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Taylor Swift Busts out the Quill Pen for ‘The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology’

The last time Taylor Swift released an album, Midnights, she surprised everyone by dropping a 3 A.M. Edition later that night, loaded with new songs. But it turns out that this time, 3 hours was too damn long for her to wait. At 2 A.M. last night, with no warning at all, Swift announced that her brand-new (and excellent) The Tortured Poets Department was secretly a double album all along. She had another 15 songs ready to go, adding up to 31 in all. (That’s right, 13 backwards.) She really is drilling down on the whole “I love you, it’s ruining my life” thing. 

Like the Midnights 3 A.M., the second half of Tortured Poets: The Anthology is more acoustic, more delicate, more Quill Pen, much more Aaron Dessner. If you preferred 3 A.M. to the proper Midnights (“The Great War,” “Bigger Than The Whole Sky”) you might also prefer the second hour of the Anthology. It’s nearly all hushed piano ballads, without Part One’s synth-pop production, reaching all the way into homegrown Folklore/Evermore beauty. More tortured. More poetic. “Peter,” “Cassandra,” “The Prophecy” — these are some of the most powerful songs Swift and Dessner have crafted together.

Taylor hasn’t given Part Two its own individual title — yet. But it’s got its own sonic personality. Even the Jack Antonoff tunes sound kinda Dessner, just as the Dessner songs on Part Two sound kinda Antonoff. (One of this creative trio’s strengths is that these two producers never step on each other.) Yet both sides of the Anthology fit together with a surly edge that Taylor has never flaunted like this before. The closest thing to a flirty line on either half is the moment in “I Hate It Here” when she sings, “Tell me something awful/Like you’re a poet trapped in the body of a finance guy.”

The four bonus tracks (from the physical albums) fit together, almost as a suite, framing Part Two like bookends. “The Black Dog,” “The Manuscript,” “The Albatross,” “The Bolter” — they’re stark piano narratives about different kinds of mad women. They’re all looking for different kinds of revenge, whether the world views them as romantic ideals (“The Manuscript”), sexual toys (“The Bolter”), curses (“The Albatross”), or quasi-stalkers whose friends really need to confiscate her phone for the night (“The Black Dog”). 

“The Prophecy” is a character we encounter all over Tortured Poets — the woman who’s been waiting far too long for her dreams to come true, until she feels her youth drain away. (As the impeccably tortured William Butler Yeats would say, “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.”) “A lesser woman would have lost hope,” Swift sings, but she’s been on her knees for so long, praying for deliverance, she feels cursed. “The Prophecy” has the album’s fiercest vocals, all compressed fury, when she sings, “A greater woman stays cool/But I howl like a wolf at the moon/And I look unstable / Gathering the coven ‘round the sorceress table.”

 “The Prophecy” leads naturally into “Cassandra,” the famous Homeric myth of the prophetess, the King of Troy’s cursed daughter, with the power to see into the future but not for anyone to believe her. Swift’s Cassandra sits in her jail cell, asking “Do you believe me now?,” while a self-righteous mob is crying out for her blood. She snarls, “When the first stone’s thrown, they’re screaming/In the streets there’s a raging riot/When it’s ‘burn the bitch,’ they’re shrieking/When the truth comes out, it’s quiet.”

“Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus” (produced by Antonoff) feels like a counterpart to “Maroon,” except this time, the romance on the floor with the roommate’s screw-top rosé leads to a sadder fate. She’s with an addict — “You needed me but you needed drugs more” — yet she can’t break free. She’s still haunted by the question of what she could have done differently, long after he’s moved on. She asks, “If I sell my apartment/And you have some kids with an internet starlet/Will that make your memory fade from this scarlet maroon?”

But “Peter” is the show-stopper. Swift goes back to the story of Peter Pan, the lost boy, and Wendy, who waited too long for him to grow up. Swift already introduced this Peter on Folklore, back in “Cardigan,” when he was leaving Wendy and she was pitifully “trying to change the ending,” even after the story was over. By now, she’s giving up on him. Swift sings, “You said you’d come and get me, but you were 25/The shelf life of those fantasies has expired/Lost to the ‘Lost Boys’ chapter of your life/Forgive me Peter, please know that I tried.” Wendy isn’t trying to change the ending any more — but she’s wondering when she gets to begin her own story.

For a change of pace, “So High School” is the “Hits Different” of this crop, going for light-hearted power-pop guitar jangle. She’s got a crush on a new guy — “I’ll drink what you think and I’m high from smoking your jokes” — what a line.) It’s a trip back to her teen years, making out while they watch American Pie as his bros play Grand Theft Auto. Yet it’s the kind of high-school scene where she never fit in. As she sings, “Truth, dare, spin bottles/You know how to ball, I know Aristotle.”

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The two halves of Tortured Poets might sound different. Part One has the nastier wit, the pettier break-up rants, the funnier shade. But they still feel like different halves of the same statement, sharing that sense of post-breakup adult disenchantment. Like a lot of people in their mid-30s, Taylor’s tortured poets feel lost in a future they don’t recognize, instead of the future they spent their 20s training for. In the 2020s, that’s not exactly one pop star’s problem.

Sure, it’s a bit rude of Swift to drop another hour of music on the world, when people are still reeling from an album that’s only two hours old. But to quote Yeats again, in a question that could sum up a lot of Taylor Swift’s career: “When did the poets promise safety?” In her case, that’s never.

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