Seemingly one of the first, if only, acts to make it from full blown country act to full blown pop star, Taylor Swift has always been on the leading edge of popular music. Returning a year after her Lover album, Swift is back with the entirely surprising folklore, an album as similar and different to previous Swift albums that you genuinely don’t know which one it is.
Announced less than a day before its release, folklore has sixteen tracks, is more than an hour in length and is perhaps Swift’s first attempt to move away from the world of pop she has dominated for the last decade.
While the album has been produced by The National‘s Aaron Dessner, folklore is by no means an alternate album. It is most definitely still a pop release. While Dessner does influence the album heavily, folklore has all the hallmarks of being an instantly recognisable Swift album.
Knowing full well that she can do just about anything in music and people will flock to it, folklore is an obvious attempt from Swift to push the boundaries of what she is comfortable in releasing, and what your run of the mill pop music fan will still listen to. And unsurprsingly, it works very well.
One of the first things you notice about the entirety of the album is the relative rough-around-the-edges approach to it. Historically, Swift has been all things rainbows and bright lights; folklore definitely isn’t this. It has that worn in feel to it; a comfortable lounge you can nap on during a mid Spring afternoon.
Opening track “The 1” is downbeat and minimalist, with simple piano, simple rhymes and a bridge that is the strongest part of the song. Returning very firmly to her country-pop roots, “The Great American Dynasty” is an early reminder that Swift is a class act and vivid storyteller. Her drawn-back vocals play well into the cruisy closing minute, while going hand-in-hand with the increasing busyness of the instrumentation. Matching with “The Last Great American Dynasty”, “Betty” builds to a crescendo in the closing minute as the cardigan motif originally mentioned in “Cardigan” is brought to the forefront once more.
Whether an attempt or not to gain that crossover market from mainstream to alternate, “Exile” features the instantly recongisable crooning of Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver fame. The most distinctly different of tracks, it presents as a classic ballad-esque duet, with the harmonies genuinely fantastic from the get-go. While the hero of the song, Vernon and Swift’s vocals are matched fantastically. It’s a legitimate hit, and heck, could very well have fit on early Bon Iver releases (think For Taylor, Forever Ago. Sorry). The sadness tinged “My Tears Ricochet” is overwhelmingly beautiful, and knowing that it was developed with long time collaborator Jack Antonoff only makes the song feel that much more familiar.
Another take away from folklore is the maturity of the album. For a while there, there was the ongoing train of thought that Swift tended to only write about break ups, failed relationships and shit partners. And yes, while folklore is still mostly an album about break ups, failed relationships and shit partners, it is more or less Swift accepting that sometimes relationships don’t work and that this isn’t always a bad thing. There’s a level of growth and acceptance in folklore that Swift hasn’t delivered before. And while I say there’s an increased level of maturity on folklore, Swift falls back into heartbreak throughout “Mirrorball”, as she talks about knowing how to change to meet the expectations of someone. With its devastating chorus, Swift hits a songwriting high on “Mirrorball”.
If there is a downside to folklore it’s the length of the album. Coming in at sixteen songs does seem a little indulgent. But, if that’s what it took to get the story of folklore across, I’m glad Swift was comfortable in releasing such a non-traditional album.
After years of very strategic and at times cryptic album release schedules, Taylor Swift has been justly rewarded for releasing folklore the way she did. Potentially a major shift in the way she releases music into the future, folklore could well be a game changer for Swift and popular music.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Taylor Swift’s folklore is out now.