Album Review: Taylor Swift, ‘folklore’

Taylor Swift has gone through many transformations. Lover – released less than a year ago – was framed as a snapshot of her entire career, careening from bombastic pop to straight-up country. If the shift from Reputation to Lover felt like a stylistic detour, on her latest album Swift has taken down an entirely different path, setting up camp somewhere deep in the woods to write an indie folk record that radiates confidence in the most quietly understated way. She doesn’t need to announce that the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now because she’s dead – she just opens her surprise new record with a couple of warm, hushed piano chords and the lines “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit”. It evokes the strange feeling of catching up with an old friend after, say, a period of prolonged self-isolation – which isn’t something you’d normally say about a record from a megastar like Taylor Swift.

And yet, as strikingly intimate as folklore sounds, it’s not the kind of confessional album one might expect from that description, nor does it center around Swift’s fame and career. Instead, its sombre, muted tones give Swift the space to hone in her skills as a narrative storyteller, penning songs that are as much about herself as they are about everyone else – which is to say, they are great songs, and folklore is arguably her best effort to date. Explaining the concept behind the album, Swift wrote: “A tale that becomes folklore is one that is passed down and whispered around […] The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible.” It’s the ambivalent nature of Swift’s lyricism that partly makes the album so compelling, but it’s the open-heartedness and empathy on display here that renders it so emotionally resonant.

Couched in lush, earthy production courtesy of the National’s Aaron Dessner, the organic, earnest qualities of Swift’s songwriting come into sharp focus. There are really no duds on folklore – it’s an album that flows as naturally as the river to the sea, which isn’t something you could really say about Lover. It takes the best elements of that album – the evocative, low-key mood of ‘The Archer’, the trickling nostalgia of ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’ – and shapes them into something entirely different, resulting in her most cohesive and fully-realized project yet.

There’s only one problem. The black and white artwork, an obvious switch from the pastel-hued palette of Lover; the album’s distinct goth-folk approach; its preoccupation with fantasy, myth, and fairytales – it all just screams a certain kind of aesthetic. To any adamant detractors, what might otherwise be seen as Swift’s most honest album instead passes as just another calculated stunt, a style-over-substance affair. So what if there are absolutely no pop songs on folklore? It arrives at a time when we’re all longing for this dreadful summer to be over and cosy up against the fireplace with a warm cup of hot cocoa, and the album’s autumn vibes are so pronounced it practically doubles as a time machine. Isn’t there something at least a little bit self-serving in that?

But of course, anyone who actually listens to the full record would be able to pick up on the way Swift engages with the concept of myth-making itself – there are multiple references to the stories here being “just like a folk song” or “just like a movie”, enough to make them subtly subversive rather than purely nostalgic – but as much as there is to unpack in these 16 songs, the sheer richness of the compositions should be enough to win sceptics over. The shimmering folktronica of ‘the last great american dynasty’ provides the perfect backdrop for some of Swift’s sharpest lyrics, detailing the life of the previous owner of her Rhode Island mansion, Rebekah Harness, and infusing it with the kind of feminist undertones that informed Lana del Rey’s last album: “Holiday House sat quietly on that beach/ Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/ And then it was bought by me.” It proves that behind what might appear to be a shallow fascination with Fitzgerald-esque decadence – a criticism that’s been directed at del Rey for years – lies a compelling critique of how society views women, and the way Swift ties these historical details with her own life makes these observations feel disconcertingly enduring. “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen,” she sings, “She had a marvelous time ruining everything.”

It’s a theme that resurfaces later on the audacious ‘mad woman’, which features the first-ever instance of Swift singing the word “fuck” on record. Unlike ‘The Man’ from last year’s Lover, which was insightful but not necessarily potent in the same way, ‘mad woman’ tells a very specific story that manages to feel both personal and universal in its directness. “And there’s nothing like a mad woman/ What a shame she went mad/ No one likes a mad woman/ You made her like that,” she sings, that sense of rightful indignation a stark contrast to the song’s velvety, gorgeous instrumental.

Swift’s ability to shift between different perspectives is most evident in what she refers to as the Teenage Love Triangle trilogy  – ‘cardigan’, ‘august’, and ‘betty’, each written from the point of view of a different person. They all feel less like a teenager’s account of love than a young adult novel that’s marked by an intimate understanding of the kind of youthful idealism that’s representative of that age: “When you are young they assume you know nothing,” goes the most quotable line on ‘cardigan’. But it’s ‘betty’ that paints the most damning yet complex character portrait, written from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy who’s done wrong but who would genuinely do anything to regain his lover’s trust.

On the lilting ‘august’, it’s producer Jack Antonoff’s trademark sound that stands out the most – after lending Lover some of its most riveting highlights, he works his studio magic once again, this time utilizing a more subdued approach that suits the album’s wistful aesthetic while also allowing for some of its most rousing, pop-adjacent moments. In that sense, it’s more reminiscent of his work on Lana del Rey’s last album than Taylor Swift’s. ‘mirrorball’ might just be their most stunning collaboration to date, Swift’s tender harmonies soaring atop dreamy, textured guitars. She delivers one of her most impassioned performances during the bridge, when she reaches the crushing realization that no matter how many different versions of herself she spins out, and no matter how many times it fails to get her what she most desperately wants, she’ll still keep trying: “And I’m still a believer, but I don’t know why/ I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try/I’m still on that trapeze/ I’m still trying everything to keep you looking at me.” She makes the point all the more clear on ‘this is me trying’, in which she laments: “They told me all of my cages were mental/ So I got wasted like all my potential.”

Compared to the often unfocused structure of Lover, folklore benefits from sticking to a handful of trusted collaborators that allow Swift’s songwriting to shine. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon is the only other artist whose singing features on the record, leading to the wonderfully melodic duet that is ‘exile’; but it’s the elegant ‘peace’ that sounds more like a Bon Iver cut circa 22, a Million, which makes sense considering Dessner’s partnership with Vernon on their collaborative Big Red Machine project. “Our coming-of-age has come and gone/ Suddenly this summer, it’s clear,” she sings, sounding not only remarkably self-assured but also reassuring. “Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?” she ponders as the song comes to an end. Folklore is Swift’s most mature collection of songs – and if the best it can offer is the simple comfort of diving into its intricate yet poignant fictional worlds, that’s certainly more than enough.

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