Review: Taylor Swift’s radically intimate ‘Folklore’ is the perfect quar album
The black-and-white photograph on the cover of Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album captures the singer in a wild backwoods landscape, a solitary figure shrouded in mist and dwarfed by stretching pines. It is a setting more fit for a lumberjack than the world’s biggest pop star, and it’s the first indication that something curious is afoot.
Fans and critics have long speculated about Swift returning to her country music roots, and Thursday morning, when news of the surprise album with the suggestive title “Folklore” reached the internet, a consensus quickly formed. This, surely, would be no mere pivot back to Nashville but a journey Back to the Land — the debut of Taylor Swift, folk bard.
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Well, kinda. “Folklore,” which was released today at midnight, has some folksy flourishes: contemplative lyrics, finger-picked guitars and, in “Betty,” one of the album’s winningest songs, a huffing harmonica straight out of a Greenwich Village coffee house circa 1962. The album has a pronounced indie-rock feel as well. Eleven of the 16 tracks were co-written and produced by Aaron Dessner of Brooklyn band the National, and Bon Iver, the ne plus ultra of indie breakup balladeers, joins Swift on “Exile,” a stormy duet.
But to label “Folklore” folk or indie is to mischaracterize its unique flavor. It’s an ambitious and, in the best sense, odd record, which finds Swift extending her reach sonically, vocally and, especially, as a songwriter and storyteller. Swift composed the songs and recorded her vocals at her home in Los Angeles during the coronavirus lockdown. It sounds like a quarantine record. The album is ruminative and dreamy, the work of an artist who, cut off from the everyday world, turned inward, following the rushing rapids of her imagination and scooping up songs as they flowed past.
The Swift you hear on “Folklore” is the same consummate craftsperson she’s always been, but she sounds freer, liberated from the pressure to keep pace with the marketplace, to compete, to make hits. Song for song, “Folklore” does not quite rise to the heady level of albums like “Red” (2012), “Reputation” (2017) and “Lover” (2019). There are no dance-floor bangers, no irrefutable earworms, no songs likely to stampede to the upper reaches of the Hot 100.
As a collection of songs, though, it stands alone in Swift’s discography. It’s her most album-y album, a creation of and for life in the summer of 2020, ideally experienced alone, late at night, in a single sitting, through noise-canceling headphones. It is social distancing music, par excellence.
It begins with “The 1,” a stoic look back at a fizzled romance, which moves at a lope, nudged along by ringing piano chords and one of the album’s sprightlier beats. Nearly all the songs on “Folklore” are ballads, and the chamber pop arrangements favored by Dessner and Swift’s longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, who coproduced six songs, give the songs a spooky sheen, a sound both ghostly and gleaming. In “Epiphany,” a song that begins in medias res during a World War II battle and shifts to what may be a scene from the COVID-19 pandemic (“Holds your hand through plastic now”), synths, strings and brass groan and swoop around Swift’s melancholy croon. “My Tears Ricochet,” which is narrated from beyond the grave, builds to a tumultuous climax, with church choir backing vocals rising over shuddering drums. It’s goth, like Chartres Cathedral is goth.
Listening to “Folklore,” you get a sense of Swift’s own listening habits: She has been paying attention to Lana Del Rey, Phoebe Bridgers and other young singers who are rejiggering torch songs for the 21st century. Swift, of course, is a songwriting savant, a preposterously gifted sculptor of tunes and hooks. But on “Folklore” she pushes back against her pop instincts and aims for woollier beauty, a more free-flowing style à la Del Rey and Bridgers. You can hear it in “Seven,” possibly the album’s prettiest moment, with a limpid melody reminiscent of an old Irish air. The song is superbly sung by Swift in the upper part of her register; the lyric piles up internal rhymes and seems to curve in new directions with practically every syllable: “Please picture me / In the trees / I hit my peak at 7 / Feet / In the swing / Over the creek.” Swift also tucks some feminist politics into “Seven”: “Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously / Anytime I wanted,” she sings.
