Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is folklore, the new album from Taylor Swift.
From the moment Taylor Swift knew you were trouble when you walked in, this (Wo)Man of the Woods pivot was preordained. You knew that Taylor Swift, who grew up wanting to be Faith Hill (her first hit was about Faith’s husband), and who invented an entire generation of horse girls from scratch, would stop with the Miley cosplay and the overt Target commercials and get back to what’s real, man: country music.
And while she doesn’t exactly go country on folklore, her new album that she announced sans brand activation with 12 hours notice last week, this is as close as she’s gotten since the first half of Red. Gone are the worked-over productions of Antonoff (though he’s still here) and the Swedes (they’re not), and in their place are productions and songwriting befitting our current COVID-tine moment. She called up ⅖ of the National (Aaron Dessner is a significant producer/writer here, Bryce Dessner contributes some string arrangements), and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver for help turning out an album heavy on atmospheric piano, acoustic guitars, and paired-down, rustic near-folk music. It’s her indie rock album, and if you consider it as a Chess move, it’s T. Swift playing for the vinyl-loving neckbeards in the back (cough) by working with some of their faves. But on its face the results are impossible to deny: this is the best T. Swift album since Red, the best album you’ll hear this year that will sell millions of equivalent units.
Any temptation to read the move to hire the Dessners and Vernon here as calculated completely dissipated on “exile,” a song that finds Vernon donning his Bruce Hornsby-inspired baritone, trading sad sack couplets with Swift over piano chords that wouldn’t sound like an entire era of 2010’s indie rock. Then Vernon does that soaring “whooo whooo” thing with his voice, and Swift comes in, and they trade vocals, over a soaring climax, and… look, it’s impossible to not be sucked into this song, and shortly thereafter, the album itself. This would absolutely destroy a high school dance or an indie rom-com if we made or did either of those things right now. It’s our burden that we’re all going to have meaningfully soundtracked walks around our neighborhoods in facemasks to this now.
One of the fundamental disconnects of Taylor Swift, as a public figure and musician, has been that it’s hard to square her cornier impulses — she can write cringey lines, but she’s always wanted to be direct, and straightforward, more folky than composed and aesthetically considered — with her chosen form as a monolithic pop star in an era when we don’t see much of the actual psyche and reasonings of pop stars, even if we know what they ate for breakfast. What comes off as direct in the studio gets considered corny and “basic” on release. And that, secretly, might be folklore’s greatest trick; it finally square’s Swift’s sometimes poetic, often right on the nose songwriting with a musical form that matches it. She’s been closer to people in No Depression magazine than anyone was willing to admit before, but here she makes that clear.
There’s a three-song song cycle about teenage infidelity (“cardigan,” “betty,” and “august”), and a song with a refrain so delicious that it will be on 30 million Twitter bios by the end of this sentence (“my tears ricochet,” “and if I’m dead to you / then why are you at the wake”). “this is me trying” is a shoegaze song that feels like the ennui of 2020 in musical form, and “the last great american dynasty” compares her plight as a tabloided-to-dead celebrity with Rebekah Harkness’, who lived in the house Swift is socially isolating in a generation ago. The pairing of these lyrics and themes — which is where the folk in folklore come from — with Dessner production and songwriting is so obvious in retrospect, so well-matched, that it feels like Swift should have been doing this after she made 1989, when all the pop stars started hiring Father John Misty and Ezra Koenig to write for them.
It’s hard to tell what kind of impact folklore will have, since it feels like every album released right now gets outshined by the calamity of continued existence in 2020. But if the net result is Taylor Swift making her best album in years, and we see more pop stars pivot to making Joni Mitchell albums with Bon Iver, folklore will be one of this year’s biggest albums. There are times when the monoculture is back, and times when it’s right. This is one of those times.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.