Taylor Swift’s folklore: Genteel indie from the world’s biggest pop star

Taylor Swift isn’t great at hiding her hand. Each album rollout, at least for her last three albums, essentially started in a different calendar year with corporate sponsorships and billboards and media tours. A Taylor Swift album was an Event, one that you could see coming from miles away like a warship on the horizon. So it came as a definite surprise when she announced, via social media, that folklore, her eighth studio album, was going to be released just hours after the announcement. The surprise album drop is not uncommon in the contemporary pop landscape — Rihanna, Drake, Frank Ocean, and most notably Beyoncé have all used it to great success — but it was certainly in stark contrast to the precedent she had been setting.

And yet! Even as the album was kept a secret, Swift’s Twitter announcement left an enticing trail of breadcrumbs for fans who wanted to guess what the album was going to sound like. There was the cover, a black-and-white shot of Swift looking up amongst massive trees — a marked difference from the pastel smudges of Lover, or the too on-the-nose gothic font and newspaper clippings of reputation, or even the 80s photo-booth style on 1989. Although many people have rightly pointed out that it looked a lot like a Scandinavian black metal album cover with Taylor Swift edited in (and the extremism edited out), it seemed to nod towards something less personal and more pastoral. But the big clue was in the note Swift wrote that accompanied the release announcement; she would be again working with Jack Antonoff (previously of fun.), which came as no surprise — it was the two names that came first that were truly indicative of what Swift wanted this album to be: Bon Iver (or Justin Vernon of Bon Iver) co-wrote and sang on one track, and, most strikingly, Aaron Dessner co-wrote or produced 11 of the album’s songs. Aaron Dessner, for the uninitiated, is the guitarist and primary songwriter for the National, an indie rock institution that deals in grand, dark, and stately music (and one of my favourite bands, because I’m a white dude inching toward 30). If you ask Aaron Dessner to produce over half of the songs on your album, there is a specific sound that you’re looking for and folklore certainly hews to that sound closely. There’s a running joke regarding the National that says they’ve basically made the same album six times — the lyrical themes and textures might shift slightly from album to album, but, as the joke goes, it’s all music for men who want to cry while wearing a suit. Unsurprisingly, folklore doesn’t stray too far from that ideal, although as it turns out if you replace Matt Berninger’s unmistakable baritone for Swift’s slightly raspy soprano (and built-in emotional expectations) you can make both men and women cry. Much of folklore is delicately arranged, with piano and stringed instruments and watery drum hits and much fewer synthetic sounds than anything she’s released since Red. Much of it is also mid-tempo and demands more attention than something like “I Knew You Were Trouble” or “Look What You Made Me Do.” If I were to be a bit too reductive, I would say that quite a lot of it (“cardigan” especially) sounds like Taylor Swift fronting the National at their most serene. If I were to be even more reductive, I’d say folklore sounds a lot like someone took an indie singer-songwriter album and slapped a hyper-stylized taylor swift filter onto it. This isn’t a slight, either. It’s just that, for reasons mostly out of her control, Taylor Swift can’t stop sounding like Taylor Swift.

Although the musical arrangements mark a radical shift for Swift, they’re not the centrepiece of folklore; as always, Swift’s voice and lyrics are placed at the fore of the album, both in the mix and in the minds of listeners. Lyrically, folklore harks back to the conversational story-driven style of Red and Speak Now and Fearless, mostly eschewing the vitriol of reputation and the grand-scope dioramas of 1989 (Lover is a weird one, both in that it was a mixture of styles and that I really can’t remember it too well). That’s not to say that it’s a direct copy of her earlier work, though. Instead of working with autobiography, as she’s done for pretty much her entire career, she traffics mostly in fiction here — fiction that follows the contours of her life, maybe, but you won’t find any name drops on folklore. This works both to the album’s benefit and detriment. The Kanye beef on reputation, while probably deserved on Kanye’s part, detracted from the album’s most thrilling moments (“Dress,” “Delicate,” and especially “New Year’s Day”). But autobiography is also a large part of Taylor Swift, the person and the institution — some of her best songs — “Dear John,” “Style,” “Fifteen” — were explicitly autobiographical, while others like “New Year’s Day” or “You Belong with Me” or “Tim McGraw” or the best song Taylor has ever written, “All Too Well,” were clearly inspired by real-life events. And herein lies the problem with folklore, and what I expect will be my problem with every subsequent Taylor Swift release: she will never be able to recapture the truly lived-in, personal, specific, small quality of her previous work. It’s clear that she’s working to reinvent herself, to write songs that are more mature, more open to interpretation, more approachable for a different audience. That’s an admirable thing to do, and it takes courage. But I often find myself missing the confessional, almost naive, quality of her earlier songs. With that being said, some of her early work is irredeemable, full of treacly affirmations and whiny complaints that come part and parcel with being a teenager. In this way folklore is one of the most consistent Swift albums, second in my opinion to only Red, which is (and always will be) Taylor’s unparalleled masterpiece, where she was finally able to perfectly synthesize her love of big pop sounds with her intimate lyrical style. But where folklore has a remarkably even (and high!) quality, it almost never reaches the highest peaks of her previous albums (even reputation has “New Year’s Day”).

