Taylor Swift’s surprise album is a step away from noisy popstardom and into the quiet woods, writes Sam Brooks.
I spent most of quarantine dreading the kind of art that would come out of it. I was expecting movies shot on Zoom, TV shows about unlikely flatmates being stuck together, and plays about how we were all so distant despite being so connected, man. What I wasn’t expecting was a surprise Taylor Swift album where two of the main collaborators were Aaron Dessner (The National) and Bon Iver (your uni memories). Truly, 2020 is in equal measure the gift that keeps giving and the monkey paw that keeps curling.
While the announcement was a surprise – 24 hours before it dropped, complete with moodily shot artwork and a lead single video directed by Swift herself – the album’s new musical direction shouldn’t have been. Lover, an album that already feels underrated less than a year after its release, captured an artist torn between being the biggest popstar in the world and using music as an outlet for the deeply personal experiences she was living through, including her mother’s cancer. The worst songs on the album (‘Me!’, ‘You Need to Calm Down’) felt as fake and empty as anything Swift had ever released, closer to one-time sworn enemy Katy Perry’s output than her own torn-from-the-pages-of-Typo material. The best were folkier, gentler, more lovelorn. It was clear where Swift felt more at home; you could almost hear her reaching for her piano and acoustic guitar.
Folklore sees Swift dive deep into the sonic pool she dipped her toes into with Lover. The first two songs, ‘The 1’ and lead single ‘Cardigan’ feel like a transition. They’re about as cute as the album gets (perky teen love triangle tale ‘Betty’ is another rare exception), with the latter picking up on imagery that wouldn’t be out of place on Fearless 12 years ago, all throwing pennies in the pool and dancing in Levis. But after that? We’re in full-on For Emma, Forever Ago territory. If you spent your youth deep in your feelings listening to ‘Skinny Love’ and ‘Plume’, rest assured that Folklore is full of the same kind of bleak cabin-in-the-woods romanticism.
Just days after its release, it seems premature to call Folklore Taylor Swift’s best album so far. It’s clearly her most ambitious album though, stretching her established persona and sound into something still recognisably Swiftian, but different from anything she’s done in the past. Take ‘Exile’, the Bon Iver duet that’s one of the album’s highlights. Swift has always been very much inside her own head, lyrically, but here she examines the aftermath of a broken relationship from both sides. It builds in the way her best songs do, starting off with a bare piano before piling on the strings. It’s the kind of song that would be the heartbreaking peak of say, 2014’s Red, but here it’s just one of many songs that pay tribute to the small tragedies of love. (As a sidebar, it’s momentarily jarring – hilariously so – to hear Justin Vernon’s sob of a voice work its way around a Taylor Swift hook.)
Though it’s tempting to call Folklore “stripped back” that’s not really true. Despite being conceived and produced during quarantine, it sounds no less lush than the albums that came with a two year promotional plan and global rollout. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given The National’s Dessner shared production duties with regular collaborator Jack Antonoff; it’s not like Swift is messing around in GarageBand here. No, Folklore isn’t about stripping back, it’s about casting off. Swift captured our hearts and found worldwide fame by being an incredibly adroit songwriter able to blend hooks with intensely personal lyrics, or which at least had the facade of being intensely personal. To maintain that fame she leaned into bigger and bigger pop songs, with mixed quality but to huge success, and also into being Extremely Online, with results that have aged poorly. Swift is not just exponentially less interesting when she’s clapping back at her haters (Christ resurrected, remember ‘Bad Blood’?), she’s ignoring what makes her great: her ability to translate her own unique experiences into songs that millions of listeners can identify with.
With Folklore, she’s doing what she does best, and more. While she’s experimented with writing from other points of view in the past, here her character-based writing takes centre stage. And sure, they’re characters in the key of Swift, but still it’s exciting to see a popstar of her magnitude take a stab at a more experimental lyrical direction. Her voice has also rarely been better. She’s never going to be a huge belter, but the way she conveys humour, sadness, regret and just plain personality is part of what made her great. Folklore showcases some of her best vocal performances; she’s never sounded more hurt, even ashamed, than on the album’s closer ‘Hoax’.
It may not be the most obvious comparison, but for me Folklore brought to mind Beyonce’s Lemonade. While it’s hardly as groundbreaking as that album was, there’s a similar lyrical playfulness to both. While Lemonade was a straight-up dare for Beyonce’s audience to apply the narrative of the album to her own relationship, Folklore seems more like a statement about what to expect from Taylor Swift going forward. She can write songs that make you want to put two-factor authentication on your DMs, but not every song is about her. Either way, she’s proven capable of doing the thing that the very best writers do: write about an extremely specific experience that speaks to all of us.
If you’re not already in the bag for Swift, Folklore won’t change your mind. But if you are in the bag, packed, checked, and on the plane, you know what to expect. Every Swift album has at least one song that hits you like a gut punch: the scarf on Red, the dress on Reputation, the trees of 1989, and (for me, at least, this is all about me, obviously), the hallway on Lover. This is the first Swift album that doesn’t just have that one moment. It feels like a moment in its entirety.