By DAN MACINTOSH
In today’s music world, where ‘the record album’ has been so severely devalued, every Taylor Swift full-length release is an event. Taylor doesn’t just create and release albums, but each time she does so, she reminds us how excited we used to get whenever our favorite artists put out new multi-song projects.
The new Folklore is different this time, though, for many reasons. For starters, it was a surprise release, without much hype leading to its appearance. How this news – news about the world’s most famous pop singer – was kept under wraps, is an indescribably amazing feat.
More importantly than that, however, is how this music so smartly reflects the time period that created it. The album’s muted singer-songwriter tones starkly contrast with Swift’s usual big, bold technicolor pop music. It’s the sound of Swift holding a quiet, late night conversation, rather than making a huge stir whenever entering a room.
When Swift duets with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), for instance, it’s the sound of the pop star operating in his indie realm, singing together over mostly just acoustic piano, rather than Swift shaking it off in front of a stadium audience. It’s then followed by “My Tears Ricochet,” an extremely quiet ballad, and the only one of 15 tracks that Swift wrote all alone. Most the other writing credits feature producers Aaron Dressner and Bryce Dessner, as well as Vernon on one and the mysterious William Bowery a couple. Bowery, by the way, has become the subject of many conspiracy theories. Some speculate this name is a pseudonym for Harry Styles. Such talk only adds to the mystique surrounding this highly unusual, but much appreciated new album.
Musically, this is very much a piano-accented album. It’s the most acoustic piano we’ve heard on a Swift album in a long time, which sounds oh so wonderful. Soft songs like “Seven” are the most organic Swift recordings since those long-gone days when we still referred to the artist as a country singer. “August,” arriving eight songs in, is a lovely, rhythmic, and melodic burst of musical joy. It’s the auditory equivalent to opening the drapes and letting sunshine into a darkened room. It contrasts with the preceding tracks, which are – if not depressed – at least decidedly reflective. With its pretty orchestration, “August” is destined to become one of Swift’s most memorable creations. By the way, Folklore emphasizes the ‘folk’ in its title most during “Betty,” which leaves Swift sounding like a Greenwich Village folk singer at the song’s beginning, complete with strummed guitar and harmonica accompaniment.
Although Swift has recently been outspoken about becoming politically ‘woke,’ the songs on this album are the best evidence of her burgeoning adulthood. One called “Illicit Affairs,” for instance, is the sound of a grown woman scorned, in contrast to the post-teen young girl whining of Swift’s prior recordings. Yes, preceding albums have chronicled Swift’s growing pains, but Folklore is finally the work of a fully introspective adult.
Make no mistake about it, Folklore is an explicitly interior album. It’s full of musings from someone who has been quarantined with her thoughts for a long time, just like the rest of us. One benefit of staying home for this extended stretch, is it’s given us time to stop and really think about our lives. Not long ago, artists like Taylor Swift were writing songs equivalent to travelogue entries, describing all the things they’d seen and done. Not so this time, though. Swift has always expressed her deepest feelings through her songs, but never more so than with Folklore. Hopefully, Swift will someday soon create her ‘life on the road’ album, but for now, we’ve been gifted with this ‘created in solitude’ gem.