Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ Isn’t The Breakup Album You Were Expecting — It’s Better

In honor of The Tortured Poets Department being Taylor Swift‘s 11th studio album, here are 11 initial thoughts on the album.

1. In his memoir Chronicles, Bob Dylan writes about how a new way of playing the guitar changed the way he connected to his songs. “I never used this style, didn’t see that there’d be any purpose to it. But now all of a sudden it came back to me, and I realized that this way of playing would revitalize my world,” the passage reads. It was this a-ha moment that led to late-discography masterpieces like Time Out Of Mind and Rough And Rowdy Ways.

Taylor Swift had an a-ha moment of her own during the pandemic. Lover featured some of her best-ever songs (“Cruel Summer,” ‘Cornelia Street”), but she was also reaching the limit of where her, as she put it during an interview with Zane Lowe, “diaristic” approach to songwriting could take her. So, for the first time, she began writing songs that weren’t necessarily based on her own experiences. “My world felt opened up creatively,” Swift said with relief. “There was a point that I got to as a writer who only wrote very diaristic songs that I felt was unsustainable for my future moving forward.” She called the response to folklore, which received some of the best reviews of her career, “a real breakthrough moment of excitement and happiness.”

Swift carried that excitement into evermore, Midnights, and now, The Tortured Poets Department.

2. The Tortured Poets Department is an introspective mix of both of her styles: the confessional, ripped-from-the-diary lyrics of her older albums meets the character studies of folklore and evermore, with the sleek synth-pop production of Midnights. This blending of storytelling approaches allows her to reflect on moments that she’s personally experienced, but with a poetic “based on a true story” creative license instead of straight-up autobiography. Be careful about assuming that every “I” on The Tortured Poets Department is meant to be taken as “I, Taylor Swift” (we probably would have heard if she spent time in the slammer). That being said…

3. Look, there’s going to be a lot of talk about Swift and Matty Healy, and how much of the album seems to be about their rebound fling after she dated Joe Alwyn for years and before Travis Kelce entered the picture. I get it. But it’s the songs, not the exes, that matter. And these are strong songs: “So Long, London” is a chilling addition to the track five canon, “Loml” has a wrenching last-second lyrical twist, the relatable “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart” is about appearing positive on the outside while feeling miserable on the inside, and “Guilty As Sin?” is an instant favorite.

Healy’s “influence,” so to speak, can mostly be felt in how the album as a whole is presented. The Tortured Poets Department is long, sincere, wordy, genre-less, and extremely personal, sometimes to the point of discomfort (“Down Bad”) — these are all descriptors that also apply to The 1975. For the record, this is a compliment. The Tortured Poets Department is a tremendously heartbreaking and deeply engrossing album.

4. To my ears, there’s no obvious hit, like “Shake It Off” or “Anti-Hero.” The album will inevitably break streaming and sales records, and at least one song will debut and stay at the top of the charts for weeks (I would put money on “But Daddy I Love Him” being all over TikTok by the weekend), but Taylor isn’t chasing radio domination like she did with “Me!” anymore. She doesn’t have to. The industry bends itself to her will.

5. Swift’s reliable collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner are back to provide an ‘80s sheen to her songs, especially in the first half (think: “Mastermind” from Midnights and the 1989 vault tracks, like “Is It Over Now?”). The only guests are Post Malone, whose voice blends nicely with Taylor’s on opener “Fortnight,” and Florence + The Machine, a powerful presence on “Florida!!!” Florence’s voice is one hell of a drug. Patti Smith, along with Charlie Puth and Dylan Thomas (and maybe Lucy Dacus?), also gets a shout out in the title track. If just one teen starts listening to Horses because of The Tortured Poets Department, the album was a success.

6. The Tortured Poets Department doesn’t follow a tidy emotional narrative. This ain’t a fairytale. Taylor is processing a breakup — and/or the end of a situationship — and that comes with a lot of tangled feelings. Feelings are messy! Sometimes it’s mourning (“Loml”) or longing (“Guilty As Sin?”); other times it’s anger (“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”), or, uh, living in Florida (“Florida!!!”). My biggest quibble with the album is how the shiny synth production occasionally overwhelms the rawness of the conversational lyrics, which includes references to alcoholism, drugs, threats of suicide, and more uses of the word “fuck” than all her previous album combined. She’s come a long way from “our song is the slamming screen door” to “I want to kill her.”

It’s a chronicle of a specific period of time, one that she needed to explore to be able to move on (having a “squirle”-loving goofball waiting for her at home helped). As she wrote on social media when the album came out, “This writer is of the firm belief that our tears become holy in the form of ink on a page. Once we have spoken our saddest story, we can be free of it.” She’s finally clean.

(This review was initially published before The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology was released, or even known about it. My biggest takeaway from the double album: the Anthology songs, especially the ones with names in the title like “Peter,” “Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus,” and “Robin,” sound the most folklore and evermore tracks that were made in the Eras Tour era; they’re intimate, but have a heft that should work well in the stadiums that Taylor is accustomed to playing in. Also, the shoegazey “So High School” is a reminder that Taylor needs to make her long-desired rock album.)

7. But The Tortured Poets Department also has moments of genuine humor. The biting “Who’s Afraid Of Little Old Me?” is a spiritual follow-up to the satirical self-analysis of “Blank Space,” while “But Daddy I Love Him” has Taylor trolling her audience by announcing she’s pregnant, no, she’s not, but you should see your faces. She’s dealing with genuine concerns (remember the New Jersey wedding?), but with humor. Sometimes you have to laugh instead of cry.

8. It wouldn’t be a Taylor Swift album without Easter egg hunts. I’d like to contribute the following galaxy-brain theory to the discourse: the final song on The Tortured Poets Department (non-bonus tracks) is “Clara Bow.” The final line on the final track: “the future’s bright, dazzling.” This is her way of confirming the rumor that she’s playing Dazzler in Deadpool & Wolverine. It wouldn’t be the first Ryan Reynolds reference on a Taylor Swift album. I am 99 percent sure I am wrong. But that leaves a one percent chance I’m right!

9. Taylor Swift will never beat the allegations that she loves to leave her best songs off the standard editions of her albums. Bonus track “The Black Dog” is the “Is It Over Now?” / “You’re Losing Me” / “New Romantics” of The Tortured Poets Department. Forget The 1975: you can hear the Phoebe Bridgers influence with the way this highlight builds to a satisfying cathartic ending.

10. The Eras Tour resumes next month in France. Will the set be refreshed to make room for songs from The Tortured Poets Department? This is pure conjecture on my part, but I don’t think so (it would be a massive undertaking to introduce new choreography, stage design, lighting, pyrotechnics, etc.), except during the surprise songs section. I bet “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” is even more devastating on an acoustic guitar.

11. Taylor Swift has never been more popular — or successful — than she is right now. Maybe no musician has since the peak of Beatlemania. The Eras Tour took over the world in a way that I don’t think she even expected. With that nostalgic momentum, she could have released an album that leaned heavily on familiarity. It might have been good, even great, but Taylor is at her best when she’s challenging herself to subvert expectations. The Tortured Poets Department isn’t the album people thought it would be. It’s rawer. It’s funnier. It’s more poetic and unapologetically dramatic. Most of all, it’s another classic from the preeminent songwriter of her generation.

The Tortured Poets Department is out now via Republic. You can order it here.