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First Impressions: Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department' Is Every Bit the Epic Affair It Was Expected to Be

The record might have song titles straight out of Morrissey's playbook, but the lyrics are 100% Taylor.

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Source: Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift, finally getting some rest now that she's released 'The Tortured Poets Department.'

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The release of a new Taylor Swift album was always destined to be an epic affair – once you’ve achieved the level of superstardom that Swift has, every little move you make is immediately deemed epic, no matter how insignificant it may ultimately turn out to be – but the singer-songwriter’s latest album, The Tortured Poets Department, legitimately is epic.

First and foremost, it’s an epic breakup album...and before you start to argue that they’re all breakup albums, let me assure you that I’ve checked with a card-carrying Swiftie (my 18-year-old daughter), and this is a false perception perpetuated by comedians looking for easy pop-culture punchlines: her last proper breakup album was 2012’s Red.

Beyond that, though, it’s also an epic journey through the recent life and times of Taylor Swift, providing not only a plethora of occasionally-only-slightly-couched glimpses into what I’m led to understand are her relationships and/or “situationships” with Joe Alwyn, Matty Healy and, yes, even Travis Kelce, but also her career and her musical evolution.

As such, is it any wonder that the listener also walks away feeling as though they’ve just experienced the end result of an artist’s epic catharsis?

So, yeah, The Tortured Poets Department is absolutely and unquestionably an epic piece of work. And now that we’ve settled that, let’s get into it.

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A bit before the album dropped, Swift revealed on social media that the album’s opener, “Fortnight,” was going to be the first single, and it’s no real shocker to learn that she’s a massive Post Malone fan, since she’s long past actually needing very special guest stars on her album. Sonically, it’s a perfect way of easing Midnights fans into the new album, but Malone’s vocals are extremely well-utilized in this synthpop setting. Honestly, to offer an old-school frame of reference, it’s a bit like the interplay of Neil Tennant’s voice against Bernard Sumner’s on Electronic’s “Getting Away With It.” (Google it, kids...or better yet, just click right here.)

And as long as we’re discussing the collaborations on the album, we might as well jump ahead to the one Swift does with Florence + the Machine: “Florida!!!” In addition to offering up a lyric that any single person whose pals are starting families can probably identify with (“And my friends all smell like weed or little babies”), it also features one hell of a chorus. Okay, so it’s not exactly what you’d call radio-friendly, and it’s probably not destined to be used in any future state tourism campaign, but it’s amusingly memorable and makes great use of its guest star.

But having tackled these two tracks, let’s now talk about the rest of the album, as it’s otherwise all Taylor, all the time...as if anyone else could tell these stories, right?

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The Tortured Poets Department is an album that requires more than one listen to fully absorb, since the initial spin is one that – while consistently enjoyable from a musical standpoint – kind of goes by in a flurry of memorable couplets, sick burns, and F-bombs...not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s also a record that, to be perfectly honest, would probably go down even more smoothly if it came with footnotes. The phrase “you can’t tell the players without a scorecard” is extremely apt when it comes to figuring out the subjects of songs like “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys,” “But Daddy I Love Him” and “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived.” If you don't know the lore, you likely won't have a clue as to who's who.

Mind you, you don’t have to be a master of interpretation to spot the aforementioned Mr. Kelce as the inspiration for “The Alchemy,” in which Swift sings, “So when I touch down / Call the amateurs and cut ‘em from the team.”

But having said that, you don’t need to know who the other songs are about to appreciate the level of romantic confusion and heartbreak that went into penning lines like these:

  • “F--- it if I can’t have him / I might just die, it would make no difference.” (“Down Bad”)
  • “I stopped CPR, after all, it’s no use / The spirit was gone, we would never come to / And I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free.” (“So Long, London”)
  • “My friends tried, but I wouldn’t hear it / Watch me daily disappearing / For just one glimpse of his smile.” (“Fresh Out the Slammer”)
  • “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 Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” which features a dancefloor-filling chorus that Erasure would kill for)
  • "You lowdown boy, you standoff guy / You holy ghost, you told me I'm the love of your life / You said I'm the love of your life / About a million times" ("loml")
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There are two tracks that top out at over five minutes - "But Daddy I Love Him" and "Who's Afraid of Little Old Me?" - but both are strong storytelling songs that never overstay their welcome. In particular, the latter definitely should definitely serve as fair warning for Travis Kelce (as if the rest of the record doesn't do that anyway) with the way she delivers the title and then adds, "You should be..."

