At the outset of Taylor Swift’s latest studio album Folklore, she assertively declares “I’m on some new shit” — that “shit” being, ironically, some of the oldest there is. Recorded secretly in pandemic-mandated isolation, this new release sees Swift’s energetic, sugary pop aesthetic pared back to its fundamentals and rebuilt on the quieter, more considered sonic framework of folk music. Cut off from the frenzy of life as it once was, Swift repositions herself here as a storyteller and presents a collection of sensitive, vivid yarns that speak to universal experiences and preoccupations. It’s an impressive, melancholic, minimalist work of folk-pop that showcases the neat synergy between Swift’s enduring wide-eyed wholesomeness and an emergent, contemplative maturity.
Like the greyscale of the album’s cover art, Folklore is a muted affair in stark contrast to the rainbow-explosive, aspartame pop of 2019’s Lover or the more confrontational trap-infused electropop of 2017’s Reputation. By shedding the bells and whistles, however, Swift has pulled together one of her most consistent and rewarding full-length releases in years. Many of its standout tracks are successful thanks to, rather than in spite of, their restraint. A steady piano lead tinkles over a processed drum machine on lead single “Cardigan,” allowing an aching chorus that elaborates on the contradictory experiences of feeling discarded and treasured to soar with only the slightest dynamic modulation. Lead producer Aaron Dessner, best known as the guitarist and lead composer of indie rock sad-sacks-in-chief The National, brings the delicate poise of his day job to bear on Swift’s lyrics in such a way as to elevate the palpable vulnerability in their simplicity. Swift is still absolutely there at the heart, though, unmistakeable in the poppy, rhythmic swing of “The 1” or the nostalgic old-movie sheen of “Illicit Affairs.”
The fictional vignettes Swift narrates across Folklore are entertaining, diverting and affecting at different points, but the wide-reaching accessibility of her words is consolidated in the frequent moments where the songwriter herself leaks through the cracks. Take a line like “I had a marvellous time ruining everything” on “The Last Great American Dynasty,” which is ostensibly written from the perspective of a scandalous socialite but could speak to Swift’s own experiences as a frequent target for tabloid sensationalism, or the admission that “somethings you just can’t speak about” which she puts in the mouth of a wounded soldier on “Epiphany.” Rather than robbing the songs’ stories of their narrative specificity, the broad applicability of these little glimpses into the writer behind them allows Swift to express a connectivity we all long to feel with the people around us.
Folklore is a long album, clocking in just past the hour mark, but its consistency and clarity creates a fully-realised sonic world that generally justifies such indulgence. While not every song is killer, there are certainly no duds. It takes a few goes through for the truest treasures to make themselves known, but a number of cuts on the record are undeniably among the Pennsylvania native’s very best. Frequent production collaborator and Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff supervises the gorgeously understated jangle-pop of “Mirrorball,” which may be one of the most stunning showcases of Swift’s unabashed earnestness, while there’s a cinematic triumph to “This Is Me Trying” as its sweeping balladry sees Swift committing to self-betterment, even if the process is a slow one. Dessner-produced tracks generally skew more experimental, and in doing so inflect the established Swift mode with captivating augmentations. “Peace,” for instance, is built around a harmonic bass guitar loop and a whispering blip of a beat that allow for some of Swift’s saddest, most affecting lyrics to shine (“the rain is always gonna come if you’re standing with me”), “Seven” hangs off a haunting vocal hook that’s almost Celtic and closing track “Hoax” is a sparse, raw culmination that pairs an elegiac Swift vocal with little more than a piano to tie up a number of the album’s thematic threads.
Perhaps the album’s crowning achievement, though, comes quite early on with “Exile,” featuring Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon’s rumbling baritone on guest vocals. Best known for his own brand of obtuse, hyper-literate experimental folk, Vernon is coaxed into more accessible territory on this massive piano ballad. He’s singing some of the most straightforward lyrics of his career, duetting with Swift from either side of a supposed breakup (“I think I’ve seen this film before / and I didn’t like the ending”). It’s a baroque epic of a song which sees the two artists’ distinct styles melding impeccably. It’s certainly Folklore’s defining track and a stellar display of Swift’s strength and adaptability as a pop performer that resonates back and forth across the best moments of the rest of the album.
For a record assembled remotely across more than a dozen locations worldwide, Folklore feels like a coming-together. The album pulls musicians, producers, archetypes and curious characters into an orbit with Swift at its centre. Locked away from the human contact most of us took for granted before the emergence of Coronavirus, the singer reaches out here more than ever before — relating her own experiences and passions to other perspectives and narratives as a way of repositioning herself on the cultural landscape. She betrays her ambitions for the work on “Seven” when she sings of her assurance that the song’s characters will be “passed down like folk songs.” Folk music provides Swift with an aesthetic mode that complements her established brand well, but her attraction to the genre clearly goes deeper into its propensity to echo down the generations. In an overstimulated, oversaturated digital world, attempting to create cultural artefacts that endure is surely harder than ever before. However, in its unadorned beauty, immense empathy and self-awareness, Folklore might be Swift’s best shot at immortality so far.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.