+the scene

TRACK BY TRACK: Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department'

Written by Ashley Parham. Published: April 26 2024
(Photo: Taylor Swift/YouTube)


Taylor Swift’s 11th album has arrived, and it is some of her most masterful work to date. The Tortured Poets Department is emotional, messy, and heartbreaking while also being funny and reassuring. With this surprise double album, Swift gives fans an honest look into what it’s like to be a woman navigating life and love in the spotlight. The album is illuminating and at times painfully relatable. The Tortured Poets Department is Swift at her core: a songwriting genius trying to offer fans insight into her life, including some of her hardest moments. Here’s a breakdown of all 31 songs!


1. "Fortnight" (feat. Post Malone)

The first song on the album also serves as the first single. “Fortnight” details Swift’s anger and sadness as she looks back upon a relationship that has ended. The song is filled with callbacks and references to other songs. The opening lines reference lyrics from “Hits Different”, another track that deals with the complicated negative emotions that surface when you aren’t over your ex. This track moves forward, adding anger and frustration into the flurry of feelings. Swift collaborated with Post Malone on this track, and the two have praised each other’s art and talent in the past. Post Malone’s vocals are present throughout the song. He notably shares the bridge with Swift (and any Swiftie knows how special bridges are), and he sings the closing lines of the song which foreshadow “Florida!!!”. The music video beautifully sets the aesthetic of the album, and it features Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society.

Favorite lyrics: “I took the miracle move-on drug, the effects were temporary…”




2. "The Tortured Poets Department"

The title track reflects upon the early stages of a relationship. Swift pokes fun at her love interest for being a bit pretentious, noting that he uses a typewriter and has to remind him that they aren’t historically celebrated poets, they’re just two people. The song captures the intensity of the connection between the two of them. Swift’s love interest claims he would kill himself if she left him and places a ring on her finger to allude to marriage. In “Fortnight”, Swift sings about rebounding to move on from heartbreak. “The Tortured Poets Department” is the natural follow-up to that. She exited one important relationship and dove fully into another commitment. The situation is relatable, and the narrative plays out song by song through this album to paint a full picture of what she went through. 


Favorite lyrics: “You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel, we’re modern idiots…”




3. "My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys"

This track portrays denial. Swift acknowledges that her partner is causing her mental anguish, but she reassures herself that it’s a result of how much he loved her at the end of the relationship. This song is a painful reminder that, even if a relationship is loving and fulfilling at the beginning, it doesn’t mean it will always stay that way. Feelings can change as people change, and relationships often break down as a result. Swift uses toys as a metaphor for how she has been negatively changed by the relationship. Toys are shiny, interesting, and new when you get them, but that doesn’t last if they’re mistreated. 


Favorite lyrics: “I’m queen of sand castles he destroys…”




4. "Down Bad"

“Down Bad” is the album’s first bop! The lyrics are dramatic and it’s incredibly relatable. This one is for anyone who has been love bombed and then ghosted. “Down Bad” aligns the peaks and valleys of this relationship with the assumed experience of someone who has been shown the universe and then got sent back into daily life. Swift has to process her emotions from this intense experience while going through the motions of her normal life. If you’re crying and hurt, this song will help you dance your way through the situation. The chorus is catchy, and the synthesizer adds a fun tone to an upsetting loss. Swift is capable of brilliantly poetic writing, but this song reminds us that she can also sum up an experience in internet terms like the rest of us.


Favorite lyrics: “Now I’m down bad crying at the gym / Everything comes out teenage petulance…”




5. "So Long, London"

Now we have arrived at the famous Track 5. Swift is known for putting her saddest, most emotionally complex song as the 5th track on her albums. “So Long, London” certainly lives up to its expectations. London was the setting of Swift’s escape in the aftermath of what she faced in 2016. When the media and general public were so vocally against her, she found solace in London. This song is heart-shattering, because it signifies the end of that safe haven. Luckily, Swift is in a very different place now, but it’s easy to see how much it might hurt to say goodbye to such a critical chapter of her life. It’s difficult to stop thinking about the way in which she sings, “How much sad did you think I had?” London represented a fresh start, and a new love, for Swift, but now that’s over. As devastating as it is to process, this song is a brilliant Track 5. It encompasses the breadth of the album’s themes.


