Bittersweet, midtempo chords. A softly falling melody. Lyrics that look back on a heartbreak that may never fully heal, examining that loss with a tone of tender regret. The song, of course, is Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” — unless it’s Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter.”
Wait, wait, wait, you’re saying. We all know the backstory behind “All Too Well,” the all-time Swiftian achievement that she recently re-recorded to even more devastating effect. It was rare, she was there. A scarf was involved, as was the guy who played Mysterio. What does a Don Henley hit from more than 30 years ago have to do with any of this? The answer, technically, is probably nothing. But bear with us for just a moment of close-reading fan-theory indulgence.
“The Heart of the Matter” is one of Henley’s greatest solo songs, an undisputed peak of his career outside the Eagles. It came out on his third album, The End of the Innocence, in the summer of 1989 (ahem, does that year look familiar?), climbed the charts as a single in early 1990, and continued to pop up on car radios and tape decks for years to come. The song begins with Henley’s narrator being rudely reminded of a memory he thought he’d moved past: “I got the call today, I didn’t want to hear.” Right away, the wistful cadence of those lines recalls Taylor’s “I walked through the door with you, the air was cold.” We’re in familiar territory here, a shared universe of bruised feelings.
The more you listen to them side by side, the more “All Too Well” and “The Heart of the Matter” start to sound like they’re in conversation with each other. They could almost be two halves of one story, two people trying to piece together the same emotional puzzle. Both songs are about wrestling with an old experience you wish you could forget, trying to bring the past into harmony with the present and not always succeeding. Both of them alternate plainspoken honesty (“I’m learning to live without you now, but I miss you sometimes” vs. “There we are again when I loved you so, back before you lost the one real thing you’ve ever known”) with more poetic questions about what went wrong (“And did the twin flame bruise paint you blue?/Just between us, did the love affair maim you too?” vs. “What are these voices outside love’s open door/Make us throw off our contentment and beg for something more?”). Henley wonders “how I lost me, and you lost you”; Swift admits, “I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it.”
Both songs have killer bridges that dial up the intensity that the verses keep carefully under control: Swift calls out her ex for being “so casually cruel in the name of being honest,” Henley shoots back with “You keep carrying that anger, it’ll eat you up inside, baby.” Henley’s narrator stumbles eloquently toward some kind of understanding in the chorus: “I think it’s about forgiveness.” Taylor knows that’s not how any of this works.
“The Heart of the Matter” is a classic that any pop songwriter would be proud to claim as an influence. Swift’s friend Lorde is a big fan — she once called that line about the voices outside love’s open door “the most incredible fucking question of the universe,” and she wasn’t wrong. (Go listen to Melodrama again if you want to hear more songs with that kind of high-contrast emotional vividness.) To be clear, there’s no evidence that Swift has ever heard or thought much about this song or Don Henley — not unless you count the line about her Eagles T-shirt on “Gold Rush.” And there wouldn’t be anything wrong if she had. The similarities we’re talking about here are more theoretical than anything else, a piece of magical thinking for pop fans who enjoy reading into their favorite records. Listen to these songs for long enough, though, and you’ll start hearing it too. Or not!