Taylor Swift Renews Her Vows With Heartbreak in Audacious, Transfixing ‘Tortured Poets Department’: Album Review

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Would you be surprised to know (or be reminded) that Taylor Swift hasn’t really released a breakup album in a decade? For a gal who’s never really shorn that as her songwriting reputation, it’s funny to think that she’s spent the better part of the last 10 years being off-brand, in a manner of thinking, with most of her new material. Granted, it became hard to think of her as anything but the queen of bust-ups when “All Too Well” got transformed from a 2012 also-ran album track into the Song of the 2020s. And she’s had other things to write sadcore or madcore numbers about during that time (label splits, death or disease among loved ones, “Famous”-gate) along with her branching into fiction with her pandemic albums. But with a stable home life for more than six years, when it came to her most heartfelt material, these recent years have been more the era of “Lover” waltzes, invisible strings and sweet nothings.

Now, everyone gets to go back on “Red” alert. “The Tortured Poets Department” gives everyone a full dose of the never-getting-over-it Taylor that no one really wanted to get over. As breakup albums go, it’s a doozy, as they would have said back in Clara Bow’s day — an unapologetically dramatic (if often witty) record that will be soundtracking untold millions of tragic rifts to come. If you’ve been putting one off, now might not be a bad time to schedule it.

More from Variety

Not everyone flocks to a record like “Tortured Poets Department” because they want to relate it to their own past, present or future torment, although it doesn’t hurt. Fans comes to her with reason to care about how the songs refer to what we know, or at least think we know, about her own life, because the world loves a puzzle. And the tear-stained pieces here are just a hell of a lot of fun to move around the table, as confessional clues to mysteries she actually seems interested in letting the public solve (via records, anyway, if definitely not in the interviews she doesn’t do anymore). It’s not like she exactly lacked for candor as a writer at any point in the past, but “The Tortured Poets Department” feels like it comes the closest of any of her 11 original albums to just drilling a tube directly into her brain and letting listeners mainline what comes out. If you value this confessional quality most of all, she’s still peaking: As a culmination of her particular genius for marrying cleverness with catharsis, “Tortured” kind of feels like the Taylor Swift-est Taylor Swift record ever.

For where it sits in her catalog musically, it feels like the synth-pop of “Midnights,” with most of the feel-good buzz stripped out; or like the less acoustic based moments of “Folklore” and “Evermore,” with her penchant for pure autobiography stripped back in. It feels bracing, and wounded, and cocky, and — not to be undervalued in this age — handmade, however many times she stacks her own vocals for an ironic or real choral effect. Occasionally the music gets stripped down all the way to a piano, but it has the effect of feeling naked even when she goes for a bop that feels big enough to join the setlist in her stadium tour resumption, like “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.”

The first time you listen to the album, you may be stricken by the “Wait, did she really just say that?” moments. (And no, we’re not referring to the already famous Charlie Puth shout-out, though that probably counts, too.) Whatever feeling you might have had hearing “Dear John” for the first time, if you’re old enough to go back that far with her, that may be the feeling you have here listening to the eviscerating “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived,” or a few other tracks that don’t take much in the way of prisoners. Going back to it, on second, fifth and tenth listens, it’s easier to keep track of the fact that the entire album is not that emotionally intense, and that there are romantic, fun and even silly numbers strewn throughout it, if those aren’t necessarily the most striking ones on first blush. Yes, it’s a pop album as much as a vein-opening album, although it may not produce the biggest number of Top 10 hits of anything in her catalog. It doesn’t seem designed not to produce those, either; returning co-producers Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner aren’t exactly looking to keep her off the radio. But it’s easily among her most lyrics-forward efforts, rife with a language lover’s wordplay, tumults of sequential similes and — her best weapon — moments of sheer bluntness.

Who are these songs about? It’s the obvious question, and not the one most often or easily addressed in album reviews. But then, very few of the normal rules of critical engagement apply when we’re dealing with the biggest music star on the planet, whose affections are generally public over time — and who in this case has actually written an epic poem for the album packaging that pretty much renders her romantic history 100% clear. It’s there, in the handwritten poem (which is labeled “In Summary”), that she gives full shape to the overall arc of the album narrative. Swift writes that “the pendulum swings” from one extreme to the other, in matters of love, eventually making clear that one failed love gave way to another. “Lovers spend years denying what’s ill fated / Resentment rotting away galaxies we created / Tried wishing on comets, tried dimming the shine / Tried to orbit his planet / Some stars never align / And in one conversation, I tore down the whole sky.” That, for purposes of archetyping, marks the end of a relationship with a controlling Good Guy… soon giving way to the ne’er-do-well but utterly irresistible Bad Boy, with whom she shares “a mutual manic phase.” Toward the end of the poem, she adds: “A smirk creeps onto this poet’s face / Because it’s the worst men that I write best.”

