Taylor Swift – folklore
Released: July 24, 2020
Note: It’s been four years since I last wrote an album review. In that time, I’ve become a father to two children, bought a home, started and finished an MBA degree, and switched jobs twice. I’m not trying to show off, I’m just saying basically every aspect of my life is different now than it was the last time I wrote a review and I may or may not have entirely forgotten how to do this so bear with me.
Ok, now let’s do the damn thing.
Last month, the stars aligned such that I was able to first experience Taylor Swift’s surprise release 8th album folklore entirely free from interruption and distraction. Time and space are scarce commodities at this point in my life, but on July 24, 2020, I just happened to have a bit of both and so I put my good headphones on, turned some lights off, closed my eyes, and wandered into folklore. I haven’t really left since.
It’s familiar here. This place doesn’t feel anything like Taylor Swift’s previous records but folklore sounds plenty like the albums that mean The Most to me. I’ve spent my entire adult life soaking in the songs of The National, so it’s no surprise that an album largely produced and co-written by the group’s multi-instrumentalist mastermind Aaron Dessner has struck such a resonant chord. Dessner’s warm production provides such a perfect environment for Swift’s seemingly superhuman ability to weave melody and narrative that the pairing, while shocking to read about in the initial announcement, sounds obvious or maybe even inevitable on folklore. Of course these two would make a great album together. Of course I love it.
Dessner’s nuanced touch on folklore deserves a lot of credit, but this isn’t his show. Taylor Swift is at the peak of her powers and after a decade of genre-hopping, folklore solidifies her status both as the most versatile mega-star in contemporary popular music and as one of the premier songwriters of the era. Every album since her pop/country crossover smash Red in 2012 has showcased a new dimension of Swift’s capacity for reinvention but folklore is more than just a genre pivot; folklore is evolution. She has always been a great storyteller and the stories here are no less intimate or relatable than her previous work but what separates folklore as a more significant achievement is the sense that we are immersed in a well curated collection of short fiction, rather than merely flipping through the pages of her diary. The characters that Swift introduces on folklore are charming, flawed, ￼and just agonizingly present in their moments of conflict. The vivid immediacy of these vignettes is ultimately the most compelling feature of folklore: the humbling doorstep of “this is me trying”, the arrival at the party on “betty”, the lusty escapes of “august” and “illicit affairs”, the crushing, inevitable encounter with The Ex in “exile”. There is little catharsis to be found on folklore but Taylor Swift charges headfirst into every second of heartbreak with a clear eyed self awareness that is entirely irresistible.
My feelings about folklore are certainly influenced by the current state of Everything. Taylor Swift emerged from a perpetual cloud of bad news to deliver 16 gorgeous songs that do a damn good job of putting me in someone else’s head, grappling with someone else’s heartache and anxiety and longing. It turns out that is exactly what I needed right now. Sure, it’s probably 10 or 15 minutes too long and it’s more than a little sappy and the “indie” sound is only innovative in that we haven’t heard this particular artist sound like this before. But I keep coming back to folklore. The arrestingly sparse and beautiful penultimate track “peace”, my favorite song on the album by a mile, is Taylor Swift at her most honest, most self aware, and most compelling. She breathlessly commits to providing warmth, devotion, and friendship but explicitly refrains from promising safety or peace. “Is it enough?” she asks. For me, for now, the answer is yes.