Written By Noah Wade
The COVID-19 pandemic brought all plans regarding sports, music and other large-scale events to a screeching halt for the foreseeable future. Taylor Swift, who is an exception to most things, was not in this case, as her planned Lover Fest events were postponed until next summer indefinitely. On April 27th, she posted a selfie on Instagram with the caption “Not a lot going on at the moment”, which, as we now know, was a lie. She had been secretly been working on this new project, called “folklore”, which would get as close to the surprise Beyoncé treatment as it gets, announced overnight before its release this past Friday, July 23rd.
Upon initial viewing of the album cover, a stark grey wide shot of Swift in the woods, many fans drew immediate connections to the music video for her 2012 collaboration with indie duo The Civil Wars, a song called “Safe And Sound” for “The Hunger Games” soundtrack. That track, an underrated gem, was a softer, more alternative sound for her at a time when she was churning out huge country-pop hits like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble”. Fans rapidly speculated that this new record would be a genre shift for the superstar, and after details of her collaborators of the project were made public it became all the more apparent. She worked with indie darling Bon Iver, Aaron Dessner of alternative rock group The National and Jack Antonoff, who has, arguably, had a major hand in some of not only Swift’s best work but also that of Lorde and Lana Del Rey, most notably with the latter’s Grammy-nominated project “Norman F***ing Rockwell”.
With that in mind, and knowing that these songs were written by Swift during her own struggles with fear and isolation during the pandemic, it was clear that this was going to be something fresh and more emotionally dense than previous projects. Swift has repeatedly proven her worth as a songwriter and a musician since her earliest days in the public eye, but has never really had that defining singer/songwriter record that would put her in the same conversation as that of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. So, how is “folklore”?
Like most Swift albums, “folklore” is bloated. 16 tracks on the standard edition, 17 on the deluxe with a runtime of just over an hour. However, there are no “skips”. It appears that the tracks being labeled as such are those that are a bit more comprehensive, but they all have a deserved place on the record. Some of Swift’s typical tropes, especially for her pop material, like a radio-friendly bubblegum pop lead single, blaring synths and pounding drum machines are nowhere to be found, but are instead replaced with beautifully-crafted songwriting and instrumentation that allows for every nuance to be heard clearly. There are nods to the stylings of Bon Iver himself, Mumford and Sons and Sara Bareilles, but this record is unequivocally Swift. It highlights her lower range and the rich, weathered parts of her timbre that are often lost in her beltier anthems, serving as a reminder of just how good Taylor is when you strip away all the madness around her.
In terms of the songs themselves, it is a far cry from the 80’s/Robyn-inspired synth-pop of “1989” or the darker pop tones of “reputation”. On each track, Swift is accompanied by sweeping orchestrations and/or folksy jam elements, with stunning layered vocal harmonies like on the Bon Iver-assisted “exile”, but again, it is the storytelling aspect of these songs that allow them to be as compelling as they are. She reflects on her early years in “seven”, admits to her own mistakes in past relationships in “this is me trying”, acknowledges her temperament on “mad woman” and tells her side of a failed love affair on “exile” with Bon Iver serving as the male counterpart. “mad woman” is especially interesting, as it contains all the grit and heightened pettiness of her “reputation” album and applies it to, possibly, her feud with Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta; “Women like hunting your witches too, doing your dirtiest work for you. It’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together.”
Her descriptive colors are vivid as ever, always able to paint a perfect picture with her lyrics, like the opening lines of “invisible string”; “Green was the color of the grass where I used to read at Centennial Park. I used to think I would meet somebody there. Teal was the color of your shirt when you were 16 at the yogurt shop you used to work at to make a little money.” She even writes from different perspectives and character-driven angles, like within the alleged “love triangle” of songs consisting of lead single “cardigan”, “august” and “betty”, the last of which has been the most difficult to unravel conceptually. “illicit affairs” and “my tears ricochet”, the latter produced by Antonoff, are clear standouts both lyrically and musically, as is “peace”. The line “All these people think love’s for show but I would die for you in secret” from that track just hits hard.
So, what happens now? Swift will almost surely secure another #1 album on the Billboard Hot 200 chart and maybe even another Grammy win for Album Of The Year, but are we, not just avid listens and music journalists but society as a whole, at a place where music consumers will allow this record to live on? To live on in the way that Carole King’s “Tapestry” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” have in terms of sheer songwriting and musical excellence? The answer has to be yes, because with this record, Swift has earned that type of praise. Very rarely are albums looked at in that sense these days, and it’s more of a rarity considering the world that Swift resides in. In less than a year, Swift has gone from the explosive pop bombast of “ME!” to this intimate, introspective collection of tunes, some of which would have fit well on earlier country projects like “Red”. However, this is essentially Swift’s “Raising Sand”, had Allison Krauss decided to go it alone (thank God she didn’t), but the groundwork is there.
Swift is no longer the young girl who went on SNL and wrung Joe Jonas out to dry in front of the entire world. She is a grown woman who has seemingly found her other half and, even though she’s made mistakes and sometimes continues to do so, has gone to great lengths to maintain a sense of normalcy in a never-ending media firestorm. Despite all her trials and tribulations, she has finally found peace, as she alludes to on “invisible string”; “Hell is the journey but it brought me heaven.” Swift is, without a doubt, this generations most iconic artist all-around and she wears that badge of honor proudly. So, congratulations Ms. Swift. This record is a tour-de-force. I just hope that the rest of the world recognizes it, too.