tell me, why is that? 

Tyler: Earlier when I said that the album is delightfully unhinged, this song is one of the reasons why. Taylor Swift broke up with her longtime boyfriend, Joe Alwyn. They dated for six years before this album came out. And so a lot of people assumed that because of all the sad girl vibes associated with the rollout this was going to be a breakup album about Joe. 

What was really interesting was that when the album came out, a lot of the fans quickly gleaned that a bunch of the songs actually seem to be about Matty Healy, the frontman of the 1975 who Taylor seemed to have this, like, whirlwind relationship with. I mean, basically, it seems like Matty was the rebound. Swift got a lot of flack for that relationship because Healy is a provocateur. He made all of these controversial comments, racist remarks and even kind of went after Ice Spice. Basically, fans freaked out and the relationship ended. And I think a lot of people assume that Taylor ended things because he was so messy. That whole thing got memory-holed when Swift started dating Travis Kelce. So it's amazing that this album comes out and it's so much about Healy, at least it seems like it's about Healy. She never really confirms who these songs are about. So we just have to speculate. Because obviously she could have just let that go. Everyone would have been happy just to hear about Joe and to think about Travis, and instead she's bringing us back to Matty. 

In this one song that you just pulled out, But Daddy I Love Him, not only is she talking about how obsessed she is with Healy, but in a later song on the album, she implies that maybe he ghosted her and he ended the relationship — which is also interesting. But in this song, she actually goes after her fans for maybe the first time, where she talks about the judgmental creeps who think they know what's best for her. There's a line, "Sanctimoniously performing soliloquies I'll never see / Thinking it can change the beat of my heart when he touches me." And later in this song, my favourite line is when she says, "But Daddy, I love him. I'm having his baby / No, I'm not, but you should see your faces." She's trolling her fans, which I've never seen Taylor Swift do before.

You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.


Panel produced by Ty Callender

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eva Zhu is an Associate Producer for CBC. She currently works at CBC Arts and Syndication. She has bylines in CBC Books, Chatelaine, Healthy Debate, re:porter, Exclaim! Magazine and other publications. Follow Eva on X (formerly Twitter) @evawritesthings