Who is the worst man that she delights in writing about through the majority of the album? Perhaps not the one you were guessing, weeks ago. There are archetypal good guy and bad boy figures who have been part of her life, whom everyone will transpose onto this material. Coming into “Tortured Poets,” the joke was that someone should keep Joe Alwyn, publicly identified as her steady for six-plus years, under mental health watch when the album comes out. As it turns out, he will probably be able to sleep just fine. The other bloke, the one everyone assumed might be too inconsequential to trouble her or write about — let’s put another name to that archetype: Matty Healy of the 1975 — might lose a little sleep instead, if the fans decide that the cutting “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” and other lacerating songs are about him, instead. He might also have cause to feel flattered, because there are plenty of songs extolling him as an object of abject passion and the love of her life — in, literally, the song title “LOML” — before the figure who animated all this gets sliced down to size.

The older love, he gets all of one song, as far as can be ascertained: the not so subtly titled “So Long, London,” a dour sequel to 2019’s effusive “London Boy.” Well, he gets a bit more than that: The amusingly titled “Fresh Out the Slammer” devotes some verses to a man she paints as her longtime jailer (“Handcuffed to the spell I was under / For just one hour of sunshine / Years of labor, locks and ceilings / In the shade of how he was feeling.” But ultimately it’s really devoted to the “pretty baby” who’s her first phone call once she’s been sprung from the relationship she considered her prison.

It’s complicated, as they say. For most of the album, Swift seesaws between songs about being in thrall to never-before-experienced passion and personal compatibility with a guy from the wrong side of the tracks. She feels “Guilty as Sin?” for imagining a consummation that at first seems un-actionable, if far from unthinkable; she swears “But Daddy I Love Him” in the face of family disapproval; she thinks “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can),” before an epiphany slips out in the song’s hilariously anticlimactic final line: “Woah, maybe I can’t.” Then the most devastating songs about being ghosted pop up in the album’s later going.

But in the meantime, she leaves all the happy songs written about this character on the permanent record. And it’s clear she still means it when she rips everyone who ever judged her about the affair a new one: “I’d rather burn my while life down / Than listen to one more second to this bitching and moaning / I’ll tell you something about my good name / It’s mine alone to disgrace /I don’t cater to  all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing… God save the most judgmental creeps who say they want what’s best for me / Sanctimoniously performing soliloquies I’ll never see.”

Now, that, friends, is a righteous tirade. And it’s one of the most thrilling single moments in Swift’s recorded career. “But Daddy I Love Him” has a joke for a title (it’s a line borrowed from “The Little Mermaid”), but the song is an ecstatic companion piece to “That’s the Way I Loved You,” from her second album, now with Swift running off with the bad choice instead of just mourning him. It’s the rare song from her Antonoff/Dessner period that sounds like it could be out of the more “organic”-sounding, band-focused Nathan Chapman era, but with a much more matured writing now than then… even if the song is about embracing the immature.

The album gets off to a deceptively benign start with “Fortnight,” the collaboration with Post Malone that is its first single. Both he and the record’s other featured artist, Florence of Florence + the Machine, wrote the lyrics for their own sections, but Posty hangs back more, as opposed to the true duet with Florence; he echoes Swift’s leads before finally settling in with his own lines right at the end. Seemingly unconnected to the subject matter of the rest of the record, “Fortnight” seems a little like “Midnights” Lite. It rues a past quickie romance that the singer can’t quite move on from, even as she and her ex spend time with each other’s families. It’s breezy, and a good choice for pop radio, but not much of an indication of the more visceral, obsessive stuff to come.

The title track follows next and stays in the summer-breeze mode. It’s jangly-guitar-pop in the mode of “Mirrorball,” from “Folklore”… and it actually feels completely un-tortured, despite the ironic title. After the lovers bond over Charlie Puth being underrated (let’s watch those “One Call Away” streams soar), and over how “you’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith,” an inter-artist romance seems firmly in place. “Who’s gonna hold you like me?” she asks aloud. (She later changes it to “troll you.”) She answers herself: “Nofuckinbody.” Sweet, and If you came to this album for any kind of idyll, enjoy this one while it lasts, which isn’t for long.