Favorite lyrics: “You swore that you loved me, but where were the clues? / I died on the altar waitin' for the proof…”




6. "But Daddy I Love Him"

This song is the most direct callout on the album. The title references the 1989 film The Little Mermaid. In it, Swift proclaims that only she knows what is best for herself. “But Daddy I Love Him” is Swift’s defense of herself amidst backlash she received from fans regarding a past relationship. She accuses people of not actually caring about her best interests but rather caring about how certain actions look on a superficial level. The song has a bright, poppy tone which reflects the carefree attitude Swift exudes. The spotlight brings an unprecedented amount of judgemental strangers into a person’s life, and she is well aware of this. She brings a level of fun to the situation; she calls out the people that only pretend to care, rightfully snidely remarks “And, no, you can’t come to the wedding,” and pokes at the ever present baby rumors. “But Daddy I Love Him” has quickly become a fan favorite due to its humor and directness. Plus, she’s absolutely right. You should’ve seen our faces with some of these lyrics.


Favorite lyrics: “I’m having his baby / No, I’m not, but you should see your faces…”




7. "Fresh Out The Slammer"

“Fresh Out The Slammer” uses prison as a metaphor for a relationship. Swift examines the excitement of feeling free to explore a new relationship after leaving one she felt stuck in. The chorus uses high, breathy vocals, and the song as a whole sounds like a daydream. It represents the hope and high of new love. The tone shifts with the bridge to solidify the previous lyrics. The opening tone sees Swift convincing herself it is okay to move on, but by the bridge, the new relationship feels tangible. The album has a theme of feeling trapped or stuck in an unchanging relationship. This song breathes new life into Swift’s view of love, because it is different and full of promise.


Favorite lyrics: “Watch me daily disappearing / For just one glimpse of his smile…”




8. "Florida!!!" (feat. Florence + The Machine)

“Florida!!!” packs a punch! The chorus prominently features drums. Florence Welch lent her stunning vocals to this track, which add a layer of whimsy and complement Swift’s in a gorgeous fashion. The Tortured Poets Department is an album that explores a chaotic period of life, and what place better represents chaos than Florida? Swift plays into the perception people have that Florida is a place to escape and reinvent oneself. The vibe is bright and fun in this song. Even though the lyrics speak to displacement, Swift embraces the chaos and rush. This is a song that you want to blast in the car as you drive down the freeway with the windows open. It’s catchy, and it feels like the opportunity for change that Summer brings.


Favorite lyrics: “Little did you know your home’s really only / A town you’re just a guest in…”




9. "Guilty as Sin?"

“Guilty as Sin?” has another catchy chorus that will get stuck in your head on a loop. Swift’s vocals are stellar on this track. The song navigates guilt regarding having sexual thoughts about someone she is not in a relationship with. The song explores the sensual topic (“fatal fantasies”, “labored breath”, “bed sheets are ablaze”) while clarifying it’s only in her mind. The song is mature in sound and content and is a lyrical highpoint, because it covers so much ground that other songs allude to. Swift sings about feeling caged in her relationship and escaping into her mind to think about what could be. The progression of “religion’s in your lips” and “the altar is my hips” in her 2019 song “False God” to “what if the way you hold me is actually what’s holy?” and “I choose you and me religiously” must be noted. She uses religion both to explain the passion she feels and the guilt that accompanies it. “Guilty as Sin?” manages to be a standout on an already incredible album.


Favorite lyrics: “They don’t know how you’ve haunted me so stunningly / I choose you and me religiously…”




10. "Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?"

“Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” dives into the ways the media has portrayed and degraded Swift. She addresses how she has been belittled and acknowledges the narrative that she has overreacted about the hate campaigns against her. She flips this on the perpetrators, and she proclaims that they should in fact be afraid of her. Despite how much some people claim to hate her, they still listen to her music and talk about her. She pokes fun at these people by joking she puts drugs in her songs to make them addictive, and she accuses her wrongdoers of being the reason for her sharp tongue. Swift has long been a hot topic in pop culture, and this track puts the narrative back in her hands. She knows how she has been affected by the culture she rose to fame in, and she is making sure everyone else knows it too. The track is theatrical; the drama of the lyrics is mirrored perfectly in the large production of the song.


