Words by Josh Ong
Photos by Beth Garrabant
Less than a year ago, I was in a very similar situation to today. Awoken early by the prospect of new music by Swift, unbeknownst to what the whole album would entail, I was surrounded by a sense of mystery as to where it would lead. My feelings today have led a very similar trajectory, only with a sense of heightened query in unlocking the enigma of her new work. Where Lover had a distinct and traceable breadcrumb trail of what we might come to expect, having only been announced yesterday, folklore has been entirely shrouded aside from a few black and white visual cues.
From the images released yesterday, many had predicted that this album may serve as a departure from the overtly joyous Lover era. Pointing to the aesthetic shared between these images and that of her track Safe and Sound, made for the Hunger Games films, I certainly believed that this album would be a shift to an acoustic, soft-rock, or even acoustic country sound. Particularly on the announcement that Bon Iver had collaborated on a track with her, the shift to a sombre and ultimately saddening tone seemed set in stone; can you even write happy music featuring Bon Iver? I was mostly right, but also a little wrong.
This album is an undoubted child of lockdown and isolation. With it, comes the question of the permanence of this new direction of music. As Swift is more than capable of switching genres on a per-album basis, this sonic shift may equally seem like a temporary move. I noted in my previous work how Lover found its ‘ultimate success in spreading her newfound peace to others’. This seemed true throughout the whole era; everything that Swift did, whether it be her personal life or political stance, was being done on her terms. But, as this year has served to be the one in which nobody’s plans went right, this album, too, reflects the particular uncertainty felt by so many at the moment. With this, the album spawns a sense of spontaneity grasping into the relative uncharted.
On first impressions, it’s unlike anything from her before. This album, both thematically and in terms of content, stands as an almost exact opposite to Lover. At some points, songs within folklore feel like near continuations or alternate storylines to the narratives told within certain tracks on her previous album. Both in terms of sound and story, invisible string seems to operate the other half of Death By a Thousand Cuts, as my tears ricochet offers an alternate storyline of Daylight, in which her love is not as fortunate. Perhaps these are false connections; but they stand as a clear reminder of Swift’s ability to conceptualise lingering narratives that prove inescapable within everyday life.
Within this relatively unknown territory, Swift reaches across her past discography, both pre and post country, alongside the unfamiliar, as means of expressing this. Certain tracks ring familiar to sounds unheard since her earliest work, with the next song then immediately shifts akin to something released just last year. What’s equally prevalent across is the newer sounds that have come along with this genre shift. At times, the inspiration drawn from the universally recognised sub-genre of depressed neo-indie-emo, championed by young adults, is clear. There were undoubtedly points across this album where it felt closer to the work of the 1975 or Wolf Alice than a traditional Taylor Swift song. It goes on to bounce from softer rock in august to the partial bluegrass ballad betty, all of them still firmly grasping at the unplaceable DNA that lies at the heart of all of her music.
Lyrically, this album also finds itself tapping into the vein of introspection on a level unseen since her 2012 LP, Red. Across the first half of the album, where before her lyrics have unwaveringly lashed out at the other halves of romantic catastrophes, folklore’s lyrics seem to take aim at Swift herself and her own misdoings. Like all of us, it seems as though Swift, being trapped in isolation with nothing but her thoughts, found herself mentally revisiting old flames and the scars they left along the way. This has resulted in some of her most haunting lyricism to date. One of Swift’s most profound abilities as a songwriter is her capacity to conjure enveloping narratives that suck you into their core through empathy, interest and emotional investment; folklore does this to the highest degree, even with narratives conceived from nothing but Swift’s imagination.
What’s particularly notable is that this is Swift’s most beautiful sounding album yet. As it spans from it’s expansive and broad orchestration, of which credit must be given to Aaron and Bryce Dressner of The National, through to the distant rogue piano scattered throughout each track, it’s profoundly easy to get lost in the allure of this album’s soundscape. Whilst her previous work has experimented with new instrumentation and styles, this album has become her most sonorous, filling almost all of the available audible real estate. This creates an all encompassing aura around the music, which only goes further to bolster the depth that Swift’s lesser used lower register gives to these tracks. Both the Dressner’s and Iver’s influence on this album is clear and help give a new light to Swift’s storytelling.
Truth be told, there aren’t any radio friendly hits on this album. There’s no exuberant cheese-pop that you could belt out with your best friends at 2 A.M on a sticky club floor surrounded by strangers and assorted disco lights. But nobody’s doing that at the moment anyways. Having been stuck inside for the last few months alone with thoughts and the emotional baggage attached, Swift found her escapism through exploring these narratives, both old and entirely fabricated, to settle her past. Her move into the soundscape of dreamy indie and softer ballads was a near perfect match for this introspective lyricism. As the splendour and effervescence of the Lover has been stripped down to haunting melodies void of any intrusive sound, what remains is a clear reminder of Swift’s ability as a songwriter above all else. As remains true from my review of Lover, there does remain something mystifying beautiful about her music; but now more than ever, it seems as though her success in transforming widely felt emotions into music is about as eloquent as it gets.
folklore is available now everywhere.