Caragh Medlicott reviews the new album from Taylor Swift, a secret lockdown project released on an unsuspecting world this week.
To create, or not to create – this became the fraught and contentious question of the lockdown period. Stuck to the sofa like barnacles, haircuts rugged and overgrown, our quarantine months slipped away in sepia-toned exhaustion. Could there be purpose in creative output? For Taylor Swift, arguably the world’s biggest pop star, it seems there could. The abrupt announcement of Swift’s eighth studio album, folklore, shrugged the gratuitous countdown the pop star was previously infamous for. All signs pointed to an indie reimagining, social media alighted with joyous speculation.
Put together, the album artwork of Swift’s discography lays bare an expansive and sonically mottled career that’s seen the singer-songwriter grow from cork-screw curls and sparkly purple dresses to folklore’s monochrome shots of a gingham-clad Swift disappearing into wooded expanses. But this vertiginous journey’s been far from smooth sailing. While her first few albums danced the line of countrified-pop, it was Red – with its album cover a referential call-back to Joni Mitchell’s Blue – that established a delve into overtly poppy earworm choruses and credits with Swedish mega-hit producers Max Martin and Shellback.
On the surface, Swift’s seventh album, Lover (released not even a full year prior to folklore) gave no distinct tell-tale signs of a looming veer into wistful indie dreamscapes. She did, however, finally get to ditch Big Machine Records in favour of Universal Music Group (a move which soon ignited a very public and acrimonious battle over the rights to her masters).
The journeys that bridge Swift’s albums have frequently been aesthetic and musical. Never an artist to shy away from romanticised juxtaposition, Lover exploded with rainbow-drenched colour and marked a return to a gentler pop sound that contrasted with the production-heavy metallic grey of Reputation. Topically, both albums tread similar paths – primarily retracing the fragile unfurling of a new relationship –instead, it seems to be Swift’s mood which colours each record’s individual composition. This outlook, in turn, bleeds into Swift’s real-life street style; just prior to the release of Lover, Swift exchanged combat boots and violet lipstick for pink tresses and eclectic shades of pastel attire.
Easter egg clues, playful and cryptic, have commonly led the social media rollout of any new Taylor Swift album, and while there’s no doubt this technique has been hugely successful in whipping up a frenzy amongst Swift’s fanbase, the Beyoncé-style surprise album drop bought with it a more all-consuming intrigue. Fans instantly resurfaced an Instagram selfie Swift shared in April captioned: ‘Not a lot going on at the moment’ – the diversion tactics! If the earthy look of folklore’s album shoot didn’t give away an incoming tectonic shift in sound, then the album’s contributor list certainly did; a collaboration with Bon Iver and production and co-writing credits for The National’s Aaron Dessner.
Mere hours later, the critical reception to folklore was reverberating around the web, the consensus synonymously resounding; dazzling, fantastical, exquisite, transformed. Being the avid diarist that she is, Swift paired the release with her own self-reflection on the lockdown-composed folklore, she describes: ‘Myths, ghost stories, and fables. Fairytales and parables. Gossip and legend’.
These are hardly new songwriting concepts for Swift, each thematic touchstone is practically a pillar of her discography to date. Instead, the meaning seems to be double-edged. In one way, Swift is keen to note the fictionality of some of these tracks – drawn from imagination and not to be subjected to the usual internet sport of unravelling and name-pinning. In another sense, Swift anticipates critical acclaim with a subtle reminder that she’s always been a wordsmith, even if prior albums have packaged her lyrical tales in a pop veneer.
The album itself is lengthy with 16 songs and one bonus track (not yet released; one or two tracks could have been shaved for elevated potency, but alas, when producing some of the best work of your career, your darlings start to look best dressed in bulletproof vests. The sound is melancholy, muted and distant; shivery acoustic guitar and halting piano are set to Swift’s empathetically communicative voice. The singer has never had a range to match her stadium-filling peers, but what she lacks in technical ability she makes up for with texture and emotive capacity. While previous albums smothered Swift’s singing in overproduction, folklore places her voice front and centre in lyrical ambles that span fictional teenage love triangles and more familiar breathless confessionals.
In an interview with Pitchfork, multi-instrumentalist and producer Dessner recounts the story leading up to his remote lockdown collaboration with Swift (seeming as surprised as anyone to be her musical partner of choice). His admiration orbits Swift’s efficiency and focus, Dessner reports that having sent the singer a folder of rough ideas and ‘out-there’ song sketches, Swift responded a few hours later with “cardigan” (folklore’s first single) ‘fully written in a voice memo’. It’s this work ethic, coupled with a razor-sharp marketing-inclined mind, that has propelled Swift into superstardom. With her focus turned away from pop hooks, the singer’s introspection swaps out commercial viability for poetic lyricism and darker emotional deep-dives – it’s no surprise the album was, until hours before, a secret to her record label, too.
On “cardigan” Swift imagines a resurgence of self-worth discovered, somewhat ironically, through the love of another, she sings: ‘And when I felt like I was an old cardigan / Under someone’s bed / You put me on and said I was your favourite.’ In lyrical terms, it’s a chorus not far removed from the slow-burn ballads of 2012’s Red, but its simple romantic heart is soon disturbed with darker ideas: ‘Marked me like a bloodstain […] Peter losing Wendy’. On “peace”, Swift reflects on her head-spinning levels of fame, a fact that condemns any romantic partner to a life of paparazzi flashes and tabloid headlines; the publicity might be unnatural, but Swift has a truthful offering: ‘All these people think love’s for show / But I would die for you in secret.’
This isn’t the only reference to Swift’s death, either – on “my tears ricochet” Swift asks: ‘And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?’ It seems that darker introversion suits Swift, it’s hard to believe it’s been less than a year since Lover debuted more than a few heavy-handed numbers like the tooth-achingly cloying “ME!” and clunky “London Boy”. Of course, it’s hard to completely forget these commercial roots – after all, how many folk artists can sing about the history of their Rhode Island mansion as Swift does on “the last great american dynasty”?
Swift is far from the first pop artist to explore an acoustic dressing down, but she’s one of the only ones to do it successfully (cleaning off the commercial oil usually leads to a bizarre melting pot of unmatched sounds – just ask Swift’s famous ex, Harry Styles). So is folklore a complete metamorphosis or simply an evolution? It’s a question which may find its answer in a quote from another of America’s famous musical storytellers. In his 2016 autobiography, Bruce Springsteen wrote: ‘No one you have been and no place you have gone ever leaves you. The new parts of you simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride.’
Anyone paying close enough attention to Swift – and in real terms, there have been hundreds of thousands – can identify the same penchant for lyrical storytelling that existed in her eponymous first album. In the time since, she has matured, she has misstepped, but folklore succeeds primarily because the lockdown quashed the demands that frequently stifle mainstream artists in the studio with a deadline. The release of this album must have felt like a finger to the wind risk, but as record-breaking streaming figures abound, Swift’s demonstrable versatility guarantees a more interesting future for the singer-songwriter than any of us could have previously imagined.
Caragh Medlicott is a columnist and Contributing Editor to Wales Arts Review.