Taylor Swift: Folklore review – bombastic pop makes way for emotional acuity

Released with little fanfare this move to more muted songwriting is proof Swift’s music can thrive without the celebrity drama

Taylor Swift announced the existence of her eighth album an uncharacteristic 17 hours prior to its release: “Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening,” she said – among them, a headline slot at Glastonbury – “But there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen.” Swift only released her last album, Lover, last August. If she was surprised to have emerged from lockdown with Folklore – a 16-track album largely produced (remotely) by the National’s Aaron Dessner – her fans were even more stunned by the fact that Swift would release a record with zero fanfare.

Swift pioneered the art of the all-consuming album rollout. It usually starts with her sharing coded hints that her well trained fans understand immediately. Then there are teasers for lyric videos that beget actual blockbuster videos, strewn with self-mythologising references for Swifties and journalists to unpick. It’s a smart promotional strategy-by-proxy for an artist who has done little press in the past five years, and a good way of making your actions seem as if they were written in the stars. There are sometimes baffling brand endorsements. The often unpopular lead single seldom sounds like the rest of the album. By the time that arrives, a weariness has descended: the sense that one of pop’s all-time greatest songwriters is overcompensating despite her clear talent.

Artwork for Folklore.
Artwork for Folklore. Photograph: AP

Recent albums, too, have been consumed with the various dramas that have plagued her since the country ingenue became a pop superstar with 2012’s Red. Despite the last 12 months bringing a new, high-profile disagreement with her former label and enduring disputes with Kanye West, thankfully Folklore features none of that, beyond inadvertently arriving the same day as West said he was releasing a new album. Moreover, Swift conveys the sense that her tendency to desire the last word, in public and private, has been her undoing: “I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere / Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here,” she sings on This Is Me Trying.

Folklore proves that she can thrive away from the noise: if you interpret “classmates” as pop peers, Swift is no longer competing. Bombastic pop makes way for more muted songwriting, and a singular vision compared to the joyful but spread-betting Lover. With concerts off the table for the foreseeable future, no longer needing to reach four sides of a stadium may have proven liberating.

Elements of her fanbase have long wanted her to revisit the Nashville songcraft of her youth through an adult lens, but this isn’t that album. Folklore is largely built around the soft cascades of piano, burbling guitar and fractured, glitchy electronica that will be familiar to fans of the National’s post-2010 output – at least part of the album came about from Swift writing to Dessner’s musical sketches. Swift’s most coherent record since her staunchly country days, it’s nonetheless her most experimental, developing on Lover’s stranger, more minimalist end. More than one song evokes the intimate celestial tenderness of Sufjan Stevens circa Carrie and Lowell. At the opposite end of the scale, This Is Me Trying subtly grows into its wracked orchestral grandeur, sounding more unsettling still for how Swift’s voice, processed at a ghostly, vast remove, seems to encompass the whole song with her desperation.

Swift is known for her vocal directness – there is no pop star as adroit at searing a chorus into your brain, or as winking in her tartness – if not her range. But the demands of pop processing mean her voice has never been heard as it is here: the acceptance that colours it on The 1, a bouncy reminiscence of a lost lover from her “roaring twenties”; how weatherworn yet at peace she sounds as she remembers the good parts of a treacherous relationship on Cardigan, a song as cavernous and shimmering as a rock pool in a cave. Her vocal trademarks remain in the yo-yoing vocal yelps on August, and the climactic, processed cri de coeur of My Tears Ricochet, and she holds her own against the wounded bark of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on Exile, which paints a split first in scenes of overt betrayal, and then gorgeous, subtle harmonies at crossed purposes indicating a problem deeper than one infidelity.

Given the more earthy production, some will characterise Folklore as showing a more authentic side of Swift. Not only would that be facile, asserting some authentic self is also explicitly not her aim. In a brief essay included in the liner notes, she says of the album’s concept: “The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible.” She writes that some songs are about her and others are about invented characters. More interesting than parsing which is which (many are obviously both) is the sense that Swift is interrogating her own self-conception and challenging that personal mythology: how helpful and true those ideas are to herself as a woman of 30.

Swift’s longest lyrical obsession is the loss of innocence, a theme she makes fairly devastating here. Set to high piano flurries, Seven switches between hopscotch-rhyme verses about childhood rituals, and pleading, choral depictions of herself at seven, “in the weeds, before I learned civility,” she sings. “I used to scream ferociously / Any time I wanted.” What conditioning beat out of her as a girl, it beat back in decades later: the tense, slippery Mad Woman traces the self-perpetuating cycle of women being angered by being labelled angry – both massively improve on Lover’s slightly facile gender inequality treatise, The Man, because they’re personal, not projections. Later she recalls naive young love, “back when we were still changing for the better”, then, on Illicit Affairs, willingly entering into a deceitful relationship with someone who “showed me colours you know I can’t see with anyone else”.

The self-awareness that Swift displayed on Lover deepens in Folklore, where she subtly considers the murky line between corruption and complicity, between being a victim and a catalyst. The recriminations are fewer, the fights fairer, and her sense of responsibility in them greater. The seismic shocks of her Reputation-era rude awakening about her public image are still felt: “I can change everything about me to fit in,” she sings on Mirrorball, a gorgeous pedal steel wooze made with Jack Antonoff. Yet she tentatively asserts what’s at her core: the deep dedication she sings about on the resonant, minimalist Peace, and the abiding romanticism of Invisible String.

Lockdown has been a fruitful time for this sort of soul-searching, the absence of much in the way of new memory-formation triggering nostalgic reveries and regrets. This strange summer of arrested development is steadily ending. Folklore will endure long beyond it: as fragmented as Swift is across her eighth album – and much as you hope it doesn’t mark the end of her pop ambitions – her emotional acuity has never been more assured.

Contributor

Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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