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Diving into Taylor Swift's 'Tortured Poets Department'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. 2023 may have been the biggest year in Taylor Swift's career. She mounted the Eras Tour, a worldwide itinerary that celebrated her entire catalog and made over $1 billion. She constantly prompted news stories about the touring industry, the film industry, climate change, professional football, television, the local economy of Kansas City. And that hardly digs into all of the gossip around who she was or was not dating. All of that without an album of new music - but wait, (singing) are you ready for it?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'S AFRAID OF LITTLE OLD ME?")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Who's afraid of little old me?

CHANG: Today, Taylor Swift has released her 11th album. It's called "The Tortured Poets Department," and we're joined now by NPR music editor Hazel Cills to talk all about it. Hi, Hazel.

HAZEL CILLS, BYLINE: Hi. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. OK. So I was listening to this album while driving to work today, but this album is longer than my entire Los Angeles commute. I mean, I liked it so far. What are your first impressions?

CILLS: It's very long, and I should say that those 16 tracks are not even the whole thing. She also, at 2 a.m., surprise released another 15 bonus songs in addition to the album.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CILLS: So yeah.

CHANG: Amazing.

CILLS: My first impression of this album is that it feels like a return to form for Taylor, specifically a return to the kind of confessional, cutting songwriting that has defined the earliest beats of her career. This album feels like it's all her. Like, this is a wounded, dark album about heartbreak through and through...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SMALLEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED")

SWIFT: (Singing) And I don't even want you back. I just want to know if rusting my sparkling summer was the goal.

CILLS: ...That packs a lot of artfully written punches at unnamed exes and lovers.

CHANG: But isn't that her...

CILLS: So...

CHANG: ...Modus operandi?

(LAUGHTER)

CILLS: It is. It is, but I feel like I haven't heard her flex that songwriting muscle for an album's length, especially, as you said, an album this long...

CHANG: Yeah.

CILLS: ...In such a long time.

CHANG: So then, does this album feel like it's part of the whole Eras Tour era? Or do you think its beginning something a little new?

CILLS: Yeah. I mean, I think that the album fits into the past eras for me in the sense that it sounds a lot like her past. You know, she's worked with producers and songwriters Jack Antonoff and The National's Aaron Dessner for most of this album, and you can kind of hear Antonoff's, like, muted '80s synth pop sound in spots on this album. You can also hear the kind of warm, folk, acoustic approach Dessner brought.

But what signals a new era for me on this album are kind of the layers of maturity here and, like, how she's taking stock of her relationships and her fame, you know, which has never been bigger and how those two are kind of affecting each other.

CHANG: Yeah.

CILLS: You know, one of the album's best songs that is surely going to be a huge hit is this song called "I Can Do It With A Broken Heart"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN DO IT WITH A BROKEN HEART")

SWIFT: (Singing) Breaking down, I hit the floor. All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting, more.

CILLS: ...Which is about the ways in which she has kind of concealed her darker emotions as one of pop's biggest performers. You know, she sings about being so depressed and how you never know it because she's kind of mastered the art of that fakery down to an art. And it's...

CHANG: Sure.

CILLS: ...Kind of a crack in the Taylor machine.

CHANG: Yeah, I mean, that's the thing 'cause she is in the news constantly, and it can feel like we know a lot about Taylor Swift. But at the same time, it also feels like we don't know her at all, right? And this album, "The Tortured Poets Department" - it's framed as, like, this is honest, raw Taylor Swift. And it sounds like you're saying, yeah, it kind of is. There is something a little bit revelatory here.

CILLS: I do think the specificity of her songwriting, in terms of the way she's articulating her desires at this stage in her life, you know, as a 34-year-old woman - I was really surprised to hear themes on this album about wanting marriage, about maybe wanting children. You know, one of the most affecting moments on this record for me was on the track "The Tortured Poets Department." She has this moment where she sings about someone taking a ring off her middle finger and putting it on her ring finger and how it makes her heart explode.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT")

SWIFT: (Singing) At dinner, you take my ring off my middle finger and put it on the one people put wedding rings on.

CILLS: It feels very human.

CHANG: Yeah.

CILLS: And it's just one example of why this album, to me - it feels like she's entering a new phase of her songwriting, a new phase of her art.

CHANG: That is NPR Music's Hazel Cills. The new Taylor Swift album is out today. Thank you so much, Hazel.

CILLS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUILTY AS SIN?")

SWIFT: (Singing) Drowning in The Blue Nile, he sent me "Downtown Lights." I hadn't heard it in a while. My boredom's bone-deep. This cage was once just fine. Am I allowed to cry? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hazel Cills is an editor at NPR Music, where she edits breaking music news, reviews, essays and interviews. Before coming to NPR in 2021, Hazel was a culture reporter at Jezebel, where she wrote about music and popular culture. She was also a writer for MTV News and a founding staff writer for the teen publication Rookie magazine.