The surprise eighth album sees Taylor Swift’s song-writing at its barest and most delicate; and as expertly crafted as ever.
At the risk of flying in the face of the justifiable sentiment that 2020 has been an utter shitshow so far, there is an overriding sense of good fortune surrounding folklore. Taylor Swift dropped her eighth studio album earlier this week with barely a day’s warning, and, with production by The National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner, and a feature from Big Red Machine and Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon, there’s a sense that things could have turned out very differently. After all, if Dessner and Vernon hadn’t been in Texas working on the next Big Red Machine album, and everyone’s plans hadn’t been obliterated by COVID-19 and the lockdown regulations it has left us with, then folklore would never have seen the light of day.
As it stands, listening to folklore, for anyone who is only a fan of Taylor Swift (or The National), might at first be a surreal experience. Swifties will notice that the record represents the latest in a series of marked and calculated career sidesteps which have seen the 30-year-old’s persona moulded and shaped into various disparate guises. From the trap-infused, almost vitriolic reputation to the sunny, self-assured Lover, the mood of this latest effort will inevitably see it labelled the “indie” album, stripping away hooks and exuberant synths for delicate guitars and string arrangements. For fans of Dessner and The National, the album might feel disconcerting at first; Dessner’s production and arrangements are so uniquely and distinctively National that Swift’s presence in the songs might even feel invasive – like she’s staying in someone else’s house. On closer inspection though, it becomes clear that this is still a Swift album through and through, and Swift’s penchant for storytelling and expression remains as strong as ever.
Dessner’s production throughout is suitably minimalist, and beautifully so. The keys and nuanced string distortions on ‘cardigan’ sound like they could have been lifted from The National’s latest effort, while ‘the last great american dynasty’ sets its empowered tale of Rebecca (“she had a marvellous time ruining everything”) and her new-money husband amidst twirling guitar refrains and a percussion line that is about as propulsive and poppy as the record gets. The chord progression on ‘august’ is murky, hazy, and perfectly evokes the heady summer romance it depicts. Meanwhile, the plucked guitar on ‘betty’ at first feels small – almost folding in on itself as it progresses – before proudly emerging into folk-tinged sunlight.
But, of course, it’s the stories – and Swift’s ability to deliver them – that steal the show. The protagonists and their relationships are uncannily relatable, with Swift able to evoke nostalgia and longing for completely alien places, people, and situations by plucking the perfect visual image or phrase out of the ether. The opening of ‘cardigan’ (“Brand new tee, brand new phone/High heels on cobblestones”) or ‘betty”s refrain (“But if I just showed up to your party/Would you have me? Would you want me?”) are perfect examples, with the right amount of detail from Swift’s own experiences embellishing a situation and making it recognisable to anyone.
Swift is no stranger to fiction, and ‘august’ and ‘betty’ are two of a three-part teenage heartbreak story that stands as the highlight of the album. Along with ‘cardigan’, the first of the three, they tell the story of a cheating partner and the resulting breakup from three different perspectives. ‘cardigan’ sees Betty reminiscing about the warmth and comfort of the relationship, and the loneliness she feels now that it’s over, while ‘august’ and ‘betty’ look through the eyes of the unnamed other woman and the unfaithful “James” respectively. The former is achingly wistful, while the latter is regretful and earnestly hopeful of redemption. It’s testament to Swift’s skill and nuance as a storyteller and songwriter that these three fictional people feel so alive, and the rest of the record – with a few exceptions – is equally compelling; teeming with admissions and confessions that put us right into the mind of whichever character Swift is expressing herself through at the time.
Taylor Swift is, for many people, the ultimate in euphoric, self-assured pop bangers. But the highest compliment that folklore deserves is that these songs feel natural, even with all of her usual pomp removed. Some might dislike Swift and her music on principal – for the simple fact that she has redefined herself so many times. Those people will be annoyed that folklore is another evolution; and Swift has done it with as much aplomb as ever.
Taylor Swift’s folklore is out now and available to purchase or stream on all platforms.