Taylor Swift’s Cathartic ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ Intimately Aims Daggers at Heartbreak

The arrival of a new Taylor Swift album has become a massive event. The days leading up to the release of “The Tortured Poets Department” were marked by a campaign that included an Apple Music word game, while typewriters and other objects popped up on videos posted on the artist’s social media. SiriusXM added a radio station for the singer, slyly named Channel 13 (Taylor’s Version), and there were physical spots too for fans to congregate around. At the Grove in Los Angeles, Spotify sponsored a “library installation” fans could line up to gaze into, seeking clues about the album on its bookshelves. In Chicago, a QR code painted on a brick wall promised to lead to further clues. On her Instagram page, Swift also posted a set of statements about the personal nature of this LP and its exploration of bad romances, that read “This period of the author’s life is now over, the chapter closed and boarded up. There is nothing to avenge, no scores to settle once wounds have healed. And, upon further reflection, a good number of them turned out to be self-inflicted.” 

Taylor Swift’s 11th studio album has arrived, with a surprise double release in tow just hours later. In the age of streaming, hype of this scale deserves a release equal to it. Understanding how in-demand she is, and with much to reveal, Swift delivered the initial 16-track “The Tortured Poets Department” at 12 a.m. ET. Then, at 2 a.m. ET, as her biggest fans were deep into multiple listens of the album, Swift dropped another edition in the form of 15 additional tracks making up, “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.” A number of these songs, such as “The Black Dog,” “The Albatross” and “The Bolter,” are featured on physical editions of “Tortured Poets” bearing their names. As a whole, this vast collection of tunes finds Swift playing between familiar genres while staying focused on the autobiographical nature that has made her music inspire such devotion. 

Most of the songs on “The Tortured Poets Department” are co-written and produced by regular Swift collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, with Swift getting sole credit for two tracks, “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” and “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” Swift’s love life is always the grand theme of her bodies of work, so, of course, most attention will be paid to what “Tortured Poets” says or hints about Swift’s romances. Though, she does nod at the general idea of poets in the title track by acknowledging Dylan Thomas along with punk icon and author Patti Smith. The Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, long a den of artists and writers, is also given a mention. But the heart of “Tortured Poets’” music lies in how the recording sessions followed the demise of Swift’s relationship with English actor Joe Alwyn, and what ensued with a certain English indie pop singer, before, during, and in its aftermath. There is little doubt it was tempestuous, going by the micro dramas Swift delivers in these songs, which are, in equal measure, the most self-indulgent and cathartic yet in her catalog. 

While, prior to its release, it was widely speculated that “The Tortured Poets Department” would focus on Alwyn, the biggest reveal is that another bulk of this double-album is seemingly about a decade long starry-eyed infatuation turned push-pull with the 1975’s Matt Healy, where her feelings travel through nostalgic longings, to a second dose of wild love with an addicted and addictive bad-boy indie pop singer, to the brutal emotional come down of it all. In its wake, Swift also turns the spotlight on herself. Along with a few name drops, “Tortured Poets” features guest appearances by Post Malone on the opening track and first single, “Fortnight,” and Florence and the Machine for the soaring “Florida!!!” “Tortured Poets” shuffles between the indie pop and country pop stylings Swift is known for, with much singer-songwriter fare added to the mix. While the stylings offer nothing new, this set of songs undeniably finds Taylor Swift at her most vulnerable and telling, lyrically delving into some of her more private thoughts and intimate moments. The love losses are starting to pile up, and there is deeper heartbreak on this album. At times, it is delivered with gut-wrenching honesty, and at others it is given with a bit of cheek. And, then on tracks like “Fortnight,” rumored to be about Healy, Swift’s heartbreak is written in her classic style of ambiguity, keeping listeners searching for clues, with lyrics like, “I took the miracle move-on-drug / The effects were temporary / And I love you, it’s ruining my life,” along with, “I hope you’re okay / But you’re the reason / And no one here’s to blame / But what about your quiet treason?” Then closing with the scorching line, “My husband is cheating, I wanna kill him.”

We get brief flashes of Swift’s heartbreak on “Down Bad,” where she reflects on how she was “crying at the gym,” adding, “fuck it if I can’t have him,” in what is a possible peek at how personal turmoil combined with her tour prep training at the Dogpound. The ghost of Alwyn seems to be all over “So Long, London.” Opening with vocals that evoke the city itself, Swift goes on to channel a London boy through this song’s very title and what she has to say. “Pulled him in tighter each time he was driftin’ away / My spine split from carrying us up the hill.” What she was expecting and the damage left behind are stingingly confirmed when she sings, “I died on the altar waiting for the proof,” and, “I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free.” On “But Daddy I Love Him,” another track rumored to be about Healy, she returns to her country stylings to sing to the droves of naysayers who attacked her personal choices. “Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday best / Clutchin’ their pearls, sighing, “What a mess” / I just learned these people try and save you / cause they hate you.” The piano-driven track “loml,” at first glance, seems that it might be about Alwyn, when Swift sings, “You low-down boy, you stand-up guy / You holy ghost, you told me I’m the love of your life,” about a cinephile who steals another man’s girl, while referencing a cemetery for the graves in “So Long, London.” But lyrics like, “Well, you took me to hell too / And all at once, the ink bleeds / A con man sells a fool a get-love-quick scheme,” traces to Swift’s back-from-the-dead and quick demise of a romance with Healy. That is part of the intrigue of the Swift universe, the songs are always layered puzzles and clues.

