Taylor Swift – folklore
Indie Folk | Pop | Baroque Pop
I’ve never known quite what to make of Taylor Swift as we’ve seen so many different sides to her over the years. The acclaimed songwriter, an auteur of finely crafted summer pop anthems and earnest break-up ballads. The astute businesswoman, calculating every step and curating her image. The child-at-heart, still hung up on the petty machinations of high school drama. It’s been hard not only to figure out the balance between the many facets we’ve seen of her, but also to separate the artist, the actual genuine person, from the mythology that has built up around her. Then, just when I felt like I was close to an answer, Taylor announces a surprise album out in just a matter of hours.
folklore goes against everything we’ve come to expect from a Taylor Swift album. No gaudy and drawn out promotional campaign akin to some out-of-touch mega-corporation, no record so overly polished you could use it to signal for help on a desert island, nothing that figuratively or literally screams ‘me‘. Instead we find a stripped back collection of songs written and recorded in a few months in lockdown, with an emphasis on lyricism, atmosphere and storytelling. A record crafted and released in complete secrecy, without even her label knowing. Even going so far as recruiting the likes of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner to craft a suitably subdued soundscape. I had my reservations that this album was too good to be true, but my curiosity won out and was rewarded.
If anything the record is even more mature and contemplative than I had hoped it would be. I’ve always maintained that music is just as much about the notes you don’t play, the restraint you show and how you utilize moments of quiet, and folklore excels in that regard. Every element of this record is made for introspective nights or for staring out the window on rainy afternoons. It’s all built around the central foundation of elegant piano and airy acoustic guitar, adorned with hazy indie soundscapes, subtle electronics and gorgeous orchestration that imperceptibly build up a rich sonic texture like a rising tide. All this serves to pull you in and draw your focus to Taylor’s most raw and authentic artistry to date. ‘this is me trying’ is a heartfelt moment of vulnerability, letting down her perfect image to show a flawed human being, and offering one of her best lines to date with “They told me all of my cages were mental, So I got wasted like all my potential”. The strikingly austere and intimate ‘illicit affairs’ delivers a nuanced and empathetic take on infidelity and the “dwindling, mercurial high” that it offers, while the empyrean ‘epiphany’ tackles the current crisis in remarkably poignant fashion and features an ethereal vocal performance that is easily one of her finest.
While I freely admit it’s her collaborators that drew me to folklore, it’s not enough to simply show up, they have to deliver and be in sync with each other for a collaboration to mean anything. Thankfully everyone that made this record was clearly in the zone in spite of the circumstances around its writing and recording. Aaron Dessner’s arrangements are always a delight, but the gradual experimental shift that The National have shown in their sound in their past few releases would have been very out of place here. Instead he’s taken an understated approach that accentuates the songwriting rather than distracts from it. Justin Vernon has also taken an uncharacteristically modest approach regarding his duet on ‘exile’. Eschewing his usual vocal effects and offering a rare exploration of his sonorous lower register, he delivers exactly what was needed in order to help make ‘exile’ the album’s highlight.
Swift herself is also on fine form with folklore, as this record sees her play to her strengths as well as temper some of her more indulgent tendencies. Old drama dies hard and ‘mad woman’ feels a bit out of place among the more mature offerings, but elsewhere she vents her frustrations in a less overt and more character driven track with ‘the last great american dynasty’. Her explorations of love and heartbreak here aren’t the slanted soap opera drama that they have often been, instead much like the album’s superb artwork they bring a more balanced shade of grey to the picture. This is most notable on the album’s “teenage love triangle trilogy” – lead single ‘cardigan’, dreamy ‘august’ and the sparse Americana of ‘betty’ – with each track showing a different side to the story.
All that said, the album is not without its faults, chief among them being its length. The album is undoubtedly far too long (16 tracks is rarely justifiable) and takes a while to really get going. I’m also not a fan of this recent trend of having everything in lowercase; fairly sure the pedant in me made a few involuntary twitches while writing this review. There’s certainly a fair bit of filler cluttering the record, ‘the 1’, ‘seven’ and ‘peace’ being strong contenders for the cut, but there’s nothing here that feels glaringly out of place. Normally there’s at least a couple of questionable and embarrassing curveballs to contend with, but folklore is by far her most consistent record to date. I’ve not been this pleasantly surprised by an album since Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! I know 2020 has enjoyed keeping us on our toes, but I don’t think anyone had Indie-Swift on their batshit crazy year bingo cards. A surprise to be sure, but a welcome one. Bravo Miss Swift, I will be keeping my fingers crossed for more.