Universal Music Group (label)
24 July 2020 (released)
25 July 2020
Taylor Swift’s Folklore surprises in more ways than one.
A Taylor Swift release is usually something of a multiweek event. With a raft of clues dropped on the social media-verse, radio friendly singles bopping over the airwaves, and all the general razzmatazz that goes with a major album release.
However, on a distinctly ordinary Thursday, the American opted to shake things up considerably. As if from out of the blue the singer dropped the proverbial bombshell when she tweeted:
“Surprise Tonight at midnight I’ll be releasing my 8th studio album, folklore; an entire brand new album of songs I’ve poured all of my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into..”.
Less than 24 hours later Folklore graced the world. Dropping without the usual slow-burn fanfare and in relatively understated fashion, the method appears to be a reflection of the project itself.
Since 2014’s official jump to pop courtesy of 1989, the 30-year-old has certainly embraced the radio’s favourite genre. Even in the country days Swift wasn’t exactly shy about making the jump.
Folklore however, is something altogether different. While it forgoes the pounding beats of a Reputation, or the synths of 1989, it couldn’t easily be called country.
Instead the 16-track offering is a beautifully produced acoustically led production.
Where once there would have been floor rattling base there is now tingling piano, where computerized sound once ruled, orchestral violin now wasps passed the ear. Electronic sound is still occasionally present but in a supporting role.
The album feels like an offshoot of Reputation finale ‘New Year’s Day’.
Lyrics tell stories of, the joy of what is, the dreams of what might have been, and the torment of regret.
‘Invisible String’ marvels at the invisible hands of fate that brings two people together, ‘The 1’ opines on the happy ever after that could have been, while ‘Illicit Affairs’ takes on a “mercurial” covert relationship. During the latter track the songstress sings:
“And clandestine meetings and stolen stares, they show their truth one single time, but they lie and they lie and they lie, a million little times”.
With those immersive words, we’re suddenly in on the fate of the fragile affair. Swift pulls off the song with a confident ease.
As ever, Taylor’s trademark autobiographical feel remains intact. Obviously, not every word or moment should be taken as a sworn affidavit, but the singer rings with authenticity, holding the listener’s attention.
The artist uses the listener’s prior knowledge of what has come before to not only pay fan service, but also to help frame the album as the next chapter in a personal story.
With reference to ‘Delicate’s dive bar, and a nod to ‘Call It What You Want’s gold chain, ‘Invisible String' feels like a friendly status update on Swift’s long-term romance with actor Joe Alwyn.
The song not only allows Swities to play a game of connect the dots, but it also lends the project its most charming moment. Taylor confesses:
“Cold was the steel of my axe to grind, for the boys who broke my heart, now I send their babies presents”.
The listener has been a part of some tumultuous moments along with the singer and is now there to witness the healing of closure.
Put simply the artist is confidently telling captivating stories while painting striking vistas with her words.
‘My Tears Ricochet’ sends in the battleships as a relationship sinks, ‘Seven’ finds us in a haunted house as we flashback to the joyous days of Childhood, while ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ dives headlong into Rebecca's “gauche” wedding and her very high life.
One of the album strongest moments switches from a love story to dealing with something a little less edifying.
“And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry”, the superstar bluntly points out during ‘Mad Woman’.
Although the song appears to allude to a high-profile thorn in the singer’s side, it just as easily serves as a powerful attack on the cruel practice of tearing at someone’s mental health, known as gaslighting.
This is Swift at her fiercest, unafraid to take on those using more brawn than brain. The singer has long bemoaned sexist double standards, Folklore serves as a platform to sharply confront them once again.
The Pennsylvania native showcases her pipes as she teams up with Bon Iver.
The lead singer Justin Vernon invites the listener in with his rich warm tones that dominates the opening and steals the show. Vernon can’t match the near perfect chemistry of former duet partner Gary Lightbody, (‘The Last Time’) but his efforts still proves to be a welcome addition to proceedings.
Perhaps fittingly, ‘Exile’ feels like a sequel to Red’s ‘The Last Time'. The couple opened the door one more time only to find their hearts shut.
Away from the microphone, a cadre of Producers and the Sound Engineers have come together to give the record its musical backbone.
Chief among them is Aaron Dessner of the band The National, who Swift credited with producing or co-writing the large majority. Long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff also makes a return behind the scenes.
The Fun guitarist has in the past had a flare for adding an 80s flavour to tracks like ‘Out Of the Woods’ and ‘The Archer’. Musically, things feel far removed from the days of 1989 or Lover, but no less slickly produced.
‘My Tears Ricochet’ strikes the ear with its ethereal coral opening, ‘Betty’ makes a harmonica fuelled return to country, as the dreamy ‘Mirrorball’ gets a gentle dose of rock. Less AC/DC and more a last dance at the disco.
Overall, Folklore proves to be a surprising, but nevertheless successful diversion for Taylor Swift. Her vivid lyricism continues to be some of the best in the business, while the shift in musical tone supports it well.