Taylor Swift: The Tortured Poets Department track by track review – A manifesto for all the believers who will try at love one more time

Superstar’s 11th studio album is the fruit of abject misery but is also steeped in the singer’s trademark indefatigable optimism

Taylor Swift: The Tortured Poets Department cover art
The Tortured Poets Department
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Artist: Taylor Swift
Label: EMI

Last year was the biggest of Taylor Swift’s life. Her Eras tour sent her into the stratosphere of fame and critical acclaim: sold-out shows across the biggest stadiums in the world. Each show was a three-hour journey through her catalogue, from the plucky banjos of her early career to the wistful folk of the pandemic. And she did it all with a smile on her face.

Who was to know that behind it all she was falling apart? The 16 songs on The Tortured Poets Department (plus 15 bonus songs on the extended Anthology version of the album) tracks her descent into devastatation as her six-year relationship with Joe Alwyn died and a new muse came along to break her. But this album is not just a postmortem of total emotional collapse, a bid to reckon with the shape, size and contours of loss. It is also an argument: a two-month fling can ruin your life more than the slow death of a long-term love. Swift has never been more honest: every frisson of madness is expressed, every destructive thought excavated. The Tortured Poets Department is mania set to synths.

Reputation, her 2017 album, pretended to be angry and vituperative – a middle finger to all her professional enemies. And there are sonic resonances here on the louder, bass-heavy tracks, such as My Boy Only Breaks His Favourite Toys. But in reality Reputation was a gooey and sentimental love story. This time she’s mad as hell, for real. But Daddy I Love Him is a sharp-tongued rebuff to the “judgmental creeps” who disapproved of her publicly controversial lover. In The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived, Swift turns on the muse, more venomous than ever.

But she thrives most in abject misery. In loml (the track’s title is short for love of my life) she is broken and defeated by the man she always believed she would marry. I Can Do It with a Broken Heart is an anthem for anyone who has put on a brave face at a party but cried on the train home.


Swift’s career has been punctuated by failed love, from heady teenage heartache to the adult loss of a soul mate. And now she stands, at 34, older but no wiser, falling for the same bad men in an endless cycle. There is a harsh lesson here: cosmic heartbreak teaches you nothing, and maybe that’s the worst thing about it.

So why, then, after all of this does she keep coming back? In Mirrorball, from her 2020 album Folklore, she wonders the same: “I’m still a believer, but I don’t know why.” In spite of the staggering melancholy and anger, it is this indefatigable optimism that is the true soul of The Tortured Poets Department, a manifesto for all the believers who, after all this pain, will try at love one more time.

1: Fortnight feat Post Malone

Swift wastes no time in establishing her thesis: “I love you. It’s ruining my life.” It’s only the opening track and she’s already spiralling. She wants to kill everyone. But through it all she can still write an impossibly catchy hook.

2: The Tortured Poets Department

Swift is funnier than she is given credit for. But it doesn’t always land. The title track is totally overwritten: frankly, she sounds like a pretentious ass. She leaves no space for the song to breathe, cramming in as many words as she can. It is wearying. But, of course, she knows all of this. She sings to the muse, “You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith” (though secretly she thinks she’s something better – and maybe she is).

3: My Boy Only Breaks His Favourite Toys

This song has a lot going on: big drums, a very assertive bass, synths all over the place. It’s like an assault. But it’s completely charming. Swift reckons that her man loves her so much – and that is precisely why he can’t stop hurting her feelings. These are the lofty heights of delusion that only the truly lovesick can aspire to.

4: Down Bad

On 1989, her 2014 album, Swift threatens to jump off a building to get her lover’s attention. On Folklore she sings breezily about driving off a cliff. But this entire album leans a little too heavily on the blunt metaphor: “F*** it: if I can’t have him, I might just die. It would make no difference.” We’ve all been there. But politeness demands we keep this hyperbole to ourselves. Unless, of course, you’re the greatest confessional writer of the 21st century.

5: So Long, London

The song bursts into an arresting gallop with a pulsing, high-tempo synth. Swift’s not a powerhouse vocalist, but her voice has an irresistible buttery quality, best used in a lower register. The relationship is over; she’s packing her stuff and leaving it all behind. The pace reflects a horrible truth: even the slow, looming and inevitable death of a long-term relationship can still feel like a panic attack.

6: But Daddy I Love Him

Swift’s great internal conflict – how to reconcile her desire for normal love with her fame – is a constant motif in the latter half of her career. In Peace, another track from Folklore, she worries that her life is simply too big to make her muse happy. “Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?” Same old for poor Tay. But this time she isn’t resigned: she’s defiant. “I’d rather burn my whole life down than listen to one more second of this bitching and moaning.” This Springsteenesque track, with its “screeching tyres of true love”, will sound amazing in a stadium.

7: Fresh Out the Slammer

One thing to know about Swift: when she happens upon a metaphor she will excavate it to the point of death. This charmingly naive tendency is on full display here. But the prechorus melody scratches an itch you never knew you had.

8: Florida!!! (feat Florence + the Machine)

This doesn’t work. Florence Welch’s huge vocals and Swift’s comparatively soft tone fight with each other. But good news for anyone who likes drums!

9: Guilty as Sin?

Just as in But Daddy I Love Him, Swift is rejecting the peering eyes and sanctimony of the public. She doesn’t care what they say about her muse: “They’re going to crucify me anyway.” So she chooses him, religiously.

10: Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?

Swift is good when she’s angry. She’s effervescent when she’s sad. But she just does not pull off menacing. This song sounds like halfhearted western, pistols-at-dawn music. “You wouldn’t last an hour in the asylum where they raised me,” she sings. In reality she grew up on a Christmas-tree farm in Pennsylvania. Whimsy is encoded in her DNA. There’s no use pretending otherwise.

11: I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)

Swift’s roots are in country music, and she cannot conceal its centrality to her songwriting, even on a synth-pop album. “I can fix him,” she convinces herself throughout, until the last second: “Woah, maybe I can’t.” This bait and switch couldn’t be more Nashville. Yeehaw Taylor peaks through the cracks, always.

12: loml

Oh dear, she’s so sad. The album finds its form again after the two preceding tracks. Swift feels hoodwinked, lied to. He told her she was the love of his life a million times. Why did no one tell her the truth? This is the kind of earth-shattering heartbreak you never recover from, the kind that time can never mend. There is no artifice on this song. She’s misery incarnate and she’s going to tell you about it.

13: I Can Do It with a Broken Heart

Brace for sonic whiplash. The influence of Swift’s long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff could not be more apparent: the whooping and hollering in the background, the gallop-along verses ... Is that a cowbell? Swift is brimming with self-confidence despite her total despair. She knows she is the cause celebre of the 21st century. And, sure, he hurt her feelings. But she’s too good to let it matter.

14: The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived

She can never leave well enough alone. This is an attempt at getting the last word, a roster of every bad thing her lover did. She’ll forget him, but she’ll never forgive.

15: The Alchemy

And for the optimism. Whoever drove Swift to breakdown is irrelevant now. She has met someone new. Is this finally the “end of all these endings”? For her sanity and ours, let’s hope so.

16: Clara Bow

“You look like Taylor Swift in this light,” she winks at the close of the album. Swift is terrified of being replaced by a new ingenue. This anxiety drives her to greater madness than any bad boyfriend might.

Finn McRedmond

Finn McRedmond

Finn McRedmond, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column