The 2,600-year-old history of ‘tortured’ poets

Like Ephron, Swift has balked at attempts to reduce her output to the songs’ autobiographical content. “In the years preceding this, I had become the target of slut-shaming – the intensity and relentlessness of which would be criticised and called out if it happened today,” she wrote around the recent re-recording of her album 1989, which came out in 2014. “The jokes about my amount of boyfriends. The trivialisation of my songwriting as if it were a predatory act of a boy crazy psychopath. The media co-signing of this narrative. I had to make it stop because it was starting to really hurt.”

Natasha Lunn, author of Conversations on Love and a writer for the Swiftian Theory newsletter, argues that Swift is now reclaiming the narrative. “To me there is something powerful about her stepping into this moment so confidently, and not being afraid that writing a breakup album will mean some critiques undermine her songwriting skills,” Lunn says. “She has nothing to prove at this point.”

In Lunn’s view, we should appreciate the talent that is required to dissect the complexities of romance. “She has a knack of taking her very personal experience of heartbreak, sharing it in a raw and beautifully crafted way with the world, and giving us all permission to feel things we might previously have been ashamed of.”

The reviews so far have been positive. The site Metacritic, which aggregates ratings across media, gives The Tortured Poets Department an average score of 84 out of 100, which it judges to be “universal acclaim”. One specific criticism concerns the consistency of the material, with some feeling that the songs were of uneven quality, particularly in the extended “Anthology” edition that includes 15 additional tracks.

“The feverish Tortured Poets Department is a full-throated return to her specialty: autobiographical and sometimes spiteful tales of heartbreak, full of detailed, referential lyrics that her fans will delight in decoding,” Lindsay Zoladz wrote in a generally positive review for The New York Times. She conceded, however, that “great poets know how to condense, or at least how to edit. The sharpest moments of The Tortured Poets Department would be even more piercing in the absence of excess, but instead the clutter lingers, while Swift holds an unlit match.”

Some reviewers have also expressed disappointment at the lack of experimentation in the album’s production, with The Guardian’s Laura Snapes concluding that it beats “a bruised retreat that structurally confines the lacerating lyrics”.

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