Swift’s range as an artist shines on “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.” Here, she takes the theme of depression stemming from heartbreak but transforms it into an upbeat, carefree affair. She cheerfully sings, I’m so depressed, I act like it’s my birthday every day / I’m so obsessed with him, but he avoids me like the plague / I cry a lot, but I am so productive, it’s an art / You know you’re good when you can even do it with a broken heart.” Swift also brims with wit and biting jabs. On “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived,” another track thought to be about Healy, Swift sings, “Gazing at me, starry-eyed / In your Jehovah’s Witness suit,” an obvious nod at Healy’s trademark black-and-white suit wardrobe. She pulls no punches either seemingly addressing his addiction issues, when throwing in, “You tried to buy some pills / From a friend of friends of mine / They just ghosted you / Now you know what it feels like.” 

“The Tortured Poets Department,” in its entirety, is a two-hour listen that, in part, links to the themes, obsessions and stylings from Swift’s “Folklore” and “Evermore” eras. There are the continuing folklores, along with references that conjure Romantic era images, all while nodding back to some of the territory she traversed on those albums, and revealing clues to a chain of past songs that might have been secretly written for Healy. References to classic cinema and Old Hollywood also appear, such as in “Clara Bow,” named after a screen star from the 1920s often considered to be the first true “It girl.” Known for her various affairs with actors and directors, Bow’s life became a public pressure cooker. Swift finds comparisons between her and Bow, as there is no doubt she can relate to Bow’s challenges in being a star with her private life judged and splashed all over the tabloids. Swift addresses Bow in the lyrics, and speaks of herself, when she sings, “I’m not trying to exaggerate / But I think I might die if it happened / Die if it happened to me / No one in my small town thought I’d see the lights of Manhattan.” 

It isn’t all despair and vendettas though. “The Alchemy” is a sports-themed anthem that seems to nod at Swift’s relationship with current boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. “So when I touch down / Call the amateurs and cut ’em from the team / Ditch the clowns, get the crown / Baby, I’m the one to be / ‘Cause the sign on your heart / Said it’s still reserved for me / Honestly, who are we to fight thе alchemy?” She sings these lines with an almost breathless relief, as if after all the disappointments that have littered this album, finally here is a go-the-distance type of guy ready to pull out the stops for her. When she sings, “These blokes warm the benches / We’ve been on a winning streak / He jokes that ‘It’s heroin, but this time with an ‘E’,” it doesn’t take much imagination what “bloke” in particular Swift has left on the bench. 

While “The Anthology” portion has noticeable filler and is often more subdued, it carries its own treasure trove of material. Beyond “The Black Dog,” “The Albatross” and “The Bolter,” there are a few telling tunes, such as “imgonnagetyouback,” “Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus,” “Peter,“ “The Prophecy,” and “The Manuscript,” a fitting final track that seemingly returns to Swift’s first tortured poet love affair, with a much older John Mayer, to reflect on a music career of journaling her affairs and heartbreaks into poetry for her millions of fans. While others don’t hit the mark, they offer insights. There is another possible wink at Kelce with “So High School,” and what seems to be a diss track aimed at Kim Kardashian, “thanK you aIMee.” Another settling of accounts regarding a 2016 feud with Kardashian (stemming from a longstanding friction with Kanye West), when Kardashian’s then-husband released the song “Famous” with clear misogynist snipes at Swift. The ensuing controversy culminated with Kardashian releasing on TikTok an edited phone call between Swift and Ye, which made the former seem fine with the song, in which Ye calls Swift “that bitch.” Swift refers to a “bronze, spray-tanned” antagonist that her “saintly” mother wishes dead, in a rather biting song, where other lines express that Swift “can’t forgive the way you made me feel.” Scarring matters of the heart don’t always have to come from break ups, as we witness here. 

“The Tortured Poets Department” arrives after a year during which Swift’s “The Eras Tour” boosted local economies and resulted in a concert film that became a box office hit. Now, this new collection of songs displays Swift’s lasting appeal. She may, arguably, be the most famous woman in the world, but her music retains a down to earth, storybook feel. We might not all know the perks and problems of immense fame and glory, but Swift makes us feel as if we can relate to her love stories and love sickness. She can name a track, “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” But the irony and confidence is wonderfully driven when she sings, “The scandal was contained / The bullet had just grazed / At all costs, keep your good name / You don’t get to tell me you feel bad.” Her legions of fans want her to give them everything, the whole scoop, because it is so relatable, and the secrets shared on “The Tortured Poets Department” promise to keep their interests at peak levels over what this global phenomenon of a woman will dare to write next. 

The Tortured Poets Department” and “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology” releases April 19 on Apple Music.