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Come For the Torture, Stay For the Poetry: This Might Be Taylor Swift’s Most Personal Album Yet

Poets only want love if it’s torture. And when the poet is Taylor Swift, you always have to figure love and torture are never more than a few verses apart. Taylor became a legend as the poet laureate of teen romance. But that was kid stuff compared to the adult heartbreak of her stunning new album, The Tortured Poets Department. A year after getting out of a six-year relationship, Taylor’s got bad men on the brain. But they’ve always been her specialty. As she notes here, in a poem she includes in the physical edition, “It’s the worst men that I write best.”

Taylor might be the self-proclaimed “Chairman of the Tortured Poets Department,” but judging by these songs, business is booming. It’s the cathartic confession of a woman who thought she had adulthood — and adult romance — all figured out, only to find herself realizing she knows nothing. From “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” to “Fortnight” to “Clara Bow,” these thirtysomething break-up tales are new turf for her. She sounds confused, bitter, raging, vulnerable, yet more gloriously chaotic than we’ve ever heard her before. 

Even by Swiftian standards, she gets wildly ambitious with her songwriting here.This is an album that begins with an introductory poem by Stevie Nicks. The title song’s chorus goes, “You’re not Dylan Thomas/I’m not Patti Smith/This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel/We’re modern idiots.” In other words, it’s the small-town teen romance of “White Horse” updated for the big old city. Until you remember that the tortured poet Dylan Thomas famously died at his favorite Greenwich Village bar — which happened to be the White Horse Tavern. That’s the level she’s working on here.

Tortured Poets has the intimate sound of Folklore and Evermore, but with a coating of Midnights synth-pop gloss. The songs go for that detailed Folkmore style of storycraft, yet instead of fictional characters, she’s pouring her heart into her own deeply personal exorcisms. Sometimes her adult break-up tales are devastating, as in “So Long, London” or “loml.” Sometimes they’re hilarious, as in “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” or “Down Bad.” But they’re usually both. As she quips in “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” “Tell me everything’s not about me/But what if it is?”

You can hear that it’s an album made in the aftershock of the Eras Tour, which was bigger than even Taylor could have wildest-dreamed. One revelation from the Eras Tour was how epic the Folklore and (especially) Evermore songs sounded, when ringing out loud in a stadium. It sounds as though Swift was shocked at how it felt to play her quietest songs live and hear how gigantic they could be given enough room. So Tortured Poets feels like Swift writing those Folkmore-and-(especially)-Evermore ballads, but giving them that stadium power in the studio.

As for torture — she’s got loads of that. From the sound of Midnights, everybody figured her relationship with Joe Alwyn was a happy little “Sweet Nothing,” except now she portrays it as more like “Tolerate It” with a side order of “Bejeweled.” This is an album nobody saw coming, even though she gave so many signs.

If you’re looking for happy endings, you’ve got exactly one of those, in “The Alchemy.” It seems that Taylor has fallen for an NFL player — hey, has anyone heard about that? She has a blast with her love-is-like-football metaphors, singing, “When I touch down/Call the amateurs and cut them from the team.” She and Travis Kelce find true romance at the Super Bowl: “He was trying to be the greatest in the league / Where’s the trophy? He just comes running over to me.”

But if you’re stuck on happy endings, why the hell are you listening to a Taylor album? “The Alchemy” is an outlier on an album where her heart goes 1 for 16. My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys”and “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)” are witty reports on falling in love with needy men who don’t reciprocate. As the doll sings in “My Boy,” “Pull my string and I’ll tell you that he runs because he loves me.”

Some songs drop hints that dare you to take them as straight-up autobiography. Is she singing about Joe Alwyn here, Lucy Dacus there, Matty Healy everywhere? For many fans, her romance with Healy was already retconned out of their brains, yet she scatters not-necessarily-subtle clues. Like when an ex reminds her of the Eighties U.K. cult band, the Blue Nile: “He sent me ‘Downtown Nights,’ I hadn’t heard it in a while.” (That’s the song Healy basically rewrote for The 1975’s “Love If We Made It.” Do we even need to mention the song is from 1989?) But as she says bluntly in her poem, “He never even scratched the surface of me. None of them did.” 

