Album Review: Taylor Swift - folklore

The last couple of releases from American pop superstar Taylor Swift have been patchy to say the least. 2017’s Reputation attempted to lean into all the controversies that had plagued her in the preceding years, but its bombastic edginess too often tripped over itself into absurdity. Then there was last year’s Lover, which should’ve been a glorious return to the buoyant synthpop that made 2014’s 1989 so appealing but a bloated tracklist and some truly dire singles bogged it down. Neither of these albums were without their high points but any glimpse of a return to form ultimately felt suffocated by all of the context, be that the exhausting tabloid drama or the excessive promotional hype.  

Still, I hoped that return to form would come eventually. It may be easy to forget when listening to …Ready for It? or ME! – perhaps she should never release songs with punctuation in the title – but Swift is responsible for some of the best pop music of the 21st century. After releasing her first album in 2006 at only 16, she spent the rest of the decade making supremely catchy country pop hits elevated by an endearing emotional authenticity. At the start of the 2010s, she then seamlessly translated this quality into pure, big budget pop. Red and 1989 may have had some weaker hit-seeking singles or a slightly inconsistent sonic palette thanks to an overabundance of producers, but the sheer quality of most of the songs meant these issues never overwhelmed otherwise great records. But as the 2010s came to a close it started to feel as if there was too much expected of a Taylor Swift album, encouraging these minor flaws to grow into real burdens.

So, Lover came and went, and I assumed it would be a couple more years before I could get my hopes up about another Taylor Swift album. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Many musicians who were supposed to be touring suddenly had a lot more free time on their hands and Swift was making the most of it. A mere 17 hours before its release, she announced her eighth studio album folklore. With its black and white cover art, lower case title and minimal promotion – not even her label knew about it until hours before the launch –  folklore established itself as Swift’s most subdued release before we even heard a note from it. Lead single cardigan, released alongside the album rather than at the start of a lengthy promotional season, immediately suggests that Swift’s decision to separate herself from the usual pop industry motions may be the best she’s ever made. With no pressure to build anticipation or soar to the top of the charts, cardigan isn’t a maximalist mess that overshadows everything around it, like Bad Blood or ME!, but a tenderly composed invitation to delve into the rest of the album..

Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner may initially seem like a surprising partnership but one listen to the way this album sounds demonstrates what a perfect match it is.
– Nathan Brooks

cardigan also serves as an introduction to folklore’s central collaboration; 11 of the album’s 16 songs are co-written or produced by Aaron Dessner, best known as a member of indie rock band The National, as well one half of the experimental duo Big Red Machine. Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner may initially seem like a surprising partnership but one listen to the way this album sounds demonstrates what a perfect match it is. The first piano tinkles on opening track the 1 promises a record of stripped back, delicate textures that give Swift’s warm melodies the exquisite home they’ve always deserved. Dessner’s production here is like a less glitchy version of his work on Big Red Machine, as he subtly fuses together elements of chamber, folk, electronic and ambient music. Guitars and piano glisten around each other, occasionally anchored by an unassuming drum machine, to produce gently hypnotic atmospheres that aren’t exactly experimental but aren’t like anything else on the pop charts either. the last great american dynasty and mad woman are both great examples of this style, but it’s the penultimate track peace that really proves how well it harmonises with Swift’s songwriting as she delivers her most liberated and captivating melodies yet. 

The remaining five songs not touched by Aaron Dessner are instead produced by Swift’s longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff. Whilst best known for a synth-heavy electropop style, Antonoff can be a real musical chameleon. Lana Del Rey’s 2019 album Norma F***ing Rockwell!, for example, saw Antonoff delve right into her signature retro pop sound with ease. And on folklore he similarly fits right in. Whilst the songs don’t have the exact same quality as those produced by Dessner they don’t feel out of place either. Instead, they slip nicely into the album’s mellow vibes whilst adding a modest touch of diversity, especially on the sublime, jangle pop evoking mirrorball. my tears ricochet is the only track that doesn’t quite measure up to the tactility of the rest of the album. Especially when the drums come in to try and match the rising emotions of the lyrics, it feels like a slight slip into the hollow bombast that every other song so deftly avoids. But other than that, folklore is one of the year’s best sounding records.

