No One Is Safe From Taylor Swift In 'The Tortured Poets Department'

The singer-songwriter is at her most confessional on her 11th album, a theatrical and acid-tongued reeling in the aftermath of heartbreak.

“All’s fair in love and poetry,” Taylor Swift declared as part of the surprise February announcement of her next project, fresh off winning album of the year at the Grammys.

Swift had come off a roller coaster of a year that saw the end of her six-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn and the start of her record-breaking Eras Tour. She entertained stadiums full of fans each night, seemingly tireless through a three-hour set list, while also managing to release two rerecorded albums. Along the way, she had a brief fling with musician and controversy lightning rod Matty Healy before she began dating tight end and noted wordsmith Travis Kelce, a celebrity pairing that seems widely beloved except by the Dads, Brads and Chads who were upset about the NFL giving her too much screen time.

Clearly, she had a lot of material to work with. And as Swift promised, all is fair game for her poet’s pen on her 11th album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” which was released Friday. (At 2 a.m. ET, Swift revealed that “TTPD” is a double album, totaling 31 songs in all, but we’re just covering the original 16-track album here. I love you, Taylor, but your midnight drops are ruining my sleep schedule.) The tumult, loss and lusting have coalesced into a captivating if uneven piece of work that succeeds most when Swift sets aside some of the album’s overly niche, wry humor and allows herself to make raw, honest admissions about pain.

There are great moments in the album opener, “Fortnight,” a boppy track where the singer looks back on a short-lived romance with both reverence and venom: “I touched you for only a fortnight/ But I touched you,” she laments. “I love you, it’s ruining my life.” Swift’s voice blends beautifully with Post Malone’s here, and I want to give it full marks, but puzzling lines like “I was a functioning alcoholic till nobody noticed my new aesthetic” keep me from doing so.

Her next track, “The Tortured Poets Department,” is reminiscent of “1989” vault tracks Swift released in October last year: verbose with a hint of ’80s influence. The title is clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek, with Swift poking fun at her subject (all signs point to Healy) for using a typewriter and calling them both “modern idiots.” But it feels like this song wants to be two things — ironic and self-deprecating but also plaintive and earnest, as when Swift sings on the chorus, “Who’s gonna hold you like me?/ Who’s gonna know you, if not me?”

Taylor Swift attends the 66th Grammy Awards at the Arena on Feb. 4 in Los Angeles.
Taylor Swift attends the 66th Grammy Awards at the Arena on Feb. 4 in Los Angeles.
Matt Winkelmeyer via Getty Images

The metaphor in “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” is effective if a bit juvenile, with some evocative images of a toxic love — “But first, pull the string/ And I’ll tell you that he runs/ Because he loves me” — and relatable insights: “Once I fix me/ He’s gonna miss me.” “Down Bad” is pissed off and catchy, a song where Swift, full of “teenage petulance,” declares, “fuck it if I can’t have him.”

The production can feel a little samey to start, with Jack Antonoff’s signature synthy flourishes not enough of a departure from 2022′s “Midnights” to wholly distinguish it. But the fifth track almost feels like a dividing line, where the bloody heart of the album starts to beat and the production gets more varied and interesting. It helps, too, that “So Long, London” marks the start of frequent Swift collaborator Aaron Dessner’s work on the album. The song begins with an angelic recitation of the title before she launches into a no-holds-barred confessional, barely restraining the anger in her voice as she asks, “You swore that you loved me but where were the clues?/ I died on the altar waiting for the proof.”

She explores similar themes later on in “loml,” a stripped-down song looking back on a past relationship that might be the most gut-wrenching on “TTPD.” It seems to reference Alwyn, as she describes a “low-down boy, a stand-up guy,” perhaps a subtle reference to the starry-eyed “London Boy” she sang about on 2019’s “Lover.” There’s something about the way Swift says “love” when she sings “you told me I’m the love of your life” that feels so unadorned and heart-stopping, all the gravity in a deceptively simple line.

“Florida!!!,” with its chorus of cymbal crashes and accompaniment from Florence Welch, truly sounds like nothing else on a previous Swift album. Rhyming “a town you’re just a guest in” with “a time-share down in Destin,” shouldn’t work, but it does — helped along later by an intoxicating bridge where Welch and Swift trade lines like “I’ve got some regrets, I’ll bury them in Florida” and “At least the dolls are beautiful, fuck me up, Florida” over fuzzy, shimmering guitar lines.

Listening to “TTPD,” it makes sense that ahead of its release, Swift shared playlists with fans that mirrored the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — felt during the end of a relationship. But love isn’t the only thing she aims her sharpened quill at: the perils of fame, too, are up for scrutiny, and the way Swift tackles them are among the most engaging parts of this work.

“I’m having his baby, no I’m not/ But you should see your faces,” she declares almost gleefully on “But Daddy I Love Him,” a winking break of the fourth wall while playing the role of a sheltered girl in a small town who wants to run away with a bad boy. There’s a clear message here from Swift to anyone who wants to weigh in on her romantic choices, too: “I’d rather burn my whole life down/ Than listen to one more second of all this bitchin’ and moanin’/ I’ll tell you something ’bout my good name/ It’s mine alone to disgrace.”

Elsewhere, Swift likens her life in the spotlight to one of a pacing animal in a cage: “I was tame, I was gentle till the circus life made me mean/ Don’t you worry folks, we took out all her teeth.” “Who’s afraid of little old me?” she screams in the same song, ultimately concluding, “Well, you should be.” It feels like a natural extension of themes she touched on in her last album, where she confessed she felt like “a monster on a hill, too big to hang out,” her stature rendering her isolated and self-conscious. She manically pep-talks herself through the devastation of heartbreak on “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart,” assuring herself she’s a “real tough kid” who can “handle her shit,” but hinting at a harder fallout from her breakup with Alwyn that she didn’t let the public see: “I cry a lot, but I am so productive, it’s an art.”

It seems that songwriting is one of the few spaces where Swift can really let loose on the singular, maddening experience of being one of the most famous people on earth. If she dresses up her anguish with enough imagery and sweeping instrumentals, she can dazzle and distract anyone who might think it’s unearned. Her music — the thing that brought her the wealth and the fans and the accolades — is the last place she can freely confess. Because who could understand her, if she told them face-to-face?

That’s what I’m left thinking about as we reach the end of the album’s first half. “Clara Bow,” named after the original It Girl, describes the devil’s deal one makes for stardom: “Take the glory, give everything/ Promise to be dazzling.” But by the song’s end, she’s not addressing herself but some other mythical starlet, a girl who looks just like Taylor Swift but with an edge the original never had. “The future’s bright, dazzling,” she croons. It’s almost as if by speaking of a future where she’s not as relevant — a reality that feels so far from now — she can help ward it off, or at least begin to accept that no amount of awards and fans can quell that fear.

On “TTPD” more than any other album, it feels as though Swift is working through these feelings in real time, wrestling her biggest monsters and giving us a front-row seat. Being Taylor Swift, she tells us, is not all glittering bodysuits and dreamy suitors — but if you’ll stay awhile and listen, she’ll tell you all about the thorny, messy, unbeatable real thing.

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