Favorite lyrics: “I’m fearsome and I’m wretched and I’m wrong / Put narcotics in all of my songs / And that’s why you’re still singin’ along…”




11. "I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)"

This is the shortest song on the first half of the album. Swift acknowledges the concern fans expressed regarding one of her past relationships, but she is certain that it is fine. She says to herself, and to everyone, that she can "fix him". It’s a common sentiment, but unfortunately it doesn’t usually work out. Swift maintains an idealistic view of her partner through the song, and she confidently proclaims that she will be able to change him. By the end of the song, Swift has come to the realization that it is not realistic to change someone’s flaws or personality.


Favorite lyrics: “I’ll show you Heaven if you’ll be an angel, all night…”




12. "loml"

Continuing the trend of emotionally devastating songs about breakups, “loml” takes listeners on the journey from Swift being the love of her partner’s life to him becoming the loss of her life. The song is more subdued than the bigger production that others on the album have. Swift uses soft vocals and piano to accompany the somber tone of the lyrics. “loml” features a lyrical call back to “Down Bad”. In “loml”, Swift says, “I thought I was better safe than starry-eyed,” but the song proves that she got hurt by the relationship anyway. In “Down Bad”, she expresses a similar sentiment, scolding, “How dare you think it’s romantic / leaving me safe and stranded…” A key theme of this album is how Swift felt stifled and static in her relationship. Things began on a good note, but eventually there was a decline and they coasted for a long time. The steady piano and soft-toned vocals portray this hauntingly.


Favorite lyrics: “When your impressionist paintings of Heaven turned out to be fakes / Well, you took me to Hell too…”




13. "I Can Do It With a Broken Heart"

If “loml” broke your heart and made you cry, “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” is here to bring the vibe back up. This song is absolute pop perfection. Swift went through a turbulent time in 2023, but she still put on an incredible show for her fans throughout The Eras Tour. “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” is an anthem for going through a tough time with a smile on your face until you make it through. Swift knows how difficult what she’s going through is, but she acknowledges the role she is expected to play for the public. She commends herself for working through the heartache -- “I was grinnin’ like I’m winnin’ / I was hitting my marks” and “try and come for my job” sum it up pretty well. Despite her personal struggles, she was succeeding professionally. Songs that sound happy but have sad lyrics are a genre of their own, and Swift composed it perfectly. The synths really go off in this song, and we would like to take a moment to thank producer Jack Antonoff for his contributions to this album. (P.S. Who else had had “Lights, camera, b*tch, smile…” stuck in their head for a week straight?)


Favorite lyrics: “I cry a lot, but I am so productive, it’s an art…”




14. "The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived"

“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” reminds listeners why Taylor Swift is the queen of bridges. She accuses her ex-partner of putting on an act through their entire relationship, and she likens him to a spy on a plot against her. The album sets up such glorious possibilities of love just for harsh realities to crash through. This song reflects upon one of those harsh realities, and it is among the most scathing on the album. The actions of Swift’s partner have affected her deeply, and she is rightfully angry. Beyond the bridge, the most standout lyrics are the closing lines. In her 2010 song “Innocent”, Swift reassured the song’s inspiration that “who you are is not what you did”, but to "The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived", she remarks “you are what you did / and I’ll forget you, but I’ll never forgive...” Swift has grown weary to forgiving men for the harm they have caused, and this song settles the matter succinctly.


Favorite lyrics: “‘Cause it wasn’t sexy once it wasn’t forbidden / I would’ve died for your sins, instead, I just died inside…”




15. "The Alchemy"

Toward the end of the first-half of the album, Swift enters again into a state of relationship bliss. In a callback to her 2020 song “willow”, where she states “I come back stronger than a '90s trend”, Swift claims to be back again. This song sees her falling in love again, and she is leaning into it. This track is optimistic. Even after all of the heartbreak, she doesn’t want to fight falling into a new love. She uses football references and conflates winning a game with successful love. The song is poppy, and it acts as a segue out of the darkness of heartbreak. Swift is back in love, back in the spotlight, and she is moving forward.