The Tortured Poets Department might have song titles straight out of Morrissey's playbook, but the lyrics are 100% Taylor, and she delivers them in a manner that's sometimes flip, sometimes devastating, but always effective. By the end of listening to the album once, it already feels like it's time to listen to it again, at least partially because it seems like the least you can do for someone baring their soul is give their album back-to-back spins, but also because it's arguably the strongest consecutive collection of songs she's delivered since :::checks discography::: Red.

Huh. What do you know? Guess heartbreak really does pay off sometimes.

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In closing, you may have noticed my earlier reference to an 18-year-old Swiftie. That would be my daughter, Allyson, who - like her ancient father - stayed up to listen to this album at the moment it dropped. Being as she's currently a freshman in college, she's developed far better note-taking habits than I currently possess, and she penned some thoughts about the record that reveal far more knowledge about Taylor's back catalog and personal life than I personally possess.

Here are some highlights from her notes, published with her permission:


I have to say, when I heard there was going to be a Post Malone feature, I was a little hesitant, but I shouldn’t have been. This is such a great album opener and their voices work really well together. Although the sound isn’t what I would’ve preferred as a fan of Swift’s older work more than recent works, it has the production I’ve grown to appreciate, as it shares a lot of similarities with Midnights. I like how the vocals are layered - as neutral as I am on Jack Antonoff’s production usually, I have to say he’s very talented in his element (this).

The Tortured Poets Department:

Swift hasn’t released a title track since Evermore in 2020, and this lives up to her hiatus. The opening is reminiscent of Speak Now vault track “Foolish One.” Swift namedrops in the chorus, something she has tended to stay away from in the past. I seriously doubt there is any connection, but my immediate thought is that Swift’s close friend, Phoebe Bridgers, has songs titled “Dylan Thomas” and “Chelsea.” I’m a big fan of interesting rhymes, and rhyming “apartment” with “department” won me over.

My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys:

On first listen, this song immediately reminded me of the 3 AM track on Midnights, “The Great War.” I like the chord progression in the chorus a lot - the switch from major to minor was a cool addition that I often don’t hear in Swift’s music. I think I’d like this song more if it had different production. Swift has shown in the past how much variety she’s capable of on a single album (I’m looking at you, “Better Than Revenge”), and I think this could have worked better with more real instruments rather than the synths that appear all over this album and have become her “sound.” Swift is known for her incredible bridges, and this song does not lack one.

So Long, London

Since “White Horse” on Swift’s sophomore album, Fearless, Swifties have been taught to both fear and anticipate track 5’s. Notoriously the most heartbreaking and vulnerable songs on the album, “So Long, London” does not veer far from this expectation. Swift is known for her use of prolonged metaphors, one she does well with water in this song. After Swift’s break from her London Boy last year this song was presumed to be about Joe Alwyn, but nothing can be confirmed. “I died on the altar waiting for the proof” is reminiscent of Swift’s “Champagne Problems” on Evermore, the story of a woman leaving a relationship because she is not mentally well enough to be involved.


Despite Swift’s love of featuring her colleagues on music, she's notorious for not giving them much spotlight and only background vocals. In "Florida!!!," this is not the case! Florence + The Machine have their own verse and their vocals work really well together. “A cheating husband disappeared” is reminiscent of "No Body, No Crime," Swift’s song about a murder on Evermore featuring HAIM. I appreciate the use of real drums in this song, the rest of this album uses predominantly “fake” drums.


Swift has moved away from her roots of just a piano and a guitar in recent years, and "loml" is her way back. I was not anticipating this to be the most heartbreaking song on the album, as "loml" typically refers to “love of my life,” but as we learn here, it instead refers to “loss of my life." I think that this could 100% been the track 5 - it’s so specific and vulnerable. Swift has not been this specific about her breakups in the past.

The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived

Despite the piano intro being reminiscent of Midnight’s "Sweet Nothing," the similarities end there. "The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived" is another vulnerable attack to the heartstrings, specifically to Taylor’s short king situationship, Matty Healy. Swift spends this song ripping into the target of the song. Despite Swift keeping her relationships relatively private, she is not afraid of writing metaphoric poetry about them.

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