Album Review — Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

You know a blog with country in the name reviewing a folk-influenced Taylor Swift album doesn’t seem so farfetched. But this is surprisingly the first time I’ve ever reviewed a Taylor Swift album. It’s not that I haven’t listened to Swift’s music. If you’re a millennial you hear her music whether you want to or not. The timing simply hasn’t worked out for me to review it, as this was an only country blog when she went pop and her last two albums were quite frankly forgettable and not worth talking about. But her surprise new album folklore is certainly an album I have a lot to say about.

The first thing of course that stands out about this album is the production, helmed by her longtime producer Jack Antonoff and the National’s Aaron Dessner. Both of their influences shine through in the music, but especially Dessner’s, as this album certainly embraces indie and folk aesthetics. It’s not an indie folk album as many have erroneously called it, but rather a pop album that incorporates elements of modern indie, folk, bedroom pop and lo-fi. Swift cherrypicks some of the more obvious and basic elements of these styles and makes them work with her style of pop for the most part.

That leads me to the obvious comparison for this album, which is Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell. While folklore may lack the subtlety of NFR and feels like a poor imitator of it to some listeners, I would argue folklore does a much better job in terms of memorable melody and catchy lyrics. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Swift has an established history of this while Del Rey is more of a niche sound and audience. The TL;DR for this album is Swift is taking a bunch of elements of several albums and popular styles in the indie world in recent years and putting on pop polish with her own style. This comes off as either too simplistic or an enjoyable compromise. For me it’s the latter.

“the 1” is a great opener to the album, as the song sets the overarching theme and that’s regrets, what-ifs and trying to learn from the loss of a meaningful relationship. I also enjoy how well Swift conveys both wistfulness and heartache, as it shows how caught between emotions you are when wondering what could have been. “cardigan” continues this theme, but it’s the first of a handful of songs on this album that just completely overstay their welcome and ultimately lead to a slightly longer album runtime than necessary.

“the last great american dynasty” took several listens to grow on me, as I kind of struggled to find the point this song is trying to make and what I come up with is it’s a critical commentary on wealth, privilege and sex. The middle class wife is solely blamed for the downfall of a wealthy family, even though there’s nothing to judge by this other than the snide judgements casted from onlookers. The song appropriately ends from the first-person point of view of the wife, who seems to sarcastically agree with the speculation. It’s great storytelling from Swift.

Bon Iver joins Swift on “exile” and while I normally don’t enjoy his voice, I think Bon Iver and Swift sound pretty good together. This song about casting away exes surprisingly works well as a duet and I enjoy the climactic build in the second half of the song as the duo harmonizes. “my tears ricochet” is about questioning how an ex can be so dishonest about the nature of the relationship and feeling like your emotions about the relationship don’t mean anything to them. The mental image of tears ricocheting off the ex is such an excellent metaphor, perfectly showcasing their heartlessness and disregard on the outside. But internally the ex is not okay and their former partner rightly sees their outward righteousness as hollow and insincere. Or at least they like to think this. This song is such a fantastic display of the complexity of emotions when in the immediate fallout of a relationship.

“mirrorball” is about being a mirror for your partner and while this is an intriguing concept supported by great lyrics, the production is the highlight of this song. The sweeping and relax, Enya-like sound is gorgeous and easy to get wrapped up in. “seven” is a brooding and meditative story of hanging onto love. The modern meets classical, string-driven sound gives the song an appropriately nostalgic feel. “august” is about realizing your relationship was never what you thought it was when you were in it. It was just a fun summer memory that leaves one side of the relationship feeling a mix of regret and fondness. I really enjoy the soaring nature of Swift’s voice and the production throughout and then concluding in a symphonic-like finale, much like the relationship described in the song.

“this is me trying” features some of the sharpest one liners I’ve heard from Swift. The obvious one of course is “So I got wasted like all my potential,” which is a sharp rebuke to the criticisms being lobbed at the protagonist. “I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting” is another clever conveyance of the disappointment of the protagonist, who after what sounds like a long time of regret is at the front door of their ex and trying to fix what was done. The droning organ that lingers throughout gives the song a hypnotically melancholy sound and gives it such swelling emotion.

There are three songs on this album that I can hands down say are now amongst my favorite Swift songs and the first is “illicit affairs.” Again, Swift does so well at describing the fallout of a breakup. The beginning of the song is level-headed introspection about how the relationship failed and learning from it. It also features the superb use of “clandestine” and yes I’m a music nerd because I love when a song takes a rarely used word in songs and uses it perfectly (see also Eric Church with incandescent). The second half of the song is an enjoyable burst of righteous indignation and anger that comes in admitting that an ex has changed you as painful as it is to admit. The depth and maturity on display in this song is so good and it’s easily one of my most played songs on this record.

Remember how I said “cardigan” is one of a handful of songs that would have been better with a shorter runtime? Well “invisible string” and “mad woman” are amongst these songs. The concepts for these songs are good and they very much fit the theme of the album, but they’re not really necessary and the album would benefit more for their absence than their presence, as this album’s biggest flaw is it’s too long. If this album was a bit tighter, this album is maybe a challenger for Country Perspective’s Album of the Year. “epiphany” is a beautiful sounding song that’s contrasted by war imagery as the story is of a soldier who seeks a reassuring dream as they bleed to death on a hospital bed. It’s dark, haunting and tragic, capturing all the emotions of a solider of war. It’s one of Swift’s finest songs she’s ever written.

And of course “betty” is the third song that’s now amongst my favorites from Swift. I was hooked from the moment I heard the sweet sounds of the harmonica. Told from the point of view of a 17-year-old boy, he recounts over a summer how he hurt a girl he loved and lives with regret for months as he tries to figure out how to apologize. It’s a song about finding growth and learning how it’s okay to admit when you make a mistake. As everyone knows, Swift became a household name on songs about high school romance. Most of those songs made me gag for their immaturity, mawkishness and being completely out of touch with reality. But this song is the opposite of all these criticisms. And damn it’s so catchy too. Can Swift come back to country music?

“peace” is another production standout on this album. The combination of the Mellotron, bass and synthesizers is so smooth and infectious. It’s such an overall minimalist approach, yet it’s one of the most powerful sounding tracks on the album. Antonoff and Dessner hit a real home run and I think it would have been great to conclude the album here. It’s not that closing track “hoax” is bad though, as it’s actually quite good. It’s a somber piano ballad where all the sadness of a relationship being over is swallowed with crushing pain and aches. It’s the reaching of a total state of being broke with the only thing to show for now being the road ahead and a body and mind covered in scars.

Grade: 8/10

One thought on “Album Review — Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

  1. track7musiccatalogue October 14, 2020 / 9:51 pm

    I really liked how you pointed out that this album isn’t necessarily a “folk” album, rather it’s pop based with influences of various indie and folk genres. There was something off about calling this an “indie folk” album and that explains it perfectly. I thought the album was fantastic though, and I found it to be much more enjoyable than probably her past four records.

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