This may also be a timing problem, of course, as these things tend to be — Fearless, with its talk of high school romance and tribulation, came out in 2008, when I was a high school sophomore. Red came out in 2012, when I was a sophomore at university, living away from home and working to forge new relationships and maintain old ones. It’s impossible to extract these albums from my experiences at the time I was listening to them, and in that way they’ve ultimately become criticism-proof to me in a way that newer albums (by Taylor and others) aren’t.

folklore is also guilty of many of the same mistakes as previous Swift albums. It’s absurdly long, for one, over an hour of kinda-similar sounding music. It’s also top-heavy, with the second half dragging a bit— this is the Fearless problem, whose first six songs combine for an absolute all-time run and whose last seven songs exist on a scale of cloying-to-OK (“Breathe” stans or whatever, I’m sure you exist and I don’t care). Though folklore deftly avoids the classic Swift error of choosing the absolute worst song off the album as the lead single by not having any singles officially released prior to the album dropping (“ME!” might well be one of the worst songs released last decade).

I’ve now realized I’ve written over a thousand words above and I haven’t talked about any specific songs on folklore, or even my general consensus of the album as a whole. So let’s do that! It’s a very good album! Sometimes bordering on great! For all its flaws, folklore is a mature, careful, meticulous constructed batch of songs that show maturity and growth for Swift as an artist, lyricist, and curator. It’s also about four songs too long, and maybe trying too hard to distance itself from both Swift’s early country singer-songwriter albums and her later pop albums.

folklore kicks off with “the 1,” a gently lilting ode to thinking about how things could’ve turned out differently under different sets of circumstances — classic Swift territory. It’s also notable in that it contains a swear word in its first line (“I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit”), which I believe is the first time that she’s ever sworn on a record! As the Stereogum review of folklore points out, Swift talks in her documentary, Miss Americana, of her genuine fear of doing something to alienate even a small part of her audience, so hearing her swear shows that she’s at least trying to make music fully on her own terms. Other highlights come shortly after. “cardigan” is the least of the three-song Love Triangle suite (with “august” and “betty”) but also sounds like Taylor singing over a lost track from Boxer, so that’s fairly neat. “the last great american dynasty” is Taylor’s take on Lana Del Rey, a true, Gatsby-esque story of Rebekah Harkness, who married Bill Harkness, the heir to much of the Standard Oil company (Standard Oil made the John Rockefeller the richest man who has ever lived, and still exists in many forms today: Chevron, Marathon, Exxon-Mobil, and Esso [Esso = S. O. = Standard Oil] among others). Swift now owns Holiday House, the Rhode Island mansion that the Harknesses used to, and it’s clear that she feels some solidarity with Rebekah, who was maligned in her time for being too poor, too rude, too garish, too outspoken to fit into the upper-crust Rhode Island society she found herself in. Sometimes historical-accounts-as-songs work well (see “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “Mississippi Goddam”) and sometimes they’re “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or “American Pie.” “the last great american dynasty” falls on the good side, with an enjoyable mix of history lessons, funny anecdotes, mythologizing, and a keen eye for mixing the concrete with the allegorical. Although it is funny to hear her call the Harknesses “new money” when they essentially existed, albeit more quietly, on a plane with the Rockefellers and Carnegies as American royalty.

Elsewhere, we get “exile,” which sees Bon Iver drop into his lower register and repress what I’m certain are near-overwhelming urges to gurgle through Autotune and/or sing about constantly mutating geometry and infinite realities all ending in death (Taylor does him a solid and lets him multitrack his voice though) to give a lovely weight to the spare piano backdrop. And the interlocking, antonymous call and response (“You never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)”) of the song’s coda provides one of the most arresting moments on the album. Swift and Vernon complement each other vocally, but they coexist on a deeper plane as well, as both played a large role in the (re-)popularization of the sort of deeply confessional, vaguely embarrassing pop-folk that has been omnipresent since the late aughts (think Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers, Walk Off the Earth) – Bon Iver with the frigid diary For Emma, Forever Ago and Swift with her debut tetralogy. I’d love to see them collaborate more.

