in Review

Taylor Swift – Folklore

For some reason, the other albums I reviewed this week were pretty easy to write about, despite being admittedly cold takes, though this one feels a little harder to know what to say about. Which is a bit odd considering it happens to be the newest album I’ve reviewed this week. However, a new Taylor Swift album doesn’t play by the same rules as other album releases, especially one that was as complete a surprise (in more ways than one) as Folklore was. So, there have inevitably been all kinds of takes since this album came out three weeks ago — from discussions about Taylor’s indie cred to questionable theories of certain songs’ queer-baiting — but I think the most important one is that this is almost certainly the best example yet of Swift’s talents as a songwriter.

One of the most immediate things that made this album such a surprise was that it came out less than a year after Lover, an album where Swift (somewhat successfully) tried to sum up everything that has made her the cultural force she has been. While that album aimed to be an “event”, with its obnoxiously boppy singles and Amazon cross-branding, Folklore’s release more or less the opposite. This is an album that had no roll-out and was recorded completely in quarantine with producer Aaron Dessner and a few other collaborators, seemingly on a whim. It’s the first time in a while (or maybe ever) that Taylor has recorded an album unmarred by people’s expectations, though you of course could say that the album’s lack of flash is all part of a calculated PR plan. But regardless, her songs are all the better for it.

I probably should’ve mentioned (if it wasn’t already obvious) that I’ve always been fairly apathetic toward Taylor Swift, though I’ve tried to embrace her music a little more as it became obvious that she was one of the defining musical artists of the 2010s by decade’s end. So since she has one of the most devoted fanbases out there, I feel a little phony talking about this album, but not that much considering this feels like a Taylor album made specifically for people like me. I, of course, love The National. So hearing that light, somber sound that Aaron Dessner brings to that band in the context of this album makes it a lot more accessible to people who have been turned off by T-Swift’s recent pop forays.

Though I think what also makes the album more accessible to non-fans is how little it’s interested in the Taylor Swift mythology. Sure, there are little lyrical nods to former Swift songs as well as a song or two that might draw some correlations to Swift’s often-public private life. But a lot of the album is just great story-songs. Some of them include teenage love (most notably the great interconnected trio “Cardigan”, “August”, and “Betty”), while some of them are the kind of specific-but-universal adult love songs that Swift had started to play with on Lover. Then there’s maybe the album’s catchiest song, “Last Great American Dynasty”, where Taylor ruminates on the heiress that lives in the mansion Swift currently inhabits, while drawing comparisons between the heiress and herself. Maybe she just can’t help but insert herself a bit into these songs, though the few songs where she does it on Folklore feel like a welcome reminder that the old Taylor can still occasionally come to the phone right now.

A problem I sometimes have with Taylor Swift albums (including my former favorite Red) is that they can be a little overstuffed with too many ideas. Which makes sense. As the recent documentary Miss Americana illustrated, she’s always been a people-pleaser. I wouldn’t say Folklore is overstuffed (since there aren’t any songs I aggressively dislike here), though it may be a bit overlong, since there are a couple songs that don’t add a lot to the album’s already clearly defined vibe. But really, I can’t complain. I should just be happy that Taylor Swift finally released an album I could completely embrace, whether or not this marks a mere quarantine-induced detour or a completely new direction for her.

Favorite Tracks: “The Last Great American Dynasty”, “Mirrorball”, “Betty”