Taylor Swift: The Tortured Poets Department review – a whole lotta love gone bad

<span>‘Wise enough to pillory herself throughout’: Taylor Swift.</span><span>Photograph: Beth Garrabrant</span>
‘Wise enough to pillory herself throughout’: Taylor Swift.Photograph: Beth Garrabrant

In a time of so many upended certainties, Taylor Swift’s 11th album arrives as a tale very much foretold. It’s no genre bolt from the blue like Beyoncé’s recent country album; it delivers not just what Tayloristas have been speculating about furiously for months, but more: a surprise second album, The Tortured Poets Department: the Anthology, dropped at 2am the night after the first album’s release. When the LP’s title was announced in February, and the track listing in March, the question was never if, but merely how hard, Swift’s most recent exes – specifically, British actor Joe Alwyn, but also Matt Healy from the 1975 – were going to be hung out to dry. As “William Bowery”, Alwyn had songwriter credits on three Swift albums – Folklore (2020), Evermore (2020) and Midnights (2022) – and it’s pretty safe to assume he is receiving a great many of the demerits here as Swift gnashes, accuses, mourns, self-flagellates, likens her time with him to a prison (Fresh Out the Slammer) and longs to be taken away in a spaceship (Down Bad) and calls for an exorcist (the sombre bonus piano ballad, how did it end?).

Speculating is, of course, all part of the package; a Swiftie-an safe space, you might call it. Her first song widely understood to be about Alwyn was London Boy (on Lover, 2019). One track here is called, pointedly, So Long, London; it doesn’t take an ultra stan to read it as Swift’s Brexit. It only gets messier from there on in. Healy is likely the subject of the Smallest Man Alive, probably the album’s sickest burn, and perhaps handful of other caustic putdowns.

According to some, the album’s title reportedly comes from a WhatsApp group Alwyn was part of with fellow actors Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott – a reference, apparently, to characters Alwyn and Mescal have played in Sally Rooney adaptations (Scott had a role in Rooney director Lenny Abrahamson’s film Normal People Confessions). The album’s release date, 19 April, also marks the start of the American Revolution, when the US split from the UK.

By the end, some might hanker for a song about something other than romantic discontent

Swift is obviously wise enough to pillory herself throughout as well – the billionaire lyric writer is, after all, the actual tortured poet in this relationship – and to dismantle literary expectations. “You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith, this ain’t the Chelsea hotel,” she tells an unspecified man who has left a typewriter at her apartment on the title track. The physical album comes bookended by two poems – or, perhaps, lyrics without music. One is by Stevie Nicks, the patron saint of confessional sirens, and one is a self-justifying text by Swift that ends “all’s fair in love and poetry” – with poetry pointedly standing in for war. “It’s the worst men that I write best,” she zings, by way of scant consolation. It’s worth noting that Swift is now in a new relationship, with American football player Travis Kelce, a pairing that may be the meat of So High School from The Anthology, a track that is almost indie rock.

Not everything here is a roman à clef. A few songs that may read like allegorical short stories – But Daddy I Love Him is a tremendous, Springsteen-like mini-epic set in a stultifying small town – still contain autobiographical signals. “I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empaths’ clothing,” Swift seethes. She is responding perhaps, to fans’ parasocial concerns about her choice of squire – the kind that surrounded her tryst with Healy.

After a pair of lockdown albums – Folklore, Evermore – made with producer Aaron Dessner in which Swift’s music became more low-key and semi-fictional, and the more electronic-hued Midnights, made with Jack Antonoff, which also retained a pensive mien, Tortured Poets Department finds Swift back on brand in various ways: nailing love to the wall and watching the ooze trickle and dry, often doing so in a more emphatic, rather than a gauzy manner. Swift isn’t quite shouting at the end of songs as she did some years ago, but her definiteness, her strong outlines, are back. Antonoff is the major collaborator; Dessner’s credits on songs such as So Long, London come as a surprise. The sentiments “fuck it” and “fuck ’em” recur.

On Reputation (2017), Swift revelled in loose-cannon mode. Perhaps the most outstanding track here is the loudest of all. Florida!!! – which deserves its three exclamation marks, rendered aurally as huge drums – finds Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine duetting with Swift in a high-stakes tune about going awol in the party state, escaping their mistakes – or perhaps throwing exes into a swamp.

Not everything here is quite as lively. The Anthology songs are sadder and quieter. At 17 tracks, not counting bonuses, this department feels a mite overstaffed; at twice the length, that goes double. As with many artists, it’s often tricky to date songs exactly. Some of this heartbreak seems to cast back further than the six years of Swift’s tenure with Alwyn, describing more youthful situations. The piano-led Loml (“love of my life”) appears to be about the one that got away (he’s “the loss of my life”).

By the end, some might hanker for a song about something other than romantic discontent. Even Swift knows we have been here before. “I know I’m just repeating myself,” she croons on My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys, a rueful allegory about a doll, toyed with and broken. Squint, and it’s a standout song that got away from the Barbie soundtrack. Only a handful of songs break from heartbreak. A tune from The Anthology styled “thanK you aIMee” spells out “Kim”, but Swift’s words technically frame a teenage tormentor, rather than more recent hostilities with the (then) Kardashian-Wests. Cassandra, another bonus outing, deals with the difference between truth and public assumptions.

Ultimately, this may be Swift’s most Swiftian album: the unhappiness profound, the details generous, the lessons absorbed. We reward Taylor Swift – one of the giants of popular song – handsomely to conduct postmortems on her affairs and extract value: vengeance and wisdom, dopamine hits and succour. The Alchemy is a song about, yes, an old love, but Swift makes gold out of processing her romantic travails. She is sitting on a glittering pile of it here.