See the young blonde woman, wearing a nightgown of white lace. Wistfully, she strolls through a misty meadow. The grass still wet, morning fog obscures the distance. She pauses under a tree before moving on into a secluded forest, gazing in childlike awe at the height of the trees. It’s American Gothic. Andrew Wyeth. Walden.
The first imagery associated with folklore – Taylor Swift’s eighth album – comes via the screen of iPhones: short video loops that a listener stumbles across on Spotify or Apple Music. Swift has always dealt in kitsch, and, while more somber than the Polaroid photo on the cover of 1989 or Instagram-filtered psychedelia of Lover, there’s still a decidedly camp aspect to this imaginary return to nature, which the internet quickly appropriated for meta commentary: Swift as gothic folkie, Swift as black metal nymph.
The joke’s on the angle: Swift’s eighth album is supposedly her ‘quarantine album’; a stripped-down and raw affair that came to her out of nowhere and artistically capitalized on the self-isolation during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. This is a welcome turn from the messy and undecided electro-pop of reputation and the grab-bag aesthetics of Lover, which all-too-often dipped into goofy saccharine bops like “Me!”, “I forgot that you existed” and “Paper Rings”. The list of Swift’s co-songwriters on folklore underlines this approach: most of The National are involved, as is Bon Iver for a duet on “exile”. The inescapable Jack Antonoff is back, too, the spectre of Norman Fucking Rockwell! hovering over his name. There’s no awkwardness here, and no pop. This? Is raw! This… is real.
But, as usual with Taylor, things aren’t so simple – Swift is a pop songwriter after all. In fact, if a ghost is haunting the album, it’s that of Swift’s past actions. Opening track “the 1” has a vocal melody and structure quite similar to Lover’s opener “I Forgot That You Existed”, yet the two couldn’t be more different. Where “I Forgot” had the aesthetics of a moderately annoying adolescent pop song, “the 1” has the musical arrangements expected from a Saddle Creek or Arts & Crafts release, and its melancholic lyrics are surprisingly poignant and mature: “We never painted by the numbers, baby / But we were making it count / You know the greatest loves of all time are over now.”
The theme of heartbreak carries over to “cardigan” – the first in a loose trilogy that chronicles an ill-fated love triangle – and the question arises whether folklore is a breakup album (a narrative usually reserved for individual songs in the Swiftverse). Then the album segues into “the last great american dynasty” which is both a tribute to Rebekah Harkness, the socialite and oil heiress who formerly owned Swift’s newly-acquired home, and a retelling of early 20th century American yellow press mythology. It’s only logical that Swift, who once made a fun pop song about how fun it is to be a toxic partner, and an entire album about the darker side of her public image, finds kinship in the unfairly mistreated hedonist who dyed a dog green and played cards with Dali. Yet, there’s a cold detachment here and the song never rises to the emotional heights of Springsteen’s great ruminations of American experience. In comparison to the oddly similar Tori Amos cover of Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes”, there’s little emotion in Swift’s vocal delivery and lyrical characterization of the song’s protagonist; the words feel more like a Wikipedia run-down than an attempt to bring “the loudest woman this town has ever seen” to life. Almost resigning, the refrain’s vocal melody stays oddly monotonous and unexciting.
It’s easy to attack folklore: Too calm, too snoozy, the outcome of a multi-millionaire hiring indie songwriters to help her deliver “real” music. And at 63 minutes and 16 tracks, it continues the recent trends of fairly good pop albums that overstay their welcome. The album’s three final tracks – the bland Bob Dylan pastiche “betty”, the pale “peace”, and the disappointingly clinical “hoax” – could have been left as bonus tracks for the deluxe edition. Speaking of, there’s eight different cover variants one can choose from (a familiar marketing strategy, as seen with Tori Amos’ Strange Little Girls), because… it’s Tay’s eighth album. The pans practically write themselves: It’s adult contemporary radio folk and pure consumerist product; Boomer pop masquerading as indie; Vanessa Carlton or Natalie Imbruglia for Millennials.
Indeed, for a record marketed so decidedly as being immediate and raw, folklore‘s tame beats and subdued guitars are oddly polished. There’s few moments that feel like they capture immediate emotional outbursts and even less distortion. Songs like “seven” or the Bon Iver duet “exile” feel like the perfect end-credits-theme to big Hollywood dramas, and are miles away from the delivery and tone of Laura Marling or Cate LeBon.
However, folklore reaches new heights for Swift’s career whenever she totally removes herself from the limits of her own stylistic constraints and delves into foreign genres. “mirrorball” is a wonderfully atmospheric, reverb-drenched late-90s ballad, the utterly beautiful “august” sounds like a forgotten Azure Ray song circa Hold on Love, and “invisible strings” is reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ most heartfelt work – it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that these last two tracks might well be the best Swift has ever released.
Other highlights include “this is me trying”, which twists “Wildest Dreams”’ synth-pop formula into dream pop, and “illicit affairs”, which actually allows Swift to deliver an unvarnished and vulnerable vocal performance. There’s also “mad woman”, whose lyrics are a dark introversion of the abusive partner angle of “Blank Space”, while the refrain’s delivery of the titular “woman” directly references that of “Lover”, indicating thematic ties that add new layers to the two previous songs and allowing Swift to add a little grit into the album’s calm atmosphere.
Those tracks illuminate what makes folklore Swift’s best album to date: the muted sonic palette allows for her to finally be wholly comfortable as a performer, to let go of the awkwardly goofy bubblegum tracks of the past and showcase her talent as sensual lyricist. Even lesser tracks like “epiphany” fit into the homogenous whole and are thoroughly pleasant experiences. And even with the palpable style of The National all over the album, it does feel like Swift has finally found the authenticity she’s been chasing with each respective release ever since Red. But still, Swift’s vocal delivery lacks the emotional depth of the artists this album pays homage to. Maybe it’s the distance of the multi-millionaire superstar who was privileged enough to evade making a public political statement for her entire 20s, but when she sings “Does she smile or does she mouth ‘fuck you forever’?” in “mad woman”, it lacks the goosebump-inducing power of Hope Sandoval’s “I think it’s strange you never knew” or Azure Ray’s “It’s just the wind that makes me cry.” But, maybe folklore is the first step towards getting there.