A searingly intimate expression of her self and her musicianship, folklore is Taylor Swift's most fascinating work, and her grandest artistic statement yet.
Arriving last Friday at midnight by way an Instagram announcement out of the blue, perhaps the most surprising thing about Taylor Swift's 8th studio album was not its whirlwind release but the album details we were provided in the short few hours leading up to folklore's arrival. Produced during isolation, co-written with The National's Aaron Dessner as well as Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and producer extraordinaire Jack Antonoff, and featuring an unmistakably Autumnal aesthetic with its vivid grayscale photography shoots, folklore promised Swift as we had never heard her before. It's a joy to be able to say that it delivers on every expectation its credits and presentation allow.
folklore is obviously a complete anomaly in Taylor's discography, but especially in the context of her most recent releases, as reputation and Lover saw the singer follow a pure mainstream pop sound across her late twenties. It was an undoubtedly successful commercial direction but one which produced mixed results on the albums themselves, as reputation and Lover suffered a lot of the same problems - bloated tracklists, awful lead single choices (cringefest 'Look What You Made Me Do' and the insufferable 'Me!') and a general lack of cohesion. So it was interesting to see a deeper, wiser, more focused Taylor portrayed in Netflix documentary Miss Americana earlier this year - a grizzled pop veteran in many ways by the tender age of 30, fearless in her politics and developing a still blossoming songwriting partnership with Antonoff, which could only be a great thing considering his midas touch on records like Lorde's Melodrama and Lana Del Rey's Norman Fucking Rockwell in the past few years alone.
It's this side of Taylor that yearns for a more serious, lyrical expression of the self and in folklore the singer-songwriter achieves such, creating a record that both feels like a culmination of her past decade and the start of a fiercely exciting period in her career. The bombastic pop of Lover is non existent here on a stripped down, indie folk, country acoustic, chamber pop record that explores Swift's songwriting abilities with extraordinary poise and skill.
It's genuinely hard to pick a small set of highlights from folklore, as everything between breezy electropop opener 'the 1' (in which Swift pointedly opens the album with an unlikely swagger as she declares ''I'm doing good/I'm on some new shit'') to cold, melancholic closer 'hoax' is executed with such fluidity and vision that it takes a while to individually analyse the parts of the whole, but there are many notable standouts. The most prominent of these make up two trilogies within the album that include some of the greatest songs of Swift's career - primarily the teenage love triangle of 'cardigan', 'august' and 'betty', a trio of tracks written from the perspective of each character in a summer love affair that showcase Swift's eternally underrated gift for storied songwriting and her endlessly charming wit, particularly in the case of the wonderfully nostalgic sound of 'betty', a track that takes a trip back to the innocent, sweet country blues of Taylor's early albums while simultaneously showing us the sharp poetic brilliance of the now 30 year old, a decade and a half into her career.
The second trilogy I speak of is Swift's best ever three song album run on 'the last great american dynasty', 'exile' and 'my tears ricochet'. In particular, 'dynasty' is a landmark achievement for its creator, a vivid poem about the notorious Rebekah Harkness and her Rhode Island home that unfolds like a great American novel before delivering a narrative twist worthy of a This Is Us season finale. On 'exile' Justin Vernon delivers one of his best vocal performances in years, stripping away the digitally manipulated sound of 22, A Million and i,i on a compelling duet that uses his rustic and emotionally raw voice to perfection in the four minutes he spends on folklore, gifting music fans a duo they never thought they wanted and now won't be able to get enough of. 'ricochet' is Swift at her most personal and intense, a sombre, twisted funeral ballad that fans have fairly speculated could be about Swift attending her own passing. Antonoff has stated it is his favourite thing he has ever done with her, not a light statement in the context of their now considerable body of work together.
The only minor issue that plagues folklore is its daunting length, as Swift still seems to have trouble trimming the fat from her recording sessions. reputation's fifteen tracks seemed like light fare in comparison to Lover's behemoth eighteen (!), but even though we're back to fifteen songs here, folklore runs longer than either of its predecessors at a whopping hour and three minutes. Perhaps songs like 'seven' or 'this is me trying', while perfectly good tracks in their own right, could have been better utilized as bonuses alongside 'the lakes' in order to improve the overall flow and listening experience of folklore, but this is a minor qualm on a record that is truthfully hard to fault.
Ultimately, folklore is the truest expression of Taylor Swift's abilities to date, an album that presents its artist with no strings or shackles attached. In turn we are rewarded with the deepest, most lyrical journeys of Swift's career, layered on top of the wonderfully moody and eloquent production of Antonoff and the immaculately crafted songwriting of Swift and Dessner, a most unlikely match made in music heaven. A searingly intimate expression of her self and her musicianship, folklore is Taylor Swift's most fascinating work, and her grandest artistic statement yet.
8.5 / A-
Best Tracks: 'cardigan'/'the last great american dynasty'/'exile'/'my tears ricochet'/'invisible string'/'betty'
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