True trouble sets in with the third song, “My Boy Breaks All His Favorite Toys,” with its semi-martial synth-pop, and the discomfiting thought that Swift is basically a busted-up and abandoned Weird Barbie, though she “felt more when we played pretend / Than with all the Kens / Cause he took me out of my box.” Things grow more dire still with “Down Bad,” which has Antonoff reemploying a trick that worked on “Midnights” — a sinuous groove, topped by a kind of of distorted-electronic voice effect as its own instrumental track — but to capture a mood of heartbreak, not the previous album’s faintly blissed-out erotica. She’s “crying at the gym / Everything comes out teenage petulance / Fuck it if I can’t have him.” Parental warning: she drops an F-bomb about a thousand times in “Down Bad” (the album’s catchiest song), and she’s far from done.

From here, the album is kind of all over the map, when it comes to whether she’s in the throes of passion or the throes of despair… with that epic poem in the album booklet to let you know how the pieces all fit together. (The album also includes a separate poem from Stevie Nicks, addressing the same love affair that is the main subject of the album, in a protective way.)

There are detours that don’t have to do with the romantic narrative, but not many. The collaboration with Florence + the Machine, “Florida!!!,” is the album’s funniest track, if maybe its least emotionally inconsequential. It’s literally about escape, and it provides some escapism right in the middle of the record, along with some BAM-BAM-BAM power-chord dynamics in an album that often otherwise trends soft. If you don’t laugh out loud the first time that Taylor’s and Florence’s voices come together in harmony to sing the line “Fuck me up, Florida,” this may not be the album for you.

When the album’s track list was first revealed, it almost seemed like one of those clever fakes that people delight in trolling the web with. Except, who would really believe that, instead of song titles like “Maroon,” Swift would suddenly be coming up with “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys,” “Fresh Out the Slammer,” “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” and “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”? This sounded like a Morrissey track list, not one of Swift’s. But she’s loosened up, in some tonal sense, even as she’s as serious as a heart attack on a lot of these songs. There is blood on the tracks, but also a wit in the way she’s employing language and being willing to make declarations that sound a little outlandish before they make you laugh.

Toward the end of the album, she presents three songs that aren’t “about” anybody else… just about, plainly, Taylor Swift. That’s true of “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?,” a song that almost sounds like an outtake from the “Reputation” album, or else a close cousin to “Folklore’s” “Mad Woman,” with Swift embracing the role of vengeful witch, in response to being treated as a circus freak — exact contemporary impetus unknown.

In the closing number on the standard edition, “Clara Bow,” Swift actually name-checks herself, in the third person, speaking in another character’s voice. Solipsistic? You could call it that, but since everyone else has earned the right to comment at length on the person and phenomenon of Taylor Swift, maybe she ought to be granted it, too. The track is presented as a series of seemingly laudatory speeches about starlets — the silent film star Bow, then Stevie Nicks, then herself — where godhood is guaranteed as long as they “promise to be dazzling.” In the final verse, the next woman is assured she’s a lock for the lineage of It Girls: “You look like Taylor Swift / In this light / We’re loving it / You’ve got edge / She never did.”

Whatever criticisms anyone will make of “The Tortured Poets Department,” though — not enough bangers? too personal? — “edge”-lessness shouldn’t be one of them. In this album’s most bracing songs, it’s like she brought a knife to a fistfight. There’s blood on the tracks, good blood.

Sure to be one of the most talked-about and replayed tracks, “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” has a touch of a Robyn-style dancing-through-tears ethos to it. But it’s clearly about the parts of the Eras Tour when she was at her lowest, and faking her way through it. “I’m so depressed I act like it’s my birthday — every day,” she sings, in the album’s peppiest number — one that recalls a more dance-oriented version of the previous album’s “Mastermind.” It’s not hard to imagine that when she resumes the tour in Paris next month, and has a new era to tag onto the end of the show, “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” might be the new climax, in place of “Karma.” “You know you’re good when you can do it with a broken heart,” she humble-brags, “and I’m good, ‘cause I’m miserable / And nobody even knows! / Try and come for my job.”

Not many superstars would devote an entire song to confessing that they’ve only pretended to be the super-happy figure fans thought they were seeing pass through their towns, and that they were seeing a illusion. (Presumably she doesn’t have to fake it in the present day, but that’s the story of the next album, maybe.) But that speaks to the dichotomy that has always been Taylor Swift: on record, as good and honest a confessional a singer-songwriter as any who ever passed through the ports of rock credibility; in concert, a great, fulsome entertainer like Cher squared. Fortunately, in Swift, we’ve never had to settle for just one or the other. No one else is coming for either job — our best heartbreak chronicler or our most uplifting popular entertainer. It’s like that woman in the movie theater says: Heartache feels good in a place like that. And it sure feels grand presented in its most distilled, least razzly-dazzly essence in “The Tortured Poets Department.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.