As an artist who seems to be omnipresent in headlines but rarely gives interviews, the countdown to Taylor Swift’s records is almost as important as the albums themselves.
First comes the announcement that an album is coming, then the poring over every Instagram picture for clues for the date, then the big budget video, then dissecting the video for hints at song titles… so it was genuinely a surprise for Taylor to shun this pattern to pull a Beyonce and drop her eighth album with no fanfare and just hours warning.
And if Folklore is what happens when Swift chooses the stripped back approach, maybe it’s something she could do more often.
After the trying-too-hard nature of the headline-attacking Reputation and the glossy but muddled Lover, which contained some of Swift’s finest songs but was kicked off with the hollow, bound to soundtrack every Nickelodeon ad for 2020 Me!, Folklore is not only the star’s most surprising and experimental album yet, but her most clear and coherent vision since Red.
In Thursday’s announcement, Taylor announced that not only was she working with her long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff (pop’s most in demand man, who has worked with everyone from Lana Del Rey to Lorde) for Folklore, but The National‘s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver. Not exactly what we’d expected from the woman who last collaborated with Brendon Urie on a song which included the lyric ‘Spelling is fun!’ But hardcore Swifties will know that this team choice suits her down to the ground, and rewinds back to her more country days, when producing an album of pop bangers wasn’t on the schedule yet.
Folklore puts the focus back on pure Swift songwriting magic, with the star shining lyrically more than she has in years.
On album opener The 1, a lesson in melancholy post break-up, we hear a wistful Taylor sing about the loss of what could have been: ‘In my defence I have none, for never leaving well enough alone, but if would have fun, if you would have been the one.’ This sets the tone for Swift ditching the polished popstar persona she has created over the past few albums and questioning… well, everything. The songs on Folklore are some of Swift’s most reflective, but there’s very few answers, and unlike Reputation and Lover, it’s not crystal clear who she is referring to on every single song. On the sweet Cardigan, the first single, we hear Swift recalling a person in her past: ‘When I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone’s bed, you put me on and said I was your favourite’, with Dessner’s trickling piano providing the pang of delicate pain weaving its way through the record.
That’s not to say there’s not some classic Swift self-references on Folklore. Anybody paying attention to the Swift/Scooter Braun masters drama over the past year will get Mad Woman immediately (‘It’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together’). The grown up, more coherent older sister of Lover’s The Man, Swift bites in the opening lines: ‘What did you think I’d say to that? Does a scorpion sting when fighting back? They strike to kill, and you know I will.’ While The Man may have been the pink pussy hat brand of feminism, Mad Woman takes from Taylor’s distinct experience of how her industry battles have made her the titular mad, angry, woman she is painted as (‘Nobody likes a mad woman, you made her like that’).
One of Folklore’s high points, The Last American Dynasty, is a lesson in history of Rebekah Harkness, the widow to the heir of the Standard Oil fortune whose Rhode Island home Swift moved into. Harkness’s tragic life has aspects that mirror Swift’s other than their shared abode – the ‘Bitch Pack’ mentioned by Swift on the song is pretty much the 20th century version of Swift’s now dismantled Bad Blood squad, and as she sings ‘There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvellous time ruining everything’, we know Swift isn’t just delving into Rhode Island’s history.
And on Invisible String, possibly the most Lover of the selection, it’s a clear and ode to her boyfriend Joe Alwyn. Swift sings: ‘Teal was the colour of your shirt when you were 16 at the yoghurt shop’ in the opening seconds, referencing Alwyn’s pre-fame job in frozen yoghurt spot Snog, before noting the cosmic links between them before their relationship (‘Bad was the blood of the song in the cab on your first trip to LA’). While it’s saccharine sweet, the lyrics make it so beautifully romantic that you can’t help but get swept away as Swift sings that she now sends her ex-boyfriends baby presents because her heart, whose breaks have been well documented over seven albums, has been pieced back together.
Thematically, we are also given throwbacks to the Speak Now and Red eras with the high school whimsy of Betty, which is probably the most classic Swift offering on the album even with the peppering of f-words. While sad indie bros may give Folklore a chance because of the men in the album notes (welcome back, it’s been five years since Ryan Adams covered 1989!), this is still Swift’s show.
It’s not an entirely perfect album – around track six, Mirrorball, Folklore loses its momentum and has a bit of a lacklustre three song run (along with Seven and August), and you really feel that this is a 16-song album (even without bonus track The Lakes). But by the time we get to This Is Me Trying, with an almost frantic slam poetry conclusion, we’re back in the gentle groove.
Anyone who came to Taylor in the era of pop perfection that was 1989 may be a bit startled by this departure, which is totally devoid of radio bangers and is way more suited to gazing out the rain-stained window of a log cabin wistfully then screaming at an ex via the glorious means of karaoke. But this is what Taylor has always been.
Swift has put many a person off in recent years with her behind-the-lyrics feuds and revenge choruses, and perhaps dropping Folklore on the same day as her former nemesis Kanye West’s latest offering would have people thinking that this was another stage of the war. But Folklore is all about the music, and seems like something years in the making, rather than a quarantine project. We all know that Taylor can do a pop chart-topper, but this has reminded the masses that first and foremost, she is one of our generation’s greatest songwriters, and she didn’t need the indie heavyweight help of The National to remain as such.
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