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The artist-bunkers-in-cabin-in-the-woods narrative is an old one, often romanticized by men who need to get away from it all (or maybe just lick their wounds). Taylor Swift breaks that mold in her new album, "folklore," making an “isolation record” out of necessity rather than an intentional reprieve.
Swift uses this premise not to comment on the strangeness and horror of pandemic-induced quarantine, but to let her songwriting skillfully venture into fiction.
Before Swift, artists such as Justin Vernon, Taylor Swift's collaborator on "folklore," set off to the woods to write music about heavy break-ups. More than a decade ago, Vernon created the evolving musical project Bon Iver and one of the great cabin-in-the-woods classics, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” following the lineage of Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” or The Band’s “Music from Big Pink.”
Although Vernon seemed quite alone in 2007 in Wisconsin (more like Henry David Thoreau than Robbie Robertson), Swift used this opportunity to call up several collaborators, both those already in the Swift canon and brand new voices. Omnipresent super-producer Jack Antonoff is back, as well as sound engineer Laura Sisk, who won a Grammy for her work on “1989.” Besides Vernon’s sultry baritone, which provides a rare Swift duet in “exile,” Swift called another 2010s indie rock titan, Aaron Dessner of the National.
Among Bon Iver, The National and even a slice of Fun. (remember when Jack Antonoff was just the goofy guitarist from Fun.), Swift is certainly vying for high school me to take her seriously. Though, sonically, “folklore” settles into each of these artist’s later, more pacific periods. For example, “folklore” has a greater kinship with The National’s middle-aged “Sleep Well Beast” than the desperate bombast of “Mr. November.”
But more than that, “folklore” feels like Swift leaning all the way into making music for people her own age as she’s watched her fans grow up too.
She’s dropped the rainbow color palette. There are no more drum lines or Brendan Urie features (Thank God). She’s even earned herself a parental advisory sticker slapped onto “folklore.” Don’t play this stuff around the kids!
Besides adult language, there are other formal attempts at maturity here, some of which bog Swift down a bit. These 16 songs — running more than an hour — are relentlessly mid-tempo. Some of the dynamism and unpredictability of her “reputation” era would have been welcome here — though maybe not all the guest features. But mostly, she reminds of her humble country roots successfully with a few twists that make “folklore” feel a distinct chapter in her career.
The glimmers of dream-pop seen on “Lover” last year, especially in the Antonoff masterpiece “The Archer,” show up again on “folklore,” and Swift sounds even more natural in the clouds this time. The sweet, bedroom tune “Mirrorball” feels like a possible single candidate. In general, there are more strings on “folklore,” more breathy ballads. There is nothing really risky either, but it makes for a pleasant listen. “Invisible String” is cozy and finger-picked, and “mad woman” continues where “The Man” left off thematically, though this time with Swift at the piano.
“illicit affairs” is one of the most folksy and features some of my favorite writing: “What started in beautiful rooms / Ends with meetings in parking lots.” Operating more in fiction than autobiography, Swift lets lines like these breathe, hinting at a familiar upper-middle-class malaise turning to addictive, seedier thrills.
She shows her range on “folklore,” certainly, though still often settles into self-aware musings about young love. But even tracks like “cardigan” are impressionistic, aware of the tropes that she’s taught a generation of young songwriters. Take the opening lines: “Vintage tee, brand new phone / High heels on cobblestones / When you are young, they assume you know nothing.” Swift knows young stardom better than anyone, and has been told those last words, I’m sure, thousands of times.
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Swift writes both affectionately and now with some distance about those late teen years or even earlier. On “seven,” a child offers his young love to run away together away from a raging father: “Pack your dolls and a sweater / We'll move to India forever / Passed down like folk songs / Our love lasts so long.”
She also honestly portrays the doubt that fills many high school friendships on “betty”: “Betty, I won't make assumptions / About why you switched your homeroom, but / I think it's 'cause of me.”
Haven’t we all been afraid of a cooler friend moving on from us?
“Folklore” was announced just hours before it dropped with no preview tracks. And the lack of a noisy rollout was welcome, maybe comforting for Swift too, since most of her albums get mined for jabs at ex-lovers, popstar feuds and, more recently, political stances. Swift sounds at ease, in the pocket. The production is absolutely pristine. It's surprising that she was in woods of any kind. It transforms the giant trunks behind her into a fantastical dreamland in which her most isolated recording process creates her least narcissistic album.
I’m not sure yet where “folklore” and its songs rank among the Swift catalog, but the album contains some of my favorite work of hers to date. It’s easy to put on, in part because it sheds most of the narrative baggage that follows Swift and that she’s helped amplify — impressive for something made in quarantine.
I don’t see Swift’s celebrity fading any time soon, at least not for people my age. But with “folklore” it’s nice to see her just writing largely good songs, leaning into Swift the musician and continuing to leave Swift the tabloid idol behind.
Contact opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at email@example.com.
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