For once, Swift’s trademark smart songwriting, powerful melodic facility and biting wit doesn’t have to fight above the clamour of controversy or supercharged 80s synths: here, she’s moved into a mature space that’s immensely enjoyable listening
Minus the gossipy drama, celebrity face-offs and bad faith thinkpieces, Taylor Swift could claim to be a modern pop songwriting giant in league with, say, Ed Sheeran, her friend and, in some respects, commercial rival. As it is, she’s one of the most successful recording artists and the most reviled, the intelligence and brazen efficiency of her songs battling her storied catalogue of controversies, some justified: tone-deaf feminist, poster girl for white privilege, social justice opportunist, annoying tabloid fixture. In some quarters, she’s almost held as responsible for the fall of western civilisation. Perhaps if the lyrics on 1989 or, more pertinently, Reputation – still some distance the cleverest mainstream pop has offered – had been couched not in the sparkling, obnoxious synthpop of both records, alloyed to trap bass, dubstep honks or unapologetic 80s homages, but the musical template forged on Folklore, she’d be more revered.
You find yourself indulging such thoughts during Folklore, because its contents reimagine Swift as an authentic alternative rock balladeer. How much of that has to do with the National’s Aaron Dessner serving as co-producer or an appearance from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon starts to become less of a question the more you dig into the mature, slightly acidic lyrics, of which more on later. Granted, she hasn’t evolved into a ragged, blues-soaked nonconformist like Cat Power, but you gather that what constitutes Folklore isn’t just Swift’s cultural rehabilitation – you sense the usual lot of pantomime boos and hisses thrown her way have been silenced by her recent career moves, from standing by #MeToo survivor Kesha to giving candid interviews in which she made amends for past mistakes to faultlessly calling out Trump at any given opportunity – but a decisive step away from her past. There’s not an iota of her pre-pop Nashville days singing winsome teen romances and not a scrap of her recent past, dropping blockbuster pop bombs on the unsuspecting charts.
Any electronics here are muted and undistorted, like the wafting synth swells that drift through Mirrorball’s gorgeous breeze, or reduced to odd howls and ambient atmospherics, as on Illicit Affairs, which seems to have been recorded out in the open, decorated lightly with little whistling winds. Guitars are invariably strummed languidly, all acoustic, left unmoored by the absence of drums. You get your daily recommended dose of brass and string arrangements here and there, adding spots of colour and texture. And there’s melancholic pianos all over the shop. As a result, Folklore sounds very inviting if audibly chilly and reflective, an impression compounded by the Ansel Adams-ish front cover: depicted standing in the deep woods, rendered tiny by the sheer size of towering trees, Swift looks up in quiet awe.
In fact, quiet awe is exactly the kind of response Folklore prompts. Simply put, it holds some of the most straightforwardly enjoyable songs of Swift’s career. August feels like one of her anthems circa 2012’s Red given a widescreen canvas and gale-force reverb. Sure, its chord progression is as old as the hills, but This Is Me Trying drives along beautifully. When the deathless “millennial whoop” vocal hook surfaces on Invisible String, it’s easy to forgive, primarily because the tune carrying it is brilliant, ameliorating the admittedly funny humblebrag about Swift’s newfound equanimity: “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart,” she casually sings. “Now I send their babies presents.” If you didn’t already know that it existed, that last line illustrates Swift’s pin-sharp wit, in glorious abundance across Folklore. The Last Great American Dynasty’s portrait of Rebekah Harkness, the philanthropist behind New York’s Harkness Ballet company, turns unsettled at the mention of “Bitch Pack friends” and pools of champagne, the parallel between Swift’s notorious “squad” and Harkness’s own wild lifestyle a whip-smart, bookish display highlighting the album’s emphasis on storytelling, on its blurred lines between fiction and autobiography.
Exile’s examination of two lovers’ differing perspectives following a breakup is as richly observed as a short story, zeroing in on the darkness at its heart. On it, Vernon plays the part of the seething bloke, glumly watching his ex move on, ahem, swiftly, while Swift herself glimpses him in her periphery: “I can see you starin’, honey, like he’s just your understudy,” she muses. “Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me.” For once, the rancour isn’t expressed through splenetic verses about the horrors of fame and infamy; instead, it reveals itself in superb vignettes and the thoughts of the characters chronicled in each song. “And that’s the thing about illicit affairs,” she warns on Illicit Affairs: “It’s born from just one single glance, but it dies a million little times”. August’s nostalgia-fulled tryst is described in small, effective visual details: “And I can see us twisted in bedsheets / August sipped away like a bottle of wine”.
Whoever’s the narrator of This Is Me Trying sounds pretty fatalistic (“I got wasted like all my potential”), finding themselves “pouring out my heart to a stranger” but, thankfully, not another bottle of whiskey. Meanwhile, it’s hard to say if Mad Woman – on which she bridles at the misogynistic line that a difficult woman is merely crazy – isn’t from Swift’s point of view given the storm of controversies she’s had to weather. In some respects, Folklore makes you think of Lana Del Rey’s vastly acclaimed 2019 album Norman Fucking Rockwell!, and not just because both share the benefit of Jack Antonoff’s involvement and a certain sonic similarity: while capital-P pop star Swift, with umpteen AMAs to her name, winds up making stuff a hair’s breadth away from the stuff Del Rey devoted to the latter, the former Lizzie Grant remains vexed about her dearth of No 1s and awards. That Swift has ended up here is something of a surprise – and an immense pleasure.