Favorite lyrics: “Ditch the clowns, get the crown / Baby, I’m the one to beat…”




16. "Clara Bow"

“Clara Bow” marks the end of the first-half of the album. Swift draws comparisons between silent film star Clara Bow, musician Stevie Nicks, and herself to describe how young women are uplifted and knocked down through their careers. Young women in creative industries are often compared to other successful women and then told that they will rise above them. Swift explains how creative women are treated differently once they are no longer young, new artists. She inserts herself into the narrative to note that, like the other artists she mentioned, she knows upcoming artists will be compared to her. The song continues Swift’s commentary on her ever-evolving relationship with fame. It is a glowing homage to Clara Bow, who was an icon of her time and a talented actress. Stevie Nicks continues to be a living legend, and she lent poetry to the album’s epilogue. 


Favorite lyrics: “You’re the new god we’re worshiping / Promise to be dazzling…”




17. "The Black Dog"

“The Black Dog” is the start of The Anthology. The second-half of the double album was announced as a surprise at 2:00am EST on April 19. “The Black Dog” brings listeners back into breakup mode. Swift takes us through her emotions as she processes her ex moving on from their relationship. She wonders how he is able to go out and have fun with another woman while she is still suffering from the aftermath of their relationship. She references the 2000s emo band The Starting Line to point out that she knows the music that her ex likes, while his new young girlfriend is likely too young to know their song. “The Black Dog” continues the accusations of intentional harm from “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” by comparing his treatment of her to cruel fraternity hazing. This song is relatable and understandable for anyone who has had to witness their ex moving on while they’re still hurt.


Favorite lyrics: “I move through the world with the heartbroken / My longings stay unspoken…”




18. "imgonnagetyouback"

“imgonnagetyouback” is a fun song where Swift blurs the lines between return and revenge. The song begins by establishing that Swift’s ex knew what he was getting into when he became involved with her. She then sings about how easily she could get him to take her back if she wanted, or how easily she could get revenge. She urges her ex-partner to “pick your poison babe, I’m poison either way...” Swift knows neither option will have a positive outcome, but she still provides the illusion of choice. Though the subject matter isn’t happy, Swift takes a level of control and power back in this song. She knows where she stands, and this poppy track is a great breakup anthem.


Favorite lyrics: “I can take the upper hand and touch your body / Flip the script and leave you like a dumb house party…”




19. "The Albatross"

“The Albatross” sounds like it could fit in on folklore. The albatross has been used as a bad omen symbol in literature, and Swift uses it as a stand-in for herself. She sings about how her lover was warned against pursuing a relationship with her, but he entered the relationship anyway. Swift has been under the line of fire by the media time and time again, so she is able to reassure her partner that she understands how to navigate this. When she switches the perspective away from the critics, the tone shifts into support. Instead of being the “danger”, as she was according to the critics, she’s the “parachute”. She knows how to deal with the scrutiny, and she’s going to protect her partner from it. 


Favorite lyrics: “Cross your thoughtless heart / Only liquor anoints you…”




20. "Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus"

“Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus” is the story of watching a relationship crumble. Swift details the experience of understanding that she is not being prioritized in her relationship. She knows she needs to walk away, and he doesn’t try to stop her. She wants him to beg her to stay or prove that he cares, but he doesn’t. The song emphasizes a lack of closure. She wonders if he loved a past version of her, but not her as she is, and there’s no way for her to receive clarity. The song has an element of listlessness. Her ex-partner isn’t putting in the effort that she needs, and it is causing her anguish. It is a contextualizing companion to “How Did It End”. 


Favorite lyrics: “If you wanna break my cold, cold heart / Just say, ‘I loved you the way that you were’...”




