Swift becomes a stronger figure in the music industry with her most experimental album yet.
There are very few artists that are able to create such a global commentary and dissection of every track of their new albums quite as one Miss Taylor Swift does. From her eponymous debut album that helped place the country genre back in the mainstream, to her transition to full-pop with 2014’s 1989, to the sensual Reputation in 2017, which combined elements of electro-pop and hip-hop, Swift has proven to be more than just another pop star and Folklore is proof that she will continue to morph – sometimes radically- into whatever she finds sonically attractive.
Swift has an ability and a master mind for marketing her releases with hyped anticipation: mysterious manoeuvres deleting all her Instagram photos, countdowns displayed on Times Square and cryptic “Easter Eggs” as she likes to call them, which are nothing but hidden clues in photos and video clips leading to a release date, that are meant to be discovered- and investigated- by the most devoted Swifties. Yet, this time, she opted to skip the “calculated” marketing strategy and decided to surprise her fans, announcing that her 8th studio album would become available on all streaming platforms less than 24 hours from the official release; and thus, the Folklore era began.
According to Swift, it was lockdown that made her imagination run wild, leading to her writing 16 new songs in which most of the stories revolve around the perspective of people she’s never met, people she wishes she hadn’t and socialites from 1940’s Rhode Island. This comes as a delightful surprise as, for the first time, there are very few gaps through which to look into Swift’s current love life and it comes as a heavy counterpart for her previous 7th studio album, the bubble-gum pop Lover, which as upbeat and charismatic as it was, didn’t quite display the clever songwriter that Swift actually is. With Folklore, Swift hasn’t walked away from the pop radar, but has subtly merged its catchy formula with allegorical lyrics and the hybridized sounds of indie folk, creating her most experimental album yet.
Whenever she jumps into a new genre, Swift seems to always be surrounded by the most appropriate of companies. When she went for a full pop album, she worked closely with Swedish record producer and master mind behind many of pop’s hit singles, Max Martin, so it comes as no surprise that for this album she decided to team up with record producer and member of rock band “The National”, Aaron Dessner, who co-wrote and produced eleven of the songs, along with indie folk band Bon Iver and the one Swift calls “basically musical family” Jack Antonoff, with whom she has worked in her three previous albums and with whom she won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2016. As a result, we step into a misty world of smooth winds and dancing pampas that is exquisitely guided by Swift’s voice.
Take the opening track “The 1” as an example of the soft instrumentals and melancholic keyboard that resemble the memories of a lost love from the past as Swift sings: “Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool/ And if my wishes came true/ It would’ve been you”; it serves as an introduction, but also as a synopsis of the kind of dreamy nostalgia that we’ll discover across the sixteen tracks, which continues on the second track, with the slow-burning leading single of the album “Cardigan” where Swift enchants us once again with a tender piano and melancholic violins that according to her is one of three songs depicting the same love triangle, along with “August” and “Betty”.
Swift was previously and harshly questioned on what she would write about if ever she found her true happiness, and Folklore is pretty much an answer to that question: she can write and sing about anything she wants. One of the most upbeat and creative moments throughout the album arrives with “The Last Great American Dynasty” where she tells the story of American socialite and philanthropist Rebekah Harkness and her marriage to the heir of Standard Oil, William Hale “Bill” Harkness. “And the town said ‘How did a middle-class divorcée do it?’”. She sings depicting how Harkness was always disliked by the residents of her new upper-class town and later blamed for her husband’s sudden death when she sings: “It must have been her fault his heart gave out”. Swift also draws parallels between her and Harkness, depicting the harsh criticism they both have received throughout their lives. Possibly the greatest parallel between their stories is how Swift acquired Harkness’ estate, “Holiday House” in Rhode Island back in 2012. “Holiday House sat quietly on that beach/ Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/ And then it was bought by me”. She ironically sings in the bridge of the song linking both of their stories, in a dazzling song about the misfit widow who infuriated her neighbours.
Taylor Swift has already been the biggest pop star in the world, but it’s impossible to ignore the curiosity that she’s always emanated towards different genres, after all, that’s what took her from her country roots to the pop charts. “Mirrorball” is a song that displays that growth and evolution from previous productions as well as Swift’s curiosity for new sounds; with a dreamy tambourine in the background and breezy vocals splashing a 1960s vibe, this is a song that lands Swift the key to the indie music world. Just as her musical evolution “This is me trying” is a song that grows to an orchestral splendor, with Swift singing from the perspective of a man struggling with alcoholism and trying to prove to his lost love that he’s trying to do better. With cellos and spectral vocals, this is one of the masterpieces of this record, a song about healing and loss that is able to connect with whomever listens to it one way or another.
By singing about Roaring Twenties, infidelities, haunted houses and American Dynasties, Swift has shown growth as a song writer and has demonstrated – even if that wasn’t her intention- to be an intellectual of the craft, growing away from her old days of bad blood and her self-referential tracks into a vivid story teller, however not ignoring her own story by subtly inking it to her songs in what seems to be the greatest state of self-awareness she’s ever been in. Nonetheless, these are long songs with a heavy emotional content and a ghostly atmosphere that can make the record seem a little too long or too similar between tracks, which is why it is important to listen closely and pay careful attention to the lyrics of this nearly perfect album.
Swift’s 8th studio album gifts us with surprising collaborations with indie veterans, as the one with Bon Iver in the song “Exile” where their vocals combine to tell the epilogue of a love story that is damned to fall apart. “So step right out, there is no amount of crying I can do for you”. Justin Vernon cries with his low-register voice that so deeply connects with Swift’s. Furthermore, it gives us a short glimpse into her current life with British boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn in “Invisible String”, and sorrows of a young love in “My Tears Ricochet” which has been named by Swift as one of her favourite two songs she has ever produced with Antonoff along with “August”.
At 30, Miss Taylor Swift is forging a path into new lands in the music industry, consolidating herself as one of the most promising story tellers, this time with a completely new sound that is here to please the ears not only of her strong base of Sherlock-like Swifties around the world, but also of new listeners that will feel related to the stories in this album: the stories of young love, the stories of loss, redemption and intangible hopes, that are nothing but the stories and culture shared by a group of people that she has met and envisioned, which create this absolute folklore.
However much we love this new indie era, let’s not imagine this album represents Swift’s farewell to pop, as she has proven more than twice that her discography can be fragmented across genres and could surprise us in the future with another full-pop album. After all, she is the authentic Miss Americana