I’d also like to take a quick moment to acknowledge Taylor’s full commitment to the small letter aesthetic; it fits well with the feel of the album — cloistered, uniform, quiet. I would also like to be on record saying capital letters are of the devil, stuffy and archaic and useless, and I only use them here so that people don’t think I’m illiterate. But that’s beside the point, I guess. Many songs on folklore decide to forgo the build-drop sequence that became popular with the rise of EDM ( see “22” and “I Knew You Were Trouble”) to instead let sonic tension build up in waves without ever really breaking. “my tears ricochet” is aqueous, with dewy strings before it intensifies halfway through with the addition of a pulsing synth. “epiphany” feels destined to soundtrack film trailers for years to come, with Taylor’s voice circling a droning background, with concrete lyrics regarding the COVID-19 crisis (“Hold your hand through plastic now / ‘Doc I think she’s crashing out’”). “this is me trying” features a hushed vocal take and themes of potential not reached (“They told me all my cages were mental / so I got wasted like all my potential”) and the universal desire to relitigate a relationship that’s long in the past. It’s an assured piece of writing, with lyrics and textures that give it the feel of a half-remembered memory, or a dream that’s slipping into the nether. Finally, the best of the slow-build bunch is “mirrorball,” which is unfortunately not the Elbow cover I had hoped it was (and that Swift could’ve crushed), but is instead a wonderfully pretty song that sounds a hell of a lot like the Cranberries. Jack Antonoff is able to mirror (pun absolutely intended) the song’s titular item in his production, which twinkles and refracts around Taylor’s voice. Here, Taylor gives a crystalline performance, similarly refracted into multiple Taylors, all reflecting a different piece of herself. “Hush, when no one is around my dear,” she breathes, and it’s hard not to listen.

The few low points of folklore come during the back half of the album — “illicit affairs” sounds like a PG-13 movie version of an adulterous relationship, complete with the truly awful “tell your friends you’re out for a run / you’ll be flushed when you return” couplet. “mad woman” is just a bit too Hillary Clinton-presidential-campaign-song-core (it’s a real genre, dammit) for me, following in the vein of saccharine flotsam like “Fight Song” or “Roar” or “High Hopes.” A few of the tracks are a bit difficult to tell apart. But really, as I’ve said before, the album shows a true commitment to front-to-back quality.

The absolute best songs on the album come, though, when Taylor is decidedly not “on her new shit,” rather, they sound like updated, evolved versions of some of her most well-known material. They all focus on the past, either recent or distant, and tie the passage of time to the shifting gulf of emotional connection. “invisible string” is the only song on the album that is obviously autobiographical, and it is less about heartbreak and more about her long-term, quite private relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. It features some of the sharpest writing of Swift’s career, deftly weaving together a parallel narrative between the two would-be lovers tied together by an ‘invisible string.’ It also reaffirms Taylor’s desire to move past her (not always deserved) reputation as some sort of scorned woman — “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind/for the boys who broke my heart/now I buy their babies presents” is an all-time Swift line. “seven” is a concrete look back at Swift’s childhood, talking specifically about Pennsylvania, creeks, and sweet tea while incorporating lyrics closely resembling the schoolyard chants of yore: “Cross your heart, won’t tell no other.” I’m also a sucker for a sleek drop into verse from the chorus, and the “I’ve been meaning to tell you/I think your house is haunted” bit hits that spot perfectly.

The last two songs I want to talk about are the two remaining Love Triangle pieces, “august” and “betty.” The former perfectly captures the feeling of the shift from summer into fall, when reality snaps from the infinite feeling of warm nights spent driving to nowhere, spending swaths of time doing nothing, to, well, school. Musically, it sounds like a more polished version of her early hits — strummy acoustic guitar anchors each verse, backed by cobwebbed drums and rich cello. The latter, though, is where folklore really comes together as a cohesive whole. “betty,” again, is quite standard Swift fare, updated for 2020. A tale told from the perspective of the unfaithful half of a relationship, Swift is able to masterfully extract herself from the story, allowing it to stand on its own merit. And while it is ostensibly told from the perspective of James, the male in a heterosexual relationship, having the story told in Swift’s voice makes the song unequivocally queer. Certainly a large portion of Swift’s audience is not hetero, but “betty” is not pandering to any audience — it’s a heartfelt, beautiful, aching ode to any relationship that’s hit a roadblock, with Swift fully inhabiting the character and making the song jump off the page (mixed metaphor, I know). From the nostalgia-inducing opener “Betty, I won’t make assumptions/about why you switched your homeroom” to the use of proper nouns to anchor you in time and place (“You heard the rumours from Inez”) to the mixing choice that pushes Swift’s slightly tangy voice to the front of the song, every choice Swift makes on “betty” is exactly the choice that’s required to make a perfect Taylor Swift song. Down to the simple yet wildly effective choice to have the cardigan from the album’s second song reappear here, “betty” is a testament to Swift’s power as a songwriter, and the archetype of a perfect Taylor Swift song: lived-in, personal, specific, small. And while folklore doesn’t always live up to that ideal, it shows that Swift can maintain the power of her writing while operating in a transitional space with her themes and music. folklore is a strong statement of intent from an artist who’s still operating at the top of her game, and an excellent sonic reinvention from someone who’s already been through many. I’m excited to see where Taylor Swift goes from here.

writin about music mostly | contact me alex.ml.toth@gmail.com

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