While most of us spent the last four months putting on some variation of “the quarantine 15,” Taylor Swift has been secretly working on the “Folklore” 16. Sprung Thursday night with less than a day’s notice, her eighth album is a fully rounded collection of songs that sounds like it was years in the interactive making, not the product of a quarter-year’s worth of file-sharing from splendid isolation. Mind you, the words “pandemic hero” should probably be reserved for actual frontline workers and not topline artistes. But there’s a bit of Rosie the Riveter spirit in how Swift has become the first major pop artist to deliver a first-rank album that went from germination to being completely locked down in the midst of a national lockdown.
The themes and tone of “Folklore,” though, are a little less “We can do it!” and a little more “Can we do it?” Because this new collection is Swift’s most overtly contemplative — as opposed to covertly reflective — album since the fan favorite “Red.” Actually, that’s an understatement. “Red” seems like a Chainsmokers album compared to the wholly banger-free “Folklore,” which lives up to the first half of its title by divesting itself of any lingering traces of Max Martin-ized dance-pop and presenting Swift, afresh, as your favorite new indie-electro-folk/chamber-pop balladeer. For fans that relished these undertones of Swift’s in the past, it will come as a side of her they know and love all too well. For anyone who still has last year’s “You Need to Calm Down” primarily in mind, it will come as a jolting act of manual downshifting into actually calming down. At least this one won’t require an album-length Ryan Adams remake to convince anyone that there’s songwriting there. The best comparison might be to take “Clean,” the unrepresentative denouement of “1989,” and… imagine a whole album of that. Really, it’s hard to remember any pop star in our lifetimes that has indulged in a more serious act of sonic palette cleansing.
The tone of this release won’t come as a midnight shock to anyone who took spoilers from the announcement earlier in the day that a majority of the tracks were co-written with and produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, or that the man replacing Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie as this album’s lone duet partner is Bon Iver. No matter how much credit you may have given Swift in the past for thinking and working outside of her box, a startled laugh may have been in order for just how unexpected these names felt on the bingo card of musical dignitaries you expected to find the woman who just put out “Me!” working with next. But her creative intuition hasn’t led her into an oil-and-water collaboration yet. Dessner turns out to be an ideal partner, with as much virtuosic, multi-instrumental know-how (particularly useful in a pandemic) as the most favored writer-producer on last year’s “Lover” album, Jack Antonoff.
He, too, is present and accounted for on “Folklore,” to a slightly lesser extent, and together Antonoff and Dessner make for a surprisingly well-matched support-staff tag team. Swift’s collabs with the National’s MVP clearly set the tone for the project, with a lot of fingerpicking, real strings, mellow drum programming and Mellotrons. You can sense Antonoff, in the songs he did with Swift, working to meet the mood and style of what Dessner had done or would be doing with her, and bringing out his own lesser-known acoustic and lightly orchestrated side. As good of a mesh as the album is, though, it’s usually not too hard to figure out who worked on which song — Dessner’s contributions often feel like nearly neo-classical piano or guitar riffs that Swift toplined over, while Antonoff works a little more toward buttressing slightly more familiar sounding pop melodies of Swift’s, dressed up or down to meet the more somber-sounding occasion.
For some fans, it might take a couple of spins around the block with this very different model to become re-accustomed to how there’s still the same power under the hood here. And that’s really all Swift, whose genius for conversational melodies and knack for giving every chorus a telling new twist every time around remain unmistakable trademarks. Thematically, it’s a bit more of a hodgepodge than more clearly autobiographical albums like “Lover” and “Reputation” before it have been. Swift has always described her albums as being like diaries of a certain period of time, and a few songs here obviously fit that bill, as continuations of the newfound contentment she explored in the last album and a half. But there’s also a higher degree of fictionalization than perhaps she’s gone for in the past, including what she’s described as a trilogy of songs revolving around a high school love triangle. The fact that she refers to herself, by name, as “James” in the song “Betty” is a good indicator that not everything here is ripped from today’s headlines or diary entries.
But, hell, some of it sure is. Anyone looking for lyrical Easter eggs to confirm that Swift still draws from her own life will be particularly pleased by the song “Invisible String,” a sort of “bless the broken roads that led me to you” type song that finds fulfillment in a current partner who once wore a teal shirt while working as a young man in a yogurt shop, even as Swift was dreaming of the perfect romance hanging out in Nashville’s Centennial Park. (A quick Google search reveals that, yes, Joe Alwyn was once an essential worker in London’s fro-yo industry.) There’s also a sly bit of self-referencing as Swift follows this golden thread that fatefully linked them: “Bad was the blood of the song in the cab on your first trip to L.A.,” she sings. The “dive bar” that was first established as the scene of a meet-cute two albums ago makes a reappearance in this song, too.
As for actual bad blood? It barely features into “Folklore,” in any substantial, true-life-details way, counter to her reputation for writing lyrics that are better than revenge. But when it does, woe unto he who has crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s on a contract that Swift feels was a double-cross. At least, we can strongly suspect what or who the actual subject is of