Have you ever dug through some boxes buried away in a basement. Things from your past or possibly even others? The colours on the pictures worn down, some of the words written in a scrapbook faded away. Knowing that these memories were once tangible things but while time may have dulled their edges, what remains are the very real emotions that once filtered through them. This is what it feels like when experiencing folklore, the eight studio album by Taylor Swift. A collection of stories, some that are fresh and some that have been languishing in the past for so long that the faces of the players involved may not be recognizable any longer but what was shared between them feels like it happened yesterday. Swift has been famous for longer than most can remember. A ubiquitous presence in music who’s gigantic stadium tours, huge pop hits and platinum selling albums sometimes obscure the fact that, at the age of only thirty, she is one of a handful of artists that consistently create wonderfully enduring songs. Here on folklore, a record that was not even hinted at 24 hours ago, Swift takes a slight detour. Working with producer and co writer Aaron Dessner of The National, we are treated to Swift’s most understated record musically but in terms of emotionality it is possibly her most powerful. Beautifully lush and pastoral, folklore combines Swift’s gifts as a songwriter and storyteller, pulling back from the more contemporary pop sound featured on her last three albums, 2014’s 1989, 2017’s Reputation and last year’s Lover, and merges it with Dessner’s organic production. The strength of this very strong record doesn’t just lie in Dessner’s ability to transport Swift’s songs from the stadium stages to a more grounded setting but how the team work together musically to bold, underline and italicize the points she makes lyrically. Her songwriting here is the real star of the show. Swift leans again into transcribing her own personal experiences as well as using her talents as a storyteller to craft fictional scenarios that are equally compelling. The whole proceeding feels like waking up from a dream where moments after you open your eyes, the details are fuzzy but the feelings are as potent as they were in your sleep.
Things feel different right off the top with “the 1”. Natural, chorus drenched piano floats atop a boppy, boomy beat while Swift’s staccato vocal melody recounts the story of a love that went sideways. It’s a really strong opener that sets a certain tone but things really expand from here on out. Dessner keeps the songs moving musically. Organs drone and whirl like vines wrapping themselves around plucked acoustic guitars and synth pads that haze and fade into each other, almost disappearing into the background before changing direction. The album’s first single “cardigan” is an earworm that has a chorus that you’ll be singing even after your initial listen. Swift has a nice way of juxtaposing these brawny melodies with lyrics that can absolutely shatter. The theme of something that gets thrown away, most notably love or romance, only to have it come back after time and hindsight reveal it to be more important than was initially thought permeate throughout the record. This is apparent on tracks like “cardigan” as well the crushing “my tears ricochet” and the muted elegance of “mirrorball”. Elsewhere Swift uses her talents to craft imagined stories that play into the overall narrative of the album, such as on “the last great American dynasty” and “mad women”. Stories told from the perspective of people looking from the outside into a situation where a woman is poorly perceived to be troubled, mad or shameless. All versions of descriptors that have been thrown at Swift throughout her career. Justin Vernon shows up on the duet “exile” and as interestingly, as much of folklore could be described as Bon Iver-esque, this track is the least Bon Iver sounding on the record. It harkens back to “The Last Time” off of Red. There’s a theatrical quality to the arrangement and melodies that play into the huge elation of the song as it builds from a quiet two hander into its kaleidoscopic climax. Album standout “epiphany” practically channels Kate Bush in the melodic lifts of the pre chorus. Airy synths mingle with a pulsating piano, pulling at the threads between the spaces in the singing to create some absolutely palpable tension. It is captivating.
Folklore is a huge surprise. Just the fact that this album exists and we hadn’t heard a hint about it is pretty unreal. An album Swift started to craft when plans to tour her last record, just dropping eleven months ago, faded away with the global pandemic. Locked up at home she channeled her energies into these songs and you can feel her every intention. Even though the circumstances from creation to release may seem that this album is one of lesser standing than her previous records, be sure it is not. As surprising as the release of the record is, possibly more surprising will be seeing folklore become the record that turns a whole generation of dismissers into actual fans. Well, only surprising until you sit down to listen to the album and after it’s finished, the only likely outcome.