The Tortured Poets Department

My Top 10 Tracks on The Tortured Poets Department

It’s taken me almost an entire month to get around to writing about Taylor Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department –– partly because that’s how long it takes me to really get to know an album with 31 tracks on it, but also because this one’s a grower, in the sense that some of the tracks that I assumed would end up being a skip on the first listen have ended up being my favourites. 

More than anything, though, I think TTPD is an album for the uber-fans. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy it if you’re not one of those, obviously, but I think to get the absolute most out of it, you kind of have to know that Peter calls back to Cardigan, and Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus calls back to Maroon, in ways that make you start to suspect that two of your very favourite tracks from Folklore and Midnights are, in fact, about Matty Healy, and that everything you thought you knew was wrong.

And, of course, we’re not supposed to talk about that. Over on Threads, there are a lot of people ready to shut you down if they suspect you’re even thinking about who these tracks might be about, pompously explaining that Taylor doesn’t want us to talk about her private life (See: But Daddy, I Love Him). I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that, though, because, the fact is, all of these songs have a context. More than any other artist I can think of, Taylor Swift uses her music to create an elaborate life story, complete with plot twists and the occasional jump scare: she is, above all, a storyteller, and you can trust me when I tell you that storytellers don’t generally tell their stories in the hope that no one will want to talk about them. 

I don’t think Taylor does either. I also don’t think she can realistically expect to lay the lyrical breadcrumbs in the way she does, only for us NOT to follow them; and while it’s certainly true to say that tabloid-style gossip about her love life doesn’t reflect well on anyone, it’s equally true to say that you can’t easily remove the music – or certainly the lyrics – from its context and still get the same depth of feeling from it. The ‘blue dress in a boat’ lyric in Is It Over Now?, for instance, is fairly meaningless unless you know that it’s a very specific reference to this photo … and once you DO know that it’s a reference to the photo (and the events surrounding the photo), it’s kind of weird and pointless to try to pretend you don’t in a discussion of the song, no? 

None of which is to say, of course, that you can’t enjoy the music on TTPD – or Taylor Swift in general – without having an encyclopedic knowledge of her life, because of course you can. It IS to say, however, that I don’t happen to subscribe to the idea that it’s somehow ‘wrong’ to even think about the context of the songs when you listen to or discuss them, so, be warned, I might mention Matty Healy a bit in this post. I’ll try my best not to, but, honestly, she didn’t make it easy on us, did she? 

Anyway, here are my – current, subject to change – top ten tracks on The Tortured Poets Department:

1. The Black Dog 

Not just my favourite on this album, but possibly one of my favourites of all time. It’s up there, guys. I’m never getting over the way she says, “Old habits die screeeeaaaaammmming.” Never.

2. I Can Do It With a Broken Heart

I keep reading hot takes about how this track is intended as a rebuke to the fans for ‘making’ Taylor push on with the Eras Tour last year in the wake of her break-up with Joe Alwyn, but, I mean… seriously? Why would she do that? Why would she want to scold her fans for coming to a show that she put on for them? What would have been the alternative? Should everyone have just cancelled their tickets and left her with a massive flop on her hands? Should they have turned up but sat there silently, refusing to enjoy it? 

Guys, Taylor isn’t pissed that you went to Eras. She probably won’t be mad if you scream ‘more’ if and when she performs this one live. And I Can Do It With a Broken Heart isn’t her complaining about having to work after a break-up, it’s her celebrating her own strength in pushing through regardless.(“Try and come for my job”.) And, for that, it’s totally relatable, because haven’t we all had times in our lives when we’ve had to get up and go to work, even when it felt like our world was falling apart? I feel like that’s what she’s getting at here. We’re allowed to enjoy it. That’s why it exists. 

Oh, and it’s also an absolute banger, so there’s that, too.

3. I Hate It Here

Every day I walk my 6 year old to school, then I walk back through the village listening to this song. I swear to God, it’s like she can see into my SOUL. (It’s also like she, too, once lived in a small village where nothing ever happens and people threaten to call the police when kids use sidewalk chalk where they shouldn’t, but that’s a whole other story, really…)

I hate it here so I will go to secret gardens in my mind
People need a key to get to, the only one is mine
I read about it in a book when I was a precocious child
No mid-sized city hopes and small-town fears
I’m there most of the year ’cause I hate it here
I hate it here

4. So Long, London 

I’ve seen a few people on Threads talking about how So Long, London isn’t sad enough to be a track five, and all I can say to that is, how much sad do you guys HAVE in you? Because this is SO sad. And as much a farewell to London itself as it is to Joe Alwyn, who it’s obviously about, which makes it feel even sadder. Can’t wait to see the livestream of her playing it in London this summer.

5. My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys

“Once I fix me, he’s gonna miss me.”

YES.

6. But Daddy, I Love Him

I feel like this track is Love Story‘s older, sassier sister: the one who, rather than just sitting around waiting for him to come back with a ring, went out and raised havoc with him. I love it for that. (And yes, there is a clear message to everyone who wrote ‘soliloquies she’d never see’ about Matty here. It’s giving ‘Not Ready to Make Nice‘ by the Dixie Chicks. I love that about it, too.)

7. Peter

I originally had Peter lower down this list, but I’ve moved it up after repeated listens over the weekend, and I may want to move it up again, tbh. As well as just being a heartbreakingly beautiful track, this also seems to be a sequel (prequel?) to Cardigan, with its references to ‘Peter losing Wendy’. I always suspected the allegedly ‘fictional’ tracks on Folklore were a lot more autobiographical than Taylor let on at the time, and, when you listen to these two tracks as a pair, it seems to confirm that. The line, ‘you said you were gonna grown up, then you were gonna come find me,’ breaks my heart every time I hear it, and if these songs really are about Matty Healy, as has been suggested, it very much reframes that relationship in a way that a lot of people won’t particularly like, but which we can’t deny has given us some of Taylor’s best work. (No, I didn’t ever expect to say that either…)

8. The Albatross

As a massive Folkmore stan, it was inevitable that I’d be drawn to the Aaron Dessner tracks on this album more than the others, and the Albatross is one of my favourites of those. Something about it reminds me of Ivy, which is one of my favourite tracks on Evermore, so that can only be a good thing. Also, the way she sings ‘you’re persona non grata’ is everything to me. 

9. How Did It End? 

Another Aaron Dessner track, included here primarily for the bridge, and for the line about people feverishly calling their cousins. 

10. Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus

I slept on this song for far too long: it didn’t even make it into the first version of this list, which is incredible to me now given how many times I’ve listened to it now. The line “Will that make your memory fade from this scarlet maroon?” suggests this one is a twin to Maroon, and once again seems to confirm that all of my favourite songs have turned out to be Matty Healy coded, which is is just… yeah. (I’m not going to list my least favourite tracks on this album, but I will just say it’s ALL THE ONES ABOUT TRAVIS.) 

Having said all of this, however, I just know that as soon as I hit ‘publish’ on this, I’m going to go and listen to the album again and want to completely change this list. For now, though, if we could just get The Black Dog and I Hate It Here as the surprise songs for Edinburgh N2, that would be AWESOME…

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books by Amber Eve
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