FOLKLORE REVIEW: Maybe Isolation is a Must
This summer, the iconic Taylor Swift was meant to headline Glastonbury. Everyone in the field would relive her discography filled with summer hits and heartbreak anthems along with the lonely ballads making them all somewhat relatable to everyone in the crowd. In fact, she was meant to be playing a whole host of festivals and shows across the world as well as hosting her own two-part Lover Fest in America, celebrating her seventh album Lover. 2020 hasn’t been a kind year to us all, starting with losing a sporting legend, Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Brexit (kinda??), And how we can forget the ongoing global pandemic, making all of her plans scrapped, leaving Swift with bountiful spare time. But before we get into it, let’s look back at Swift’s past which partially predicted what’s to come.
It’s 2012, her album RED was a massive hit, with a song that catapulted Taylor Swift from this cool country phenomenon to this poster supernova, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. It was the first of her songs to top the Billboard Hot 100, it deployed country references as a tease on the way to an ecstatically saccharine, unmistakably pop hook - the universal anthem of the phrase “I’m over it.”. Right after the song’s gleeful taunting first chorus, she drilled down on the guy she was so thrilled to be rid of: “You would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” Solid roast there, Taylor, and delivered with an eye roll - legit, in the music video - it announced that Swift understood the power and cool of her own music - which was not, at that point, widely conceded. It encapsulated the way that mopey interiority has been perceived as depth. That’s about men obviously, but certainly about the indie songs too. It’s a trap that whole genres are built on - just look at how many sub-genre categories there are now at the Grammys.
Eight years later, Taylor Swift, the once country star turned pop icon of the 21st century, has made one of those indie records herself - at least her own interpretation of it. Folklore, her alternately soothing and soppy, pensive, and suffocating eighth album is definitely a jolt away from the decade of Swift’s high-gloss, stylised and perfected pop.
Made from scratch in lockdown, Folklore was recorded at her home in Los Angeles, and written and produced in a remote collaboration mainly with The National’s Aaron Dessner and her go-to, Jack Antonoff. Choosing this approach may be purely a function of circumstance, but Swift has been due for a rebirth for some time now. Folklore marks the conclusion to her long march into the teeth of contemporary pop, which over the course of four albums, Red, 1989, Reputation and Lover - has paid decreasing dividends both musically and socially. Becoming a true centrist pop star is a battle she’s never quite won and is a battle no longer worth fighting for.
Folklore is the first attempt at a post-pop era for Swift, and it is many things that Swift albums generally are not: rough-edged, spacey and explicit. Swift isn’t an especially powerful singer, though she achieves a lot with a naturally jumpy tone and enthusiasm, both of those signatures wilt here as often as not. The edge that she specialised in - the one that’s viciously effective when taunting or pining - is coated with layers of mellowing strings (a shit load of the cello), austere piano, throbbing mellotron, slow saxophone and atmospherics that thicken the air. As Swift has long demonstrated, contemplation and exuberance aren’t mutually exclusive, neither is brightness and reflection. Folklore really feels like the debut album of a whole new Taylor Swift, her narrative scope has opened up with a wide-ranging cast of characters for the 17 songs. Yet you can still hear that this is the same songwriter who dropped Dear John 10 years ago.
It’s amusing, in retrospect, how many people actually worried that being happy in love might mean that she would run out of things to write about. Not a chance. It turns out to be the other way around, as she lets these characters tell their own stories: A scandalous old widow who is hated by her whole town; A scared seven year old girl with a traumatised best friend; A ghost watching her enemies at the funeral; not to mention the recovering addicts, fumbling teenage boys and the iconic trio Cardigan, August and Betty - depicting the same love triangle from different perspectives. The storytelling perspectives also link on her songs The 1 and Peace or Invisible Strings and The Lakes.
We hit overdrive halfway through when it reaches a trilogy of heavy hitters. August the album’s most plainly beautiful ballad, is the classic story of a summer romance gone wrong - with Swift singing “I can see us tangled in bedsheets / August slipped away like a bottle of wine / Because you were never mine.”. This Is Me Trying is the disturbingly witty tale of someone pouring their heart out, to help herself from not pouring more whiskey. Illicit Affairs is another tale of infidelity: “Take the words for what they are / A dwindling mercurial high / A drug that only worked the first few times” Then tension climaxes when she sings, “Don’t call me kid / Don’t call me baby / Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me.”
It will take weeks if not years to puzzle out all the intricately interwoven narrative details of these songs. Mirrorball is about the same nervous dance floor poseur of her 1989’s New Romantics six years later, except tonight she feels like the disco ball reflects everyone’s most desperate insecurities. Mad Woman expands on the familiar topic of witch hunts, but it also sharpens the feminist rage of Lover’s The Man. The Last Great American Dynasty satirises the upper-crust milieu of Red’s Starlight, where she sings, “There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen / I had a marvelous time ruining everything. Betty is a first - she sings in the voice of a 17-year-old boy, reckoning with the fickle behaviour detailed by the girls in Cardigan and August. It takes off from the harmonica solo in Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road - which feels appropriate for the only tale on the album where she goes back to high school.
Remember when she threatened to spend this year rerecording all her old albums? She does the opposite here - she refuses to repeat her most reliable tricks. So many of the world’s favourite Swift-ian trademarks are missing. No country moves, no synth-pop, no first dates, no “Taylor visits a city” song, not even a laugh. The references to fame are few and far between, although they’re tasty when they do show up, as in Invisible Strings “Bad was the blood of the song in the cab on your first trip to LA” She can’t resist adding, “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind / For the boys who broke my heart / Now I send their babies presents.” Touché.
If Lover was the last album of her twenties, Folklore is the first album of her thirties. Lover was styled as a well-rounded musical autobiography, with everything from Nashville twang to electro-disco. Folklore takes a completely different approach, yet feels even more intimate, simply because it’s the sound of an artist with absolutely nothing to prove. She’s never sounded this relaxed or confident, never sounded this blasé about winning anyone over. It makes perfect sense that the quarantine brought out her best since she’s always written so poignantly about isolation and the temptation to dream too hard about other people’s far away lives. On Folklore, she dreams up a host of character to keep her company, and stepping into their lives brings out her deepest wit, compassion, and empathy. And it sounds like for Taylor Swift, her best is yet to come.