Made from afar, primarily with the National’s Aaron Dessner, Swift’s eighth album is a sweater-weather record filled with cinematic love songs and rich fictional details.
The phantom pang of missing someone before you ever meet them is an emotion worthy of its own word. That fated feeling of love and the passage of time is the theme that runs between Carly Rae Jepsen’s smash hit “Call Me Maybe” and the National’s antisocial romance “Slow Show”; it’s also the kind of thing Taylor Swift might write about. One of the loveliest tracks on folklore, the surprise album the singer-songwriter made primarily with the National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner, stands out for a strangely similar reason: a thread connecting two strangers that exists long before either realizes it’s there. “And isn’t it just so pretty to think/All along there was some/Invisible string/Tying you to me,” she sings on the delightfully plucky “invisible string,” simultaneously recalling famous lines from Jane Eyre and The Sun Also Rises.
folklore will forever be known as Taylor Swift’s “indie” album, a sweater-weather record released on a whim in the blue heat of this lonely summer, filled with cinematic love songs in search of a film soundtrack. There are those who already dislike folklore on principle, who assume it’s another calculated attempt on Swift’s part to position her career as just so (how dare she); meanwhile, fans will hold it up as tangible proof that their leader can do just about anything (also a stretch). While it’s true that folklore pushes the limits of Swift’s sound in a particular, perhaps unexpected direction, her reference points feel more like mainstream “indie” homage than innovation, taking cues from her collaborators’ work and bits of nostalgia.
At its best, folklore asserts something that has been true from the start of Swift’s career: Her biggest strength is her storytelling, her well-honed songwriting craft meeting the vivid whimsy of her imagination; the music these stories are set to is subject to change, so long as it can be rooted in these traditions. You can tell that this is what drives Swift by the way she molds her songs: cramming specific details into curious cadences, bending the lines to her will. It’s especially apparent on folklore, where the production—mostly by Dessner, with Jack Antonoff’s pop flair occasionally in the mix—is more minimal than she typically goes for. Her words rise above the sparse pianos, moody guitars, and sweeping orchestration, as quotable as ever.
After years as pop’s most reliable first-person essayist, Swift channels her distinct style into what are essentially works of fiction and autofiction, finding compelling protagonists in a rebellious heiress and a classic teenage love triangle. In “the last great american dynasty,” she tells the story of eccentric debutante Rebekah Harkness, who married into the Standard Oil family and once lived in Swift’s Rhode Island mansion, as a way to celebrate women who “have a marvelous time ruining everything.” Filled with historical details and Americana imagery, you can see the song play out in your mind like a storybook, but it also effectively makes a point about society’s treatment of brash women. Swift cleverly draws a line between Harkness and herself at the end, an idea she fleshes out in a more literal sequel, “mad woman.” Out of all the songs on folklore, “the last great american dynasty” is the all-timer, the instant classic. It sounds like the latter-day National/Taylor mashup you never knew you needed—textural and tastefully majestic, with Fitzgerald-esque lines about filling the pool with champagne instead of drinking all the wine.
With folklore’s teen heartbreak trilogy, Swift circles the same affair from each party’s differing view. “betty” is the story of 17-year-old James trying to win back his girlfriend after cheating, a familiar crime rendered new by the narrator’s genuine remorse and belief in a love regained. It has the youthful hope of a song like “Wide Open Spaces,” yet is noticeably wiser (and queerer) than the high school romances Swift wrote as an actual teenager. First single “cardigan” is told by Betty, whose disillusionment with James results in a sad, sensuous sound reminiscent of Lana Del Rey, down to the vocal style and casual lyrical quotation of another pop song. But the songs’ overlapping details and central framing device—of a cardigan forgotten and found without a second thought—are pure Swift, an instant memory portal not unlike the scarf in Red’s “All Too Well.” (The cutesy marketing angle for “cardigan” is reliably Swiftian as well.) And even though “august” is considered to be the third in the trilogy, the record’s most tender, saccharine love story plays out during “illicit affairs.” “You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else,” she sings. “And you know damn well for you I would ruin myself.” The scenes and perspectives evoked by these songs alone speak volumes about Swift’s evolution as a songwriter.
The theme of folklore is a very different way of acknowledging that people will talk, an idea that animated 2017’s trap-tinged work of minor villainy, Reputation. Swift knows her own mythology like a model knows her angles, and that’s part of what makes folklore fascinating if you maintain an open mind: a kind of reverse-engineered “mindie” project, it sonically situates her closest to Lana and chamber-pop belter Florence Welch, but may also occasionally remind you of Triple-A radio, Sufjan Stevens if he killed his more ambitious tendencies, or Big Red Machine, Dessner’s duo with Justin Vernon (see: the sparse and soulful “peace”). The album’s actual duet with Vernon, “exile,” is a little like a Bon Iver take on “Falling Slowly,” the centerpiece of the 2007 folk musical Once: awkwardly dragging until the clouds slowly part to allow something beautiful to build. Swift is playing the long game here, and while there are no wild missteps, the album could use some selective pruning (see: “seven,” “hoax”).
It’s worth pointing out that folklore isn’t a total outlier in Swift’s catalog either, or even her recent work. The tracks with Antonoff shift away from the ’80s electro-pop of 1989 and onward, but they lean into the Mazzy Star swoon of Lover’s title track, Swift’s ongoing fascination with Imogen Heap, and a twinge of the Cranberries. There are interesting images, indelible hooks, and real signs of maturity. In the dreamy “mirrorball,” Swift likens the relatability trap of fame to a disco ball, singing of fluttering on tiptoes and trying hard to make it look effortless. “august” is a great, lusty Swift summer anthem about forbidden love, where the up-close, white-hot heat of songs like “Style” or “Getaway Car” is traded for wistful reflection in the rearview. Like the rest of us, Taylor Swift knows she’s had better summers before and she’ll have better summers again. At least she’s made thoughtful use of this one.
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