Surprise-released with no advance promo, Folklore by Taylor Swift is a canny career move and one which will almost certainly pay off. This is a record created to endure – as well as one that will generate enough talk about the who, what and why of how it came to be.
Both of those things are of course pointless without songs that resonate and become buried into the thread of people’s lives, and Folklore promises this in abundance.
Last year’s Lover was still a big, shiny pop record but there was also an underplayed return to the kind of songs that preceded Taylor Swift’s definitive crossover record from 2014, 1989, and the suggestion that what would follow next would break away from the formula that catapulted her into the absolute eye of global superstardom. Lockdown led to the Lover tour being postponed and Swift, with time on her hands, sent songs to The National’s Aaron Dessner. Thus an album was born.
Folklore, Swift’s eighth album, begins with a pop song and the record’s most commercial tracks are front-loaded into a trio at the album’s start. It’s not really until the fourth track, when Bon Iver’s gravelled baritone booms out of the speaker and a bleak and beautiful piano melody tries to shroud their aching vocals, that you realise this is a different kind of Taylor Swift record.
Film is referred to constantly as a metaphor throughout Folklore and on ‘Exile’. Iver and Swift exchange and then double up on the line, ‘I think I’ve seen this film before, and I didn’t like the ending,’ with an undeniable fear and regret.
Musical touchstones range from late-90s Tori Amos to Lana Del Rey’s strongest work Norman Fucking Rockwell, which was produced by Jack Antonoff and who features again with Taylor here on a handful of Folklore collaborations.
This record is mainly a singer-songwriter showcase, though it has an indie spirit and a cohesiveness that exposes the songcraft rather than the showiness that Swift and her contemporaries usually, brilliantly, trade in. There is no hashtag awareness that solidifies a certain political view in Folklore’s lyrics. The iced and circling ‘Mad Woman’ and plaintive swell of ‘This Is Me Trying’ are about relationships, imagined and otherwise.
If there is a criticism to be made, it’s that streaming music has in many cases dictated that an album has to have a running time of over an hour and the highest number of tracks possible; Folklore has 16.
The fascinatingly queer ambiguity of the harmonica trilled ‘Betty’ provides a flash of brightness sonically in the album’s last stretch, and there isn’t a bad song here. But the constant slow pace and musical consistency may frustrate some, and that would be a shame. This is an album that was surely crafted to be listened to from start to finish.
‘Hoax’ is an ending which perfectly crystallises what has been achieved here: mainly piano with only some whispered strings, and a vocal which is clear and sad but defiant, a melody which is subtle but so compelling, and lyrics which could be about nobody or somebody in the singer’s real life.
In many ways this is the Taylor Swift we have always known but with Folklore she has amplified these elements in such a powerful and unexpected way that it’s a rebirth of sorts, one that is a soaring highlight of an increasingly interesting and unpredictable career.