Taylor Swift: Folklore review – A triumph of wistful, escapist melancholy
Since triumphantly marching onto the music scene in 2006, there has been a tendency to view Taylor Swift’s career through the lens of extraordinary change: watching her metamorphosis from teen country ingenue to the author of the 21st century’s great pop treatise 1989 (2014).
And no doubt will we see the same line of thinking about her latest album, Folklore. The surprise 16 track album (announced only yesterday afternoon) was produced and co-written largely with The National’s Aaron Dessner.
The unexpected album, then, is matched with the unexpected influence of Dessner - not much about Swift’s back catalogue chimes with The National’s slow, melancholic and introverted music.
Folklore does seem miles apart from anything Swift has released to date: the huge pop productions of 1989, Reputation (2017) and Lover (2019) are absent, replaced with folksy dream-pop, and matched with Swift’s best vocal performance to date.
But it would do a great disservice to this craftiest of songwriters to view her as a simple chameleon, constantly reinventing herself to fit the zeitgeist. Rather, throughout Swift’s radically changing sound, there is immense continuity.
In Folklore, Swift is begging us to realise that she is just a grown-up version of what she always was: over the top, insecure, uncool, and a hell of a good songwriter.
The shmaltzy and ethereal Mirrorball is destined to be an instant Swiftian classic. Laden with melodrama and pining for a potential lover, her insecurity - a defining feature of her songwriting to date - takes centre stage as she sings “I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try.”
It is instantly reminiscent of Reputation’s standout track, Delicate, where she confesses her feelings for a love interest and then asks no less than six times “is it cool that I said all that?”. No one could claim with a straight face - least of all Swift - that she is cool about anything.
You might say it is less “heart wrenching” and more blunt force emotional trauma
Long time fans consistently cite Swift’s narrative prowess as her greatest strength. Mine, the lead single of Speak Now (2010) is perhaps the finest example of her craft here (“you made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter” says more than a 1000 word personal essay ever could).
On Folklore, Betty (with its Bob Dylan-esque instrumentals) offers a narrative that goes from nought to sixty in less than a second, and still manages to run away with itself, steamrollering to its conclusion before you have even noticed what’s happening.
By the end of the four minutes and 53 seconds it is as if you have watched a feature film. And only then do you realise how catchy the melody is.
The album’s high point is her piano ballad collaboration with Bon Iver, Exile (Swift’s vocals hold up surprisingly well against his much richer voice). They sing as former lovers, failing to understand where - and how - the relationship fell apart (“You never gave a warning sign” Bon Iver croons, “I gave so many signs” Swift ripostes).
There is an inside joke among Swift’s fans that track five is always the most heart wrenching on the album. And Exile does not disappoint in this sense. Though you might say it is less “heart wrenching” and more blunt force emotional trauma.
Folklore is a triumph of wistful, escapist and melancholy music. It is comfort in a time of such global uncertainty, too. But mostly, perhaps it will reveal something that has always obvious to her fans, but long dismissed by detractors who deign her to be frivolous and shallow: no one writes a song with the emotional dexterity, self-awareness, and narrative richness like Ms Swift.