(Warning: Video includes profanity)
“Seven” is an example of an old Swift staple, the childhood reminiscence song. There is other stuff on “Folklore” to please the faithful, including those fans who comb Taylor Swift albums for scraps of information about the star’s personal life. Exhibit A is the charming “Invisible String,” which appears to offer straightforward details of Swift’s life with her boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn. The song includes the line “Bad was the blood of the song in the cab on your first trip to L.A.” (Translation: Alwyn once heard Swift’s hit “Bad Blood” on the radio in a Los Angeles taxi. Bummer for him — it may be the only dud she’s ever recorded.) Inquiring minds may also be blown by the revelation that Swift — or, at least, the narrator of “Invisible String” — is in the habit of sending presents to the babies of her former boyfriends. The avenging angel of albums past has mellowed, it seems, into a kindly auntie.
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You could chalk up this change to age. This past December, Swift turned 30, and it’s tempting to pronounce “Folklore” her first truly grown-up album, hearkening the arrival, to put the matter in music industry terms, of Adult Album Alternative Taylor Swift. It’s certainly true that her stark view of romance — the love songs strewn with red roses and white horses, the breakup ballads powered by pure grievance and dudgeon — has given way to a more complicated vision, an awareness that all relationships, good and bad, are rough going, booby-trapped by misunderstandings, with blame, and blamelessness, to go around.
“Exile,” the duet with Bon Iver, is a tortured call-and-response between estranged lovers. (He: “You never gave a warning sign.” She: “I gave so many signs.”) The song hits hard because it rings true. Swift has often sung about infidelity, but in the brooding “Illicit Affairs,” she homes in on the gory particulars with a precision that would impress John Updike: stolen stares, guilty rendezvous in parking lots, cheating spouses who return from assignations with flushed faces and claim they were out for a jog.
The biggest change on “Folklore” is in Swift’s songwriting practice. For more or less the first time in her nearly decade-and-a-half-long recording career, Swift has cast off the yoke of pure first-person subjectivity. (As she writes in the “Prologue” included in the “Folklore” album package: “I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.”) It is odd that a song crafter as talented and sharp-witted as Swift took so long to get here, especially since she served her apprenticeship on Nashville’s Music Row, where third-person storytelling is de rigueur.
In any case, the shift pays dividends, even — especially — in songs that retread familiar Taylor Swift terrain. Sharp-eared listeners will note that “Folklore” contains a kind of triptych: the story of a teenage love triangle retold in three songs — “Cardigan,” “August” and “Betty” — each time from the perspective of a different player in the drama. “Betty” offers a true novelty, the sound of Taylor Swift inhabiting the persona of a 17-year-old boy. When Swift was a teenager, she roared indignation at the cad who should’ve said no. Now, in 2020, she has returned to the scene of the crime and is singing in the cad’s chastened voice: “I’m only 17 / I don’t know anything / But I know I miss you.” For Swift, it’s both an act of imaginative sympathy and a new way to exact revenge.
The most bravura short story on “Folkore” is “The Last Great American Dynasty,” which tells the true-life tale of Rebekah Harkness, a free-spirited party girl who married the heir to the Standard Oil fortune, and scandalized her neighbors in the tony Rhode Island coastal town of Watch Hill. The song’s bridge delivers a delicious O’Henryesque twist: Swift herself bought Harkness’ old seaside mansion, and now she is the vulgar arriviste raising the eyebrows of Watch Hill’s old-money WASPs.
“The Last Great American Dynasty” is a great song, pure and simple, with one of the album’s shapeliest tunes and wryest lyrics. (Swift’s sense of humor is often overlooked, but she’s always been a cut-up.) It’s another sterling entry in a catalog that continues to expand at an absurd rate. “It’s like I got this music in my mind,” Swift sang six years ago in “Shake It Off,” and she wasn’t kidding.
Love or her or hate her, there is no gainsaying the prodigiousness of Swift’s output, nor the sheer oddity of her career — a quirky singer-songwriter, with an unseemly work ethic and an antsy muse, who transformed herself into a world beater. It’s one of the unlikelier stories in pop history. You could call it folkloric.
Jody Rosen is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.
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