The Tortured Poets Department—And Its Surprise Companion, The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology—Mine Darkness to Pop Perfection

Early on Friday morning, Taylor Swift, literary It Girl of the pop charts, dropped her 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, and 15 surprise tracks, dubbed The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.

If listening to a double album in one sitting sounds tedious, well… that’s because it is. To be a citizen of the Taylor Nation requires a stratospheric level of stamina that’s just not demanded of most other fanbases. Swift simply doesn’t quit: After releasing her 2022 studio album, Midnights, the 34-year-old captivated millions of fans during her global Eras tour, which has grossed over $1 billion since it started in 2023, becoming the highest-grossing concert tour of all time. (Eras will resume in Nanterre, France, on May 9, kicking off a string of summer dates in Europe before Swift returns stateside for the second North American leg of her tour, concluding in Vancouver, Canada on December 8.)

That same year, Swift released complete re-recordings, or “Taylor’s Versions,” of her 2010 country classic, Speak Now, and her 2014 synth-pop masterpiece, 1989 (a reaction to losing her masters to Big Machine, her previous record label); and she ran a victory lap at the Grammy Awards this past February, when Midnights won both album of the year and best pop vocal album.

Yet, as Swift will attest, one can only experience so much growth before it becomes a liability. In the devil-may-care catharsis of The Tortured Poets Department, Swift dismantles the top-selling product she has become and reclaims the vulnerable person inside of it. “This writer is of the firm belief that our tears become holy in the form of ink on a page,” she wrote in her album announcement on Friday. “Once we have spoken our saddest story, we can be free of it.”

Released at midnight, the first volume of The Tortured Poets Department is an uncut and uncensored chronicle of Swift’s love life, which is, somehow, more public now than ever before. This diaristic collection of songs comes after Swift announced her split with British actor Joe Alwyn, her boyfriend of six years, in April 2023. It also details a torrid summer fling with Matty Healy, the polemical lead singer of The 1975, as well as her ongoing romance with football star Travis Kelce, tight end of the Kansas City Chiefs, whose Super Bowl win she famously sealed with a kiss during the telecast.

People may occasionally call her pop confessionals “cringe,” or wonder if she’s oversharing—but in the tradition of many great poets before her, Swift’s bread and butter is in the gratuitous myth-making of her personal life. Penned with her trusted associates, Jack Antonoff (of the band Bleachers) and Aaron Dessner (of the band The National), Swift makes her most sensational revelations while sticking to the sound she cultivated on Midnights, pairing her distinct, galloping prosody with bespoke synth-pop and guitar fusions. Post Malone also lends hushed vocals in the opening track, “Fortnight,” while Florence Welch dials up the theatrics in the epic swamp noir of “Florida.”

Yet where curious listeners go looking for juice, they will find equal amounts of vinegar. Swift taps her country roots in the scathing “But Daddy I Love Him,” likening those critical of her romantic choices to the patronizing, small-town fundamentalists she eviscerated in classic songs like “Mean” and “You Need to Calm Down.” Well aware of how readily her songs become tabloid fodder, she toys with the gawking hordes like a cat does its prey: “I’m having his baby… No, I’m not,” she quips. “But you should see your faces!”

In contrast, glimmers of Lana Del Rey’s summertime sadness flicker in the twangy lament of “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)”—a humble admission for Swift, whose admiration for Healy was eclipsed by the more objectionable parts of his persona. (“Whoa, maybe I can’t,” Swift concedes in the song’s final moments.) Swift also articulates the big chill of her previous relationship, presumably with Alwyn, with a shivering delivery in “So Long, London.”

Ironically, Swift shows the most guts in her arpeggiated dance-pop number “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.” Framed by staged countdowns and the demanding cries of her audience, the song is a sobering treatise on managing mental health under the spotlight—which is to say, only barely holding it together. “Lights, camera, bitch, smile! Even if you wanna die,” she sings almost breathlessly, as if racing to whatever the industry decides is the (next) Top. “I’m so depressed I act like it’s my birthday every day,” she adds in the chorus.

Swift has more to say about the psychic damage of her chronic, if self-inflicted, overexposure in “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” Reprising her role in 2020’s “Mad Woman,” from Folklore, she uses the song to play out a one-woman American horror story, describing her presence lording over pop culture like a vengeful phantom. If she can’t kill them with kindness, Swift decides she’ll haunt them instead: “I was tame, I was gentle ’til the circus life made me mean,” she states acerbically. It’s this song that arguably best sets the scene for Swift’s upcoming re-recording of Reputation, her 2017 screed from a pop star scorned.

By 2:00 in the morning, Eastern Standard Time, the Swiftie community was alerted to the surprise Side B of Tortured Poets. Titled The Anthology, this new edition bumped Swift’s number of new songs from 16 to 31 in a single night, leaving a long trail of sleep-deprived fans and critics in its wake.

Those who relished in the indie-folk fringe of Swift’s 2020 albums Folklore and Evermore would feast well on The Anthology. The rootsy timbre of “The Albatross” sounds cut from the same cloth as her mystical ballad “Willow”; and fans of Swift’s spunkier, guitar-driven work can take solace in the sanguine indie-rock of “So High School,” which alludes to her all-American romance with Kelce. (“You know how to ball,” she sings cheerfully, “I know Aristotle.”)

Swift works her way back to her country-pop stylings in “thanK you aIMee,” a sardonic olive branch extended to a bitter rival. (Swifties have already deduced that it alludes to Kim Kardashian—if not for the letters K–I–M, then for roguish the line, “I changed your name, and any real defining clues, and one day your kid comes home singin’ a song that only us two is gonna know is about you.”)

Swift’s prolific run of albums, on an annual release schedule since 2019’s Lover, has proven both historic and incredibly lucrative for the artist. Perhaps now that Swift has reached a commercial zenith, at least in comparison to her peers, The Tortured Poets Department seems like the liberating exhale of an artist at the height of her powers. Like a dog-eared composition book you’d find tucked tightly in the arms of a sullen teen poet, Swift brandishes the wear and tear of her heart like a badge of honor—yet the difference between well-loved and weathered lies in the eye, or the ear, of the beholder.

This article was originally published on Vogue.com

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