19 Thoughts on Taylor Swift's folklore

19 Thoughts on Taylor Swift's folklore
Image via Taylor Swift/Republic Records
  1. Stans, a plea if you come upon this: it’s my birthday. Try to have a heart.
  2. folklore was the first Big Pop Cultural Thing that I was genuinely intrigued to check out since the pandemic began. I ultimately didn’t care too much about watching The Last Dance, I pirated Trolls World Tour for an assignment, my wife was more excited for Chromatica than I was. After a terrible previous season I was shocked at how good the new season of Curb was but was never prepared to stick it out until the end (I did); I’m sure I’ll listen to the Bob Dylan album at least one more time before I die, and you couldn’t pay me money to watch the Parks and Recreation or 30 Rock reunions. (I’m assuming that not enough of you watch Search Party, but the new season comes close.) I’m quite possibly missing something that I was actually excited about here (Better Call Saul? The Trip to Greece?), but in my defense, time has become irrelevant in the plague age.
  3. “But what about Fiona Apple?” I knew multiple people who’d heard it before it came out, they all said it was excellent, I trusted all of them, lo and behold, etc. The element of surprise wasn’t really there.
  4. Lemonade seems to be the most-discussed album in Beyoncé’s catalogue in recent years when it comes to cultural impact, but the rollout strategy of folklore only further confirms that her self-titled album from 2013 continues to be one of the, if not the, most influential albums of the 2010s. Taylor Swift pulled a Beyoncé, just as every single artist who’s pulled off a surprise release in the last seven years has “pulled a Beyoncé.” (Even Hum pulled a Beyoncé this year. Hum!)
  5. folklore is good! I might even be tempted to claim that it is “very good.” Amidst the stylistic detours, it’s obvious that Taylor Swift remains one of pop’s sturdiest and strongest songwriters, not just lyrically but in how she crafts melodic turns of phrase. Three or four of these songs approach “Greatest Hits” or “The Best Of” territory, either collection of which could make for a solid double-disc collection if we still lived in the CD era.
  6. Here’s my Taylor Swift ranking pre-folklore. I won’t be updating it for at least a year (maybe).
  7. folklore is somewhat of a chore to listen to front-to-back. This isn’t necessarily new for Taylor Swift albums in the 2010s, which have often run over an hour long. But folklore feels like a drag in a way that’s new for her career. The sound palette is all sepias and grays, and the whiplash-inducing dynamic shifts—the stridency, the shit that drives people nuts about her—is pretty much completely gone. I miss all of it.
  8. Ah, the elephant-sized Blue Bottle Coffee cold brew in the room: unless you’ve been off the internet for four days (this is where a normal person would say “Must be nice,” but I love being logged on), you’re likely aware that the National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon threw in on this one. Some (many) are calling folklore “indie” as a result, which feels well-intentioned (?!) but misguided—largely because “indie” as a “sound” in 2020 doesn’t really sound like folklore.
  9. This is where I do the thing I’ve done in myriad essays I’ve written over the last several years, in which I specify that “indie” at this point is a marketing term used to sell things and by no means represents any sort of ethos that the artists of which are grouped under the increasingly wide and nonsensical umbrella of a term represent. (Actually, through this lens, folklore—a studied change of pace from one of the most successful pop stars of the century that has already successfully bamboozled tons of people into thinking that Taylor Swift is on the path to eventually making her own I See a Darkness or something—might be the most indie album released this year.)
  10. folklore doesn’t feel reminiscent of genre, but era. Specifically, the Red Hot Organization-benefitting Dark Was the Night compilation from 2009, which was produced by Dessner and his brother Bryce and collected a ton of like-minded superstar indie artists from the late 2000s including the National, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Iron & Wine, Feist, and the Decemberists. Critical preference aside (when it comes to Dessners-produced Red Hot compilations, I prefer the Day of the Dead compilation from 2016, a Grateful Dead covers compilation that has many songs I love even though I still couldn’t give a shit about the Dead), Dark Was the Night perfectly captured a specific and high-minded subset of indie before that sound and much of its practitioners broke through in the 2010s to even more massive audiences. Even though indie doesn’t really sound like Dark Was the Night anymore, the compilation itself has proved sneakily influential in the corners of indie and indie-adjacent music that draw audiences regardless of media coverage, and folklore is perhaps the fullest realization of that influence.
  11. There’s a relative conservatism to folklore as a result, and it bugs me. The clearest precedent to the album’s sound in Taylor Swift’s catalogue is the title track to Lover, a heartfelt and stripped-down ballad that nonetheless sounds like it could be “November Rain” if it wanted to.
  12. It sucks that we’re not gonna get the “Lover” stadium-tour treatment for a while.
  13. Anyway: “Lover” is passionate to the point of total embarrassment, which is a compliment I am paying to what was my favorite song of 2019 on my favorite album of 2019. (The only difference between it and the much-maligned “London Boy” from the same album is the guitars.) That upper-register break Taylor Swift goes into near the end of the song…it feels real, and I’m not really sure there’s any moments like that—moments that feel as if you’re watching someone accidentally expose their nerve endings in real time—on folklore.
  14. The Bon Iver song on this—”exile”—is awful, just the pits. For an album created during a pandemic, it’s the only moment in which it truly feels like two people supposedly working together may as well be on different planets. I can’t imagine a greater miscalculation made on a big pop album this year, I skip it every time.
  15. For all the fine work that Dessner and his National Sawdust-residency collaborators have done on folklore, it’s extremely telling that two of the most compelling moments come from regular Taylor Swift collaborator Jack Antonoff, who all of you made fun of for years but is probably the smartest guy (gender reference being operative) in pop right now. “mirrorball” is beautiful, it sounds like Beach House (another compliment), and “august” is similarly excellent, a shoegaze-in-reverse song that sounds as if someone took a Dyson to a 4AD album from the ‘80s. (Always with the ‘80s, this guy.)
  16. I get taken out of “august,” though, when she sings “Meet me behind the mall.” I get that teenagers and children listen to this stuff, but for Christ’s sake—can she not meet somewhere more functionally normal? Most malls are abandoned now, and that was before the pandemic!
  17. At one point I thought “august” was my favorite song, but the more I’ve listened the more “invisible string” seems like the career-best entry on folklore. It’s spare, simple, elegantly constructed, and it feels like it could’ve been on any Taylor Swift album with no changes to its structure. Amidst all the echo-y Hudson Valley cabin-isms on folklore, “invisible string” stands out because of how close to the bone it sounds. I could take an entire album that sounds like that, but unfortunately folklore does not.
  18. I have a friend who hates Taylor Swift so much that, when we were once watching 90 Day Fiancé, she wouldn’t stop yelling “Taylor SWIFT-ing!” at the TV every time someone seemed like they were acting fake. The day folklore came out, she texted our group chat (current group chat name: “This Guy’s About to Jack Antonoff”) and said “I don’t hate Taylor Swift anymore. This is not a drill.” Maybe the magic is working.
  19. Or maybe not: I implored a Taylor Swift-averse, National-friendly colleague to listen to the album because I assumed it’d be the closest they’d ever come to liking a Taylor Swift album. No dice. Maybe I listen to folklore (which, again, I would say is “good” or even “very good”) and miss the old Taylor Swift a little, but it’s clear that, to the unpracticed ear, she still hasn’t changed all that much. Regardless, I hope this is all just a phase.

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Jamie Larson