21. "How Did It End"

“How Did It End” is technically Track 5 of The Anthology. Swift describes the aftermath of a breakup and points out how people are more interested in gossip than they are in the well-being of the people involved. Everyone wants to know what happened so they can discuss it, but their interest isn’t genuine. The song is a hard listen. Swift’s whole life is on display, and her breakups have been made public affairs. This album makes it clear how much she has emotionally struggled, but the media is more interested in the gossip than in her state. “Come one, come all, it’s happenin’ again” is one of the most heartbreaking sentiments on the album. She’s been through this before, and the cycle is repeating. Even though she’s still trying to process things for herself, she is responsible for informing the watching eyes.


Favorite lyrics: “The deflation of our dreaming / Leaving me bereft and reeling…”




22. "So High School"

“So High School” is another bop. Swift sings about how refreshing her new relationship is. The new love makes her feel giddy like a high schooler experiencing their first love. The song is playful and fun. She mentions the film American Pie, and it should be noted that featured actress Alyson Hannigan is a proud Swiftie. She also mentions games like "Truth or Dare", "Spin-the-Bottle", and "Kiss/Marry/Kill". Though this review has deliberately avoided direct ascribing of muses, it is too cute to leave out that Swift’s boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, chose to “kiss” Swift in a round of the game during a 2016 interview. By the way, Kristina Zias, who conducted the now-famous interview, is living her best life and celebrating how her interview game has been immortalized in song. (We love that for her!) In an album full of heavy breakup songs, it is lovely to have this light-hearted, jestful song in the mix.


Favorite lyrics: “You know how to ball, I know Aristotle…”




23. "I Hate It Here"

“I Hate It Here” might be the most willfully misunderstood track on the album, but it’s really quite simple. Swift uses the theme of escape to explain how she removes herself from unwanted circumstances. She sings about allowing her imagination to take her away from dealing with bad situations. This transforms into a memory of being a child and wishing to travel to the past, but she acknowledges that the past was not actually better than the present. The past appeals to those who have not lived through it, because modern people are able to look at the past through a romantic lens. She does not truly wish to live in the past, and she knows she would hate it there. The song captures the wish to escape but does not fool listeners into thinking that escaping into the past is a viable or preferable option.


Favorite lyrics: “Nostalgia is a mind’s trick…”




24. "thanK you aIMee"

This album provides a dissection of some of Swift’s past romantic relationships, but “thanK you aIMee” is the remembrance of an experience with a bully. Swift recalls how she was tormented by “Aimee”, and goes from cursing her out to thanking her. She has risen above the awful things that were done to her, and she is thriving. Karma will find its way to “Aimee”, which Swift alludes to by saying “Aimee”’s kid will listen to her mother’s diss track. The song isn’t ruthless; Swift mostly focuses on what happened to her rather than wishing ill of the woman who harmed her, but the mention of Andrea Swift's (aka Mama Swift) anger was one of the most chilling lines on the album. The song is smart, and the return to hidden messages in capitalized letters is a fun recurring easter egg.


Favorite lyrics: “Everyone knows that my mother is a saintly woman / But she used to say that she wished that you were dead…”




25. "I Look in People’s Windows"

“I Look in People’s Windows” is the shortest song on the album. It is a song of longing. Swift knows she isn't going to end up with the person she’s singing about, but she still wants to try to re-spark a connection. The song is a fantasy about reuniting with a person you’re attached to. It feels comparable to stalking someone on social media. In the modern era, there’s a lot of ways to stay up-to-date on what someone is doing. Swift takes it further to describe physically going to look for the person. The track is just over 2 minutes long, but it tells a complete story. The hang up on the “if only” works as a transition into “The Prophecy”. “I Look in People’s Windows” acts as an introduction to the urge to beg for a relationship to work out.


Favorite lyrics: “I’m addicted to the ‘if only’...”




26. "The Prophecy"

“The Prophecy” is a haunting song. Swift begs for a different outcome than life has provided her. She wants a relationship that is fulfilling with someone who cares about her as much as she cares about them. Doomed destiny is a trope that will never fail to devastate, and Swift clearly understands that. Even if you don’t have a bad history with relationships, everyone can relate to wanting to change how something in their life has worked out. “The Prophecy” is one of the saddest songs on the album due to how hopeless it feels. The song does not provide any reassurance. Listeners are left begging as she did. It is beautifully written and painfully relatable.


