Pop Culturing: Taylor Swift is Out of the Woods on Surprise Album 'folklore'

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Saturday August 1, 2020

Taylor Swift for her "folklore" album.
Taylor Swift for her "folklore" album.  (Source:Courtesy of Beth Garrabrant)

Since her career-defining album "Red" in 2012, Taylor Swift has leaned harder and harder into hyper-glossy pop music. It was on that album that she first toyed with the idea that she could be as big as Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Beyonce; she had one foot planted in the country music roots where she started her career ("All Too Well" and "Begin Again") and the other foot planted in Top 40 radio ("22," "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"). With the help of pop producer extraordinaire Max Martin, Swift unsurprisingly found massive success with crossing over into pop stardom, making her best-selling album to date, the super-radio-friendly "1989" in 2014.

"folklore," the eighth studio album from Swift, came as a surprise; huge considering how precisely planned her career has gone, something she detailed in her recent Netflix documentary. The singer announced the project just hours before its release last Thursday. The new music also comes less than a year after her 2019 album "Lover," an album similar to "Red" but in reverse: "Lover" has its share of bops ("Cruel Summer," "The Man") but it also felt like Swift was interested in a different sound ("The Archer," "False God"), that is closer to the music she made at the beginning of her career but still remains own thing. It also lays the groundwork for "folklore."

On "folklore," Swift teams up with Aaron Dessner, a member of the indie-rock band the National. Known for their melancholy lyrics and sullen sound, he produces most of the songs on the album but Jack Antonoff, her longtime collaborator, shows up on a number of tracks. On top of that, Bon Iver (Justin Vernon) is featured on the track "Exile." Swift's production choices — just like the name of her album and its black-and-white imagery — are pointed. Bon Iver's breakout debut album "For Emma, Forever Ago" back in 2007 was noted for being recorded in isolation in a hunting cabin in Wisconsin. Swift wants you to know that she's growing up — using tired tropes and symbolism to broadcast that — but she's finally moving away from her maximalist sound (the less said her 2017 "Reputation" the better) and made that "indie record much cooler than mine."

"folklore" isn't really an indie-sounding album, however. Here, Swift, a gifted songwriter, sounds more like Sarah McLachlan who touches on sounds from '10 indie artists, like Sufjan Stevens ("seven"), Arcade Fire ("this is me trying"), Beach House ("mirror ball") and more (and of course the National and Bon Iver). Swift plays with shoegaze reverb while crafting some of her most clever lyrics; "folklore" is an album that builds upon itself and one that is self-referential. Not only does Swift wink back to songs from her previous albums, "folklore" is a cinematic record (Swift takes cues from Lana Del Rey, who also frequently works with Antonoff, on songs "cardigan" and "seven") with Swift telling stories from different perspectives. "the last great american dynasty" is about Rebekah Harkness, the high society socialite that lived in the Rhode Island house Swift now owns. "august" — one of Swift's best songs in her career — is about a love triangle gone wrong and its sequel, the stunning "betty" finds Swift singing from the male perspective with some noting that she's dabbling in queer songwriting.

Regardless of Swift's influences on "folklore" the best part of the new music is that she still firmly, and confidently, sounds like herself. Though not a powerhouse singer, she has a way of singing and writing music that is undeniably her. The way she emphasizes certain syllables (like in "illicit affairs" and "invisible string") and uses country music phrasing takes a song over-the-top. Swift playing in indie-rock sounds is an exciting new direction for the singer and yet another example of quarantine sparking artists into making some of their best work.

"In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness," Swift said of the album on Instagram. "Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory. I've told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve. Now it's up to you to pass them down."

"folklore" is a brilliant album but it more importantly finds Swift in a totally different mode. It's a bit annoying that she uses rock music signifiers to show that her music is now "serious" or more "authentic"; Swift's music has long been soulful, insightful and crushing. Swift is maturing as an artist (she drops the "F" bomb more than once here - a first for the 30-year-old musician!), and "folklore" succeeds because she's able to try something bold and different without losing who she is. "folklore" is a lush album that mostly suits Swift's abilities as an artist, easily becoming one of her best albums to date.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.