Swift wrote two of the nastiest highlights solo, “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” and “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”  Post Malone sounds great in the single “Fortnight,” just as Florence Welch does in “Florida” (“it’s a hell of a drug”), with its dynamic chorus, “Fuck me up, Florida!” When it comes to a one-line summary of how it feels to be single and jaded in your 30s, you can’t do much better than “My friends all smell like weed or little babies.”

So many of these songs are adult Taylor, single again, revisiting the kind of zero-to-60 romantic crash-and-burns she used to cram into a weekend, back in her early albums, but from a new perspective. So there’s a dialogue between her teen and adult selves. “But Daddy I Love Him” is an update of “Love Story,” with a slightly older Romeo and Juliet, except this time her Shakespearean references come from Hamlet. “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” could be called “The Angriest Song I’ll  Ever Write,” bombarding an ex with rapid-fire questions: “Were you sent by someone who wanted me dead? Did you sleep with a gun underneath our bed? Were you writing a book? Were you a sleeper cell spy? In 50 years time will all this be declassified and you’ll confess why you did it?”

“The Manuscript” is a bonus track, but it’s one of the pivotal songs. (Taylor likes to do it that way—ask any fan of “New Romantics” or “Right Where You Left Me.”) A young woman falls for a charming older man: “He said if the sex was half as good as the conversation, soon they’d be pushing strollers/But soon it was over.” Looking back at it later, she still isn’t clear how she feels about this story.. (“He said since she was so wise beyond her years everything had been aboveboard/She wasn’t sure.”) But it’s her manuscript, and her life to write, just as it’s her name to disgrace. It’s not really a song about a man — it’s about a woman starting to see herself as the author, instead of just a character in her own life.

“The Black Dog” is another crucial bonus ballad, with a classic Nashville-worthy premise: her ex forgot to change his phone settings post-breakup, so she can still track his movements via GPS, and being Taylor, she does. (“You forgot to turn it off”? Yeah right — he’s a guy in a Taylor Swift song, which means he planned it that way.) She sees him walk into a bar called The Black Dog, where he hears one of their songs on the jukebox. (By the pop-punk troopers the Starting Line.). But he’s trying to pick up a girl who’s too young to recognize the tune. 

Stevie Nicks’ introductory poem (only in the physical edition) comes from last summer, dated August 13, with Stevie writing, “For T—and me…” It’s the kind of rock & roll melodrama Stevie knows well: “She looked back from her future/And shed a few tears/He looked into his past/And actually felt fear.” Stevie is a guiding angel all over these songs—so it’s a powerful moment when Taylor slips her into the killer finale “Clara Bow.” It’s an ode to a tragic 1920s movie star, which is definitely Stevie’s kind of thing. (One of her greatest recent songs is her ode to “Mabel Normand.”) 

Clara Bow was a flapper icon, starring in movies like Mantrap and It — the nickname “It Girl” was invented for her. But then she got abruptly forgotten and left behind by history. It’s a story Swift has told often before, from “The Lucky One” to “Nothing New.” But she’s singing in the voice of the starstruck small-town girl, flattered to be molded into a Hollywood ingenue. The suits tell her, “You look like Stevie Nicks in ’75, the hair and lips/Crowd goes wild at her fingertips/Half moonshine, a full eclipse.” (Fans of Taylor’s long-running obsession with solar eclipses will note the brilliant timing of this line.)

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But at the end of the song, the washed-up ingenue listens as her replacement gets a new set of compliments: “You look like Taylor Swift in this light/We’re loving it/You’ve got edge/She never did.” It’s the nightmare of “Nothing New” come true — people forget about yesterday’s ingenue. But this isn’t merely a song about show-biz. It’s about any adult who wonders why — after all these years — she still feels pain or terror when someone else lights up the room.

The Tortured Poets Department has a Reputation edge to it, and like Reputation, it sounds designed to confuse many people who try to decode it before listening. In her “Summary Poem,” Taylor calls it “a debrief, a detailed rewinding/For the purpose of warning/For the sake of reminding.” But anyone can hear that deep in the music. All over these songs, Taylor lives up to her credo that “all’s fair in love and poetry.” But as she shows in The Tortured Poets Department, both can get brutal.

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