Favorite lyrics: “Change the prophecy / Don’t want money / Just someone who wants my company…”




27. "Cassandra"

In “Cassandra”, Swift seems to reference the events of 2016 again. She sings about snakes and how the public want to “burn the b*tch”, which is reminiscent of her reputation album. Cassandra was an ancient Greek prophet who was condemned for fortelling negative events. The song has a piano melody throughout that resembles the melody from folklore’s “mad woman”. The songs are thematically similar, so the musical connection further strengthens the bond. Women have always been persecuted for displeasing the general public, and Swift has been through her fair share of public trials. “Cassandra” feels like a reshaping of Swift’s experiences in a way that exposes the tradition of tearing women down. Swift has suffered greatly from this type of criticism, but she is just one of many women who have been torn down.


Favorite lyrics: “Blood’s thick, but nothin’ like a payroll / Bet they never spared a prayer for my soul…”




28. "Peter"

In an album full of callbacks, this is one of the more obvious ones. Swift laments a relationship that she believed would work out if she allowed time to pass. Unfortunately for her, the man, much like Peter Pan, never grew up enough to make a relationship work. On folklore’s “cardigan”, she also compared an ending relationship to “Peter losing Wendy”. The reference to the childhood tale emphasizes how she has grown and changed, but he hasn’t. “Peter” is in a similar vein as “The Prophecy”. Swift believed the relationship was meant to be, but forces outside of her control prevented it. The prophecy didn’t intend for the relationship to work, and Peter couldn’t become who she needed him to be. She knows now that she has to move on.


Favorite lyrics: “We both did the best we could do / Underneath the same moon / In different galaxies…”




29. "The Bolter"

Escape is a recurring theme of this album. Swift acknowledges her reputation in “The Bolter”, noting, “she’s been many places with / men of many faces” and reminisces upon situations like the one that plays out in her 2017 hit “Getaway Car”. Swift has been through many relationships and heartbreaks, but she’s still here. She knows what freedom feels like, and she knows how to reach it. There is a lot of power in her closing remark that “it feels like the time / she fell through the ice / then came out alive...” Her choices and relationships have been criticized relentlessly over the years, and this album addresses her struggles with mental health. Despite all of that, she’s alive and still baring her soul through her music. “The Bolter” is a song that reaffirms her many escapes, and it acts as an end of sorts to the narrative throughout the album.


Favorite lyrics: “But as she was leaving / It felt like breathing…”




30. "Robin"

“Robin” tells a story of childhood innocence. Though not explicitly stated, the song may have been inspired by the child of one of Swift’s collaborators. Aaron Dessner, who has worked with Swift on every album since folklore, has a young son named Robin. It wouldn’t be the first time Swift utilized the name of her friends’ children in her music. She notably name-dropped Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’s children in “betty”. The song encourages the child to remain innocent and imaginative. She wants to protect the young from the cruelty of the world. It is a sweet song that reminds us of the pure joy of children’s happiness.


Favorite lyrics: “The secret we all vowed / To keep it from you in sweetness…”




31. "The Manuscript'

“The Manuscript” is a narrative departure. Rather than reflecting on the events of more recent relationships, “The Manuscript” reflects upon a relationship a decade in the past. The lyrical context has led fans to believe the manuscript in question is actually her song “All Too Well”. The song was once difficult for Swift to perform without becoming teary-eyed. It summarizes a painful breakup she experienced, and it is understandable that the song weighed heavily on her. However, she has shared how her relationship with the song has changed over the years due to how fans have embraced it. Beyond it being the album closer, “The Manuscript” has a feeling of finality. Swift has processed what she went through, and now she can close that chapter of her life to heal. The album is full of turmoil and call-backs to her previous works. This song is a direct extension of that emotion and the process of working through it. It’s a beautiful, meaningful end of this 31-song story.


Favorite lyrics: “Now and then I reread the manuscript / But the story isn’t mine anymore...”




Swift is constantly growing and evolving both as a person and an artist. This album is a view into who she is and what she has been through. She masterfully laid out her story through the good, bad, and complicated. The Tortured Poets Department is streaming now!