Taylor Swift – ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ review: pop’s prolific queen sorts through love’s wreckage

On her 11th studio album, the superstar makes her feelings about meddling fans and aesthetic expectations resoundingly clear


The last few years have been nothing short of prolific for Taylor Swift. As well as re-recording four of her first six albums, she’s also put out ‘Midnights’ and embarked on a headline-dominating, globe-straddling mega tour with ‘The Eras’. That’s more than enough work for three years for anyone except, apparently, Swift. While collecting the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album in February, she shocked fans by announcing a brand new album, ‘The Tortured Poets Department’, instead of the ‘Reputation (Taylor’s Version)’ news they were expecting. 

That new record is no half-hearted effort, either. It spans 16 songs and 65 minutes, full of songs the pop superstar has said she “needed” to write. The album’s title – presumed to be a riff on the name of the group chat her ex-boyfriend Joe Alwyn had with Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott – caused speculation that this would be a break-up album focused on the English actor. But, here, Swift has hoodwinked us once again, delivering instead a record that seems to centre mostly on her brief romance with The 1975’s Matty Healy than the six years she spent with Alwyn. 

Those recollections and documentations of a short-lived fling are likely to be contentious, not least the country-tinged ‘But Daddy I Love Him’, in which Swift decries her own fans’ reaction to the relationship. At the time, there were widespread complaints from Swifties, who felt their hero being associated with Healy – then embroiled in a racism controversy around a podcast he’d taken part in – would be damaging to her reputation. 


Back then, Swift remained silent over her choices, but makes her feelings very clear here. “I’ll tell you something right now / I’d rather burn my whole life down / Than listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning,” she spits. The following line makes a subtle but strong point about what our entertainers owe us in terms of policing their private lives: “I’ll tell you something about my good name / It’s mine alone to disgrace.” 

Dissecting this relationship brings moments of brilliance. ‘But Daddy I Love Him’ is perhaps the best track on the album, Swift dazzling in defiant form. ‘I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)’ opens with the striking imagery of a “smoke cloud billow[ing] out his mouth like a freight train through a small town”, and ‘loml’ searingly captures the intense rush of a love that goes from 0 to 100 in a click of the fingers. 

On the record’s title track, she delivers the sharp, self-aware line: “You’re not Dylan Thomas and I’m not Patti Smith / We’ll save the Chelsea Hotel for modern idiots.” But that song contains clangers, too. “You smoked then ate seven bars of chocolate / We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist,” Swift recalls fondly. Unless she’s trying to make a point about the stupidity that takes over your brain when you’re high, it’s a lyric that crashes and burns. 

Unlike the reception the star has received on her path to total world domination over the last few years, ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ isn’t flawless. ‘I Can Do It With A Broken Heart’ takes the form of a girl boss anthem, all fast rippling, sparkling synths and commands like “Lights, camera, bitch smile / Even when you wanna die”. It’s shiny and upbeat, but musically it feels uninspired and a little tired.

There are songs about Alwyn too, but where ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ gets most interesting is when Swift takes us inside her relationship with fame. In ‘Clara Bow’, she dissects the pressures to always look good and always be beautiful – and how those who follow in her footsteps will be compared to her for years to come. “It’s hell on earth to be heavenly,” she admits before mimicking the comments younger stars will receive: “You look like Taylor Swift / In this light, we’re loving it / You’ve got edge, she never did.” 

Two special guests bring their own input to ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ in songs that seem to be linked. First, Post Malone is criminally under-used on opening track ‘Fortnight’. The singer and rapper appears spectre-like towards the song’s end, bemoaning “another fortnight lost in America”. Later, he sings of moving to Florida, while Swift shares: “My husband is cheating, I want to kill him.” In the album’s second half, Florence + The Machine turns up on ‘Florida!!!’, in which Swift declares the much-maligned state to be “one hell of a drug”. As Florence Welch’s dramatic vocals cut through, she hushes conspiratorially: “And your cheating husband disappeared / Well, no one asks any questions here.” 

On the sprawling ‘Who’s Afraid Of Little Old Me?’, Swift notes how the “circus life” of the music industry has “made me mean” and tongue-in-cheek addresses her longevity: “Put narcotics into all of my songs / And that’s why you’re still singing along,” she sneers. But ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ doesn’t have the impact that you’d expect from her usually. Knowing Swift, it’s very probable these songs will reveal more layers over time, but on its initial unveiling, there are few tracks with lasting immediacy. Given the high standards that Swift is held to and the dazzling bar she’s set for herself, ‘TTPD’ feels underwhelming. 

Regardless, Swift’s run as the biggest star on the planet will remain unchallenged, but perhaps this album just brings her down closer to our level again. Not even pop icons can get it right every time, especially not when they’re working as tirelessly as Taylor Swift. 

taylor-swift-the-tortured-poets-department-reviewReleased April 19 2024