Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” album may have been out for two weeks already, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t command the new-release news cycle 14 days later with a a single new song — the addition of a bonus track that was held back from the previous digital edition and is only hitting the streets now as part of the belatedly released CD package.
Is “The Lakes” worth a deep dive all by itself, as the 17th track at the end of an already long tail? Yes, if you’re looking for additional madly-in-love content, additional hating-your-ex-(label) content, lusher orchestration than heard in any of the album’s previous 16 songs, or if you’re just looking for a vicarious change of British-countryside scenery.
That new song leads this Fri 5 roundup of some of the weekend’s best new songs. Our shortlist also includes another vault treat from Prince; a song that Prince almost could have recorded from Omar Apollo; a breakup confection from Alexander 23 that is nearly worthy of breakup queen Swift; and a new song from Taylor’s latest duet partner, Bon Iver, that may baffle or delight Swifties looking to dig deeper into that catalog for the first time (along with everyone else).
Taylor Swift, “The Lakes”
If you are a Swiftie (and with the positive vibes for “Folklore” giving her the closest thing to consensus acclaim in her career so far, this term may cover a plurality of pop fans at the moment), one of the things you may enjoy batting around with your fellow Swiftarians in the weeks and months to come is which is the album’s “real” ending. The standard edition climaxes with “Hoax,” the first time she’s ever ended on a despondent note. If you don’t feel like following her over the cliffs described in that number, though, you may prefer the more characteristically hopeful capper she provides in the deluxe edition’s “The Lakes.” Even though it’s mid-tempo, heavy-laden with strings and makes frequent reference to depression, it’s actually one of the more ebullient “Folklore” songs, as Swift describes getting away to the Lakes District in England as a tonic for Twitter, bad-blooded feuders and other urban blights, muse in tow.
The region came up in another new song that also seems to reference a healing current relationship, “Invisible String” (in which a third anniversary lunch “down by the Lakes” is referenced). Here in the most bucolic spot in Great Britain, she says she wants to “watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet / ‘Cause I haven’t moved in years” — an odd aspiration toward laziness for someone who did just start and complete the year’s most celebrated pop album in three months. But can we help it if we’re drawn into the song most when it recalls past hysteria, not current wisteria? Because has there ever been a more perfect distillation of the ethos driving her more dramatic side than in a second verse that begins: “What should be over burrowed under my skin / In heart-stopping waves of hurt”? There’s such a light-hearted side to the song that she’s clearly being a bit tongue-in-cheek when she self-consciously invokes her “calamitous love and insurmountable grief.”
It’s also fair to say she’s as serious as a heart attack when she says she’s “come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze tell me what are my words worth,” obviously meaning to pin the tail on one of the business titans who put a dollar value on her Big Machine catalog. Even there, though, she’s at play, bringing up a famous denizen of the Lakes, William Wordsworth, in her wordplay..
With a mind that’s always racing as furiously as the one in this song, the wisteria don’t stand a chance.
Prince, “Cosmic Day”
Look at the comment threads for Prince’s “Cosmic Day” and Bon Iver’s “AUATC” and, coincidentally, you’ll see a lot of nearly identical comments: “Love the song — but why’d he have to sing it in that voice?” You’ll also find plenty of defenders for these two, too, though, experiment with weird vocals in the past and present. Prince is at his most “Camille”-ionic here as he tips his voice up into a feminine range that’s more cartoonish than falsetto-like. But it sort of works, in a way that fits the fantastically “deranged” quality of the lyric. In any case, you’re not coming to “Cosmic Day” for his finest vocal finesse. You’re coming for the fuzzy guitar, a trademark of the 1987 “Sign O’ the Times” album (this outtake is a preview of an upcoming box set). It’s here in all its glory, especially from the halfway point on in a nearly six-minute barnburner that threatens to turn into prog-rock before returning to kicking out the jams.
Is it a good thing he didn’t include it on “Sign”? Probably. Is it a better thing that we still got to hear it, later if not sooner? Absolutely.
Bon Iver, “AUATC”
Imagine the Taylor Swift fan who loved Justin Vernon’s beautiful, dark duet with her on that new album and then comes to this new Bon Iver song looking for something that straightforward and comprehensible. Not to put it on Swifties not being able to exactly grasp “AUATC” — hell, imagine Bon Iver’s hardcore followers coming to the track, too, and you get pretty much the same end result. Whatever weird filter Vernon’s voice is being put through here, it creates a level of intrigue that makes it more curious and magnetic than it might have been if cut as the simple gospel-pop number you can easily imagine it having become. It might be nice to get an unplugged version, too, but something about hearing the singer as a kind of sped-up Max Headroom makes the song strangely more sweet, not less.
What is Bruce Springsteen doing as a backup vocalist on the track? Or more to the point, where is he? (You can hear him in the chorus if you listen hard.) Why is there a sample of James Taylor’s MLK-honoring “Shed a Little Light” toward the end, besides adding even more classic-rock outliers to this very unclassically arranged number? Why is Bon Iver referencing the New Testament story of Mary and Martha in the lyrics? How does it all fit in with the anti-capitalism statement the group released as a companion to the song — most evident in the phrase for which the title serves as an acronym, “Ate up all the cake”? In under two and a half minutes, the song bites off more than most listeners can probably chew. But what comes through is a message of hope to those who are heavy-laden: “A burden ain’t a bust,” and if you’re “up all night” — presumably from worry — share it.
Omar Apollo, “Stayback”
If someone were to tell you Apollo’s new single is an outtake from “Sign O’ the Times,” too, you might not completely disbelieve it. The press release for the first single from his debut album (following two EPs) mentions Parliament-Funkadelic, maybe because Prince is too obvious or common a reference. Suffice it to say that the high-pitched vocals and the slamming guitar solo are both there… along with a desire to maybe see how much you can slow funk down and still have it count as funk.
There’s a fine line between wooziness and pleasure in this post-breakup song, as seen in a video in which Apollo first enjoys a pool party but, after a dunking, just needs a place to crash. “Stayback” is a delicious creeper of a number whether you’re at the first phase of your long night out or the end — and it certainly feels good to be in on Apollo’s very promising career beginnings.
Alexander 23, “Caught in the Middle”
The video looks like it was shot at L.A.’s newly late and lamented Spaceland, and if so, RIP — but there’s a career getting some birthing here as Alexander 23, who only has an EP out so far, stakes a claim on the early ’20s pop landscape with this fairly irresistible teaser for things to come. It’s a familiar enough theme — boy loses girl; boy isn’t sure whether to reconnect with girl as legit friend later on or let sleeping dogs lie. But there are wrinkles, starting with eartickling chord changes that don’t go exactly where you expect them to go (a quality that’s in ever-shorter supply).
And speaking of dogs, Alexander 23 has some nice observations about stray thoughts that occur after a relationship, like: “Sometimes I think about your dog and wonder if she thinks I passed away / I guess a part of me is dead now so I guess she’s right in a strange way.” Who doesn’t think about that the pets will think after a breakup? (And if not, what kind of animal-hating sociopath are you?) But he has an even better line than that, about how it feels to be deeply close to someone followed by that reversion to strangers: “You know everything about me except how my day was.” Listening to this track, our day just got better.