Now, there may be a tendency – especially from listeners of a male disposition – to chalk this album’s success up to its embracing of ‘real music’, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment at all. It’s a similar attitude that many held towards Ryan Adams’ indie cover of 1989, as if he’d come along and rescued these poor songs from their pop music prison. It’s a nonsensical view, not least because Adams’ 1989 is so much more boring than Swift’s, and whilst I do believe the pop industry has placed somewhat of a limit on Swift’s potential, that’s all to do with the business side of things and nothing to do with the genre itself. As outstanding songs like State of Grace and Style prove, Swift is fully capable of flourishing when making the extravagant pop music this kind of person instinctively scoffs at. The production on folklore is excellent and its lean towards a more alternative style certainly appeals to my personal tastes, but it primarily works as well as it does because it provides an unobtrusive stage for Swift to showcase some of her strongest ever songwriting. 

The greatest triumph of folklore is the liberating space Swift has made for herself…to finally showcase her full artistic growth. It’s the most unequivocally beautiful album she’s ever made.
– Nathan Brooks

Swift has always known how to craft a tune and the songs on folklore are no exception. The melodies are fluid and wistful and full of life, like on the relentlessly catchy august or the innocently nostalgic seven. What folklore has like no other Swift album, however, is a remarkable cohesiveness. There are no jarring shifts in tone or songs that simply should not be there, just a thoughtfully constructed tracklist that meanders with organic grace. This quality could be mistaken for a lack of variety on first listen but each song has its own identity, the distinctions are just quieter than usual. And it’s fundamentally this restraint that sets folklore apart. mad woman, for example, could have tried for the same edgy, girl boss energy of tracks like I Did Something Bad or The Man but by holding back the actual song is a far more haunting and incisive critique of misogyny. epiphany similarly deals with themes that threaten to become overblown but are delivered with a more effective temperance, submerged in ethereal orchestration. Interestingly, at 63 minutes long, the only area folklore doesn’t hold back in is its length, but unlike its similarly long predecessor, it also has the songs to sustain it.

All of these qualities carry through to the lyrics. folklore is an album of stories, both fictional and autobiographical and the line between the two is often blurred. A track like betty – a country tinged evocation of Swift’s early years – is explicitly written about characters but its themes clearly resonate with Swift on a personal level. On the other hand, a song like hoax – a  boldly melancholic closing track about struggling to leave a toxic relationship  – seems to be from Swift’s perspective but isn’t necessarily drawn exclusively from her experiences. the last great american dynasty plays with this ambiguity the most gleefully, referring to its subject with both third and first person pronouns. In that sense, folklore very much lives up to its title, tapping into the enduring human tendency to tell stories to learn more about ourselves. Swift’s lyrics can still be a tad cheesy or awkward (lines like “they told me all my cages were mental / so I got wasted like all my potential” from this is me trying, for example) but the album’s understated style makes no room for any outright embarrassing lines. Most importantly, Swift sounds as emotionally honest as ever. illicit affairs, a vivid narrative about infidelity, showcases this at its peak, capturing alluring thrills and heartbreaking pain with empathy and resonance.

illicit affairs also signals how much Swift has matured as a songwriter. It deals with nuance and clashing emotions, in stark contrast to the bitter condemnation on her similarly themed 2006 song Should’ve Said No. In fact, the subject matter of most of the songs hasn’t changed a whole lot since that debut album, the perspectives have just become more adult and multifaceted. exile, an impassioned duet with Bon Iver and Big Red Machine member Justin Vernon, showcases this at its clearest. Playing the parts of two former lovers, Vernon claims his ex “never gave a warning sign”, which Swift undercuts with her exasperated response “I gave so many signs”. Even a shamelessly romantic song like invisible string is subtly touched with self-awareness, the line “isn’t it just so pretty to think” acknowledging the foolish idealism of the imagery whilst still embracing the happiness it brings. The greatest triumph of folklore, therefore, is the liberating space Swift has made for herself, away from the prying eyes of gossip columnists and record executives, to finally showcase her full artistic growth. It’s the most unequivocally beautiful album she’s ever made.