"The Tortured Poets Department" is Taylor Swift's trip through heartbreak's agonies and triumphs

In the singer's 11th studio album, she addresses various exes, from Joe Alwyn to Matty Healy

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published April 19, 2024 5:39PM (EDT)

Taylor Swift performs during "Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour" at the National Stadium on March 02, 2024 in Singapore. (Ashok Kumar/TAS24/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management)
Taylor Swift performs during "Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour" at the National Stadium on March 02, 2024 in Singapore. (Ashok Kumar/TAS24/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management)

Taylor Swift's ascension as pop music's head lyricist in charge didn't happen by accident. From her early singles "Teardrops on My Guitar" and "Our Song," the musician has held the world in a snake-like trance with her prose, unable to release us from her devastating heartbreak ballads, seething revenge plots and introspective fairy tales that turn into nightmares. She is a storyteller after all.

If you expected something sonically and lyrically experimental from Swift, you will be disappointed.

And because of her mighty, lucrative pen, the now 34-year-old is at the pinnacle of her career. Honestly, does a peak even exist for someone who is a freshly minted billionaire because of a global world tour that revitalized local economies across the country? All the while, Swift has been cemented in history with the most album of the year Grammy awards and numerous record-breaking albums. She is an omnipresent, dominating force in culture and music. Last year, she was even at the center of American politics and sports after she started dating pro-footballer Travis Kelce. Swift was swept into contentious culture wars sparked by right-wing conspiracy theories peddled by the likes of former President Donald Trump.

But before her seemingly immortal reign, Swift was in a six-year relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn, which ended in early 2023. The pair began dating in 2016 at the height of Swift's public shunning or cancellation by the general public, sparked by a feud between Swift, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Thus, "Reputation" was born, and the then largely unpopular Swift was in love and didn't care what people thought about her or her music. For years, Alwyn was reportedly the inspiration for her following albums: "Lover," "Folklore," "Evermore," "Midnights" and now her 11th studio album, "The Tortured Poets Department." But now, Alwyn and the end of their near-common law marriage are at the center of Swift's most agonizing and emotionally indulgent work to date.

If you expected something sonically and lyrically experimental from Swift, you will be disappointed with "The Tortured Poets Department." However, if you are searching for glimmering variations of Swift's past selves in one album, this does that. In a mega two-hour, dual album, released in two parts as "The Tortured Poets Department" and "The Anthology," Swift pens 31 different heartbreaks, triumphs and intimacies — tortured poems if you will. Her frequent collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner are back. While Dessner's work dazzles in "The Anthology," and Antonoff's production in "Tortured Poets" lacks variety and mystery, it raises the question if the singer will ever tap other producers to work on her new music.

However, Swift's songwriting and music-making model is contingent on the more, the better. During the 31-song album, some of it lands like the fun drama of "Down Bad," which thumps against Antonoff's synthesizer. She sings, "Now I'm down bad crying at the gym. Everything comes out teenage petulance." She sings she may die if she can't have her lover. It's almost pathetically accurate to heartbreak's grief. Or some are just plain awkward like the title track where she compares her ex – problematic fling and frontman of the 1975, Matty Healy – to a "tattooed golden retriever."

Some of it is just a less exciting rendition of her previous works like the twangy, folk-influenced "But Daddy I Like Him," which could be plucked right from "Red." This is where "Tortured Poets" falls, inevitably caught between Swift's bleeding bars and production that sounds like a Swift we already know. But her sharp vulnerability and craftsmanship are apparent in the haunting goodbye ballad, "So Long, London." We can only assume it is about Alwyn as she sings quietly, "I stopped CPR after. It's no use." Her heart aches as she gives up on her love of London, a place she used to call home. She cries, "You swore that you loved me, but where were the clues? I died on the altar waiting for the proof. You sacrificed us to the gods of your bluest day."

Songs like "Florida!!!" featuring Florence + the Machine, "Guilty as Sin?" and "Loml," are standouts in the first album. "Florida!!!" is as experimental as the artist gets in the project. The song is a synthesized version of a Southern Gothic anthem built to make space for Florence Welch's sweeping vocals. "Guilty as Sin?" is a soft rock track, reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie, where Antonoff's production feels it moves in sync with Swift's vocals. The guilty pleasure track is about falling for the quintessential bad boy and how it reflects negatively on who you are. Swift may be referring to the public condemnation she faced for dating Healy, who has had a history of spewing misogynoir online towards Black women like rapper Ice Spice. Lastly, "Loml" is a soaring wounded ballad, where Swift confronts her ex-love about his little lies, "You holy ghost, you told me I'm the love of your life. You said I'm the love of your life/About a million times." She finishes the song with the conclusion: "You're the loss of my life."

Part One's lackluster quality is not fully rectified by the additional 15 songs in "The Anthology," but Swift does certainly try. For the most part, the attempt is a bold success. Swift and the tracks sound like her winning, fictionalized fantasies in "Folklore" and "Evermore." The following 15 songs are some of the singer's most captivating songwriting. It's a shame that it takes a whole album to get meaty songs like "The Black Dog" or "The Albatross." The latter is a woodsy, whimsical track that puts Swift in the hot seat as she vilifies herself as the albatross and that "she is here to destroy you." Other highlights are songs like "Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus," "thanK you AIMee" (a Kardashian diss track) and "How Did It End?"

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The lyricist isn't looking for perfection; she's busy crafting yet another life-altering, death-invoking heartbreak into peaceful solitude.

Dessner's production, or ability to draw attention to Swift's vocals is the triumph in "The Anthology." Something shifts in Swift's lyrics too. In the masterpieces that are "Folklore" and "Evermore," Swift uses folktales to weave in her storytelling, however, that changes in "The Anthology." It's all reflective — the fantasy has vanished, and all that's left is heartbreak's ruins. Her self-aware, pensiveness glimmers against the soft strumming of guitars and strings in "I Hate It Here." Swift mischievously sings, "I hate it here so I will go to secret gardens in my mind/People need a key to get to, the only one is mine." She stresses that she is lonely and bitter but, "I swear I'm fine."

Jaded by love and her reality, she continues:

I'll save all my romanticism for my inner life and I'll get lost on purpose
This place made me feel worthless
Lucid dreams like electricity, the current flies through me
And in my fantasies, I rise above it

"The Prophecy" is a rumination of Swift's past patterns where her gentle vocals are laid over the light strumming of Dessner's acoustic guitar. It's the singer at her barest. The prophecy Swift sings about is her damned eternal loneliness. It's a prophecy the stars or witches have predicted. She begs that the curse will be reversed in the chorus, "Please/I've been on my knees/Change the prophecy/Don't want money/Just someone who wants my company."

Lonely and single, she's terrified at what comes next, wishing to the sky, "I'm so afraid I sealed my fate/No sign of soulmates." It's the level of honesty Swift's fans and critics crave as we all come together to dissect her lyrics like a science project. The stages of grief are all endlessly explored, and it loses us as it meanders through some of the low parts of "The Tortured Poets Department." The artist lands just slightly off the mark. However, in Swift's 11th studio album, the lyricist isn't looking for perfection; she's busy crafting yet another life-altering, death-invoking heartbreak into peaceful solitude.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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Florence And The Machine Joe Alwyn Music Review Taylor Swift The Tortured Poets Department