Swift’s stellar song-writing laid bare in intimate chamber pop
Taylor Swift’s surprise album emerges from lockdown with minimal bombast but rich in detail and storytelling. Aptly titled, Folklore traipses through forgotten childhood haunts, meanders along timeless love stories, delves deep into the musical and poetical mythos, and trips lightly through memory and the imagination.
Stripped of its pop sheen, Swift’s song-writing alongside producer Jack Antonoff more than holds its own. With soft, intricate piano and tasteful electronic touches, the record draws inspiration from the indie pop of Lana Del Rey, Sufjan Stevens and the National, whose guitarist Aaron Dessner is a key collaborator on Folklore.
‘In my defence, I have none,’ Swift tells us on the mellow, understated opener, ‘the 1’. Self-reflection and honesty run throughout the album, though Swift herself is not always the one reflecting. The album picks up considerably with ‘cardigan’, in which she slips effortlessly into the character of a teenage girl recovering from heartbreak, singing wistfully ‘when you are young they assume you know nothing’.
One of the highlights of the album arrives with the third track, ‘the last great american dynasty’. Exploiting her talent for condensing long stories into pop songs, Swift narrates the story of Rebekah Harkness, a philanthropist and patron of the arts, infamous for her undignified public behaviour. Swift, the current owner of Harkness’s mansion on Rhode Island, expresses empathy with this woman blamed for ‘ruining everything’. It is a song about the stories inextricably tangled up with places and about the solidarity between people that ripples down through the ages.
Later in the album, Swift returns to themes of female identity on ‘mad woman’. And while lines like ‘every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy’ make it hard not to think of her battle for ownership of her own music and of her portrayal in the media, the song speaks of a far more universal and ancient kind of sexism than 2019’s ‘The Man’. It is not rooted in the modern celebrity sphere but harks back to witch trials and hysteria diagnoses and links these to the modern day.
Although Swift occasionally indulges her talent for witty spite, challenging ‘if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake / cursing my name, wishing I’d stayed?’ on ‘my tears ricochet’, the record feels at once more private and more outward-looking than the last few LPs she’s released. When she gets reflective, she does so more with self-criticism than a thirst for vengeance. ‘this is me trying’ is one of the less interesting tracks instrumentally but is doubtless one of her most earnest and emotionally intense songs. ‘mirrorball’ on the other hand is sonically braver and plays with the idea of reflection in both its literal and figurative senses.
Echoes of Swift’s country roots seep into multiple tracks on Folklore and long-time Swifties will notice that the old Taylor is not quite as dead as was declared on 2017’s Reputation. Her duet with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on ‘exile’ has the mature, piano-led sobriety Swift has aimed for at least once on nearly every one of her past albums, while ‘august’, deep and warm and soaked in sun-kissed nostalgia, takes after the synth-pop of Swift’s 2014 record 1989. The strains of harmonica which open ‘betty’ instantly evoke Dylan and Springsteen but at its heart ‘betty’ is a quintessential Taylor Swift song, the euphoric final chorus reminiscent of her breakthrough hits, ‘You Belong with Me’ and ‘Love Story’.
The hour-long track list is a little padded, with cuts like ‘illicit affairs’ and ‘epiphany’ adding little to the album’s sonic palette. On the other hand, the celestial ‘peace’ is a vulnerable, earnest love song like nothing in Swift’s back-catalogue. The sweetly naïve ‘invisible string’ echoes the plucking strings of a pre-electronic Sufjan Stevens, while ‘seven’ is the folksiest cut on the record, bringing to mind artists like Laura Marling and Gemma Hayes with its airy vocals and delicate strings.
The closing track ‘hoax’ makes for a rather underwhelming conclusion but fortunately the deluxe edition of Folklore provides us with bonus track ‘the lakes’, which doesn’t so much round off the album as send it sailing off towards the Promised Land, in this case, the English Lake District of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads. Just like the Romantic poets before her, Swift yearns for unity with nature and an escape from the mindless monotony of the modern world, lamenting ‘I’m not cut out for all these cynical clones / these hunters with cell phones’.
This wistful, mesmeric finale concludes Taylor Swift’s most cohesive and purposeful record yet. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that she could make a stellar folk pop record, it’s perhaps just surprising that she did. But whether this heralds a new musical direction for her or is merely a pit stop before she conquers new territory, the 2020s could see Taylor at her best yet.
Listen to Folklore:
This was the first music review I wrote. I was inspired to review the album after reading/watching the following reviews:
The Needle Drop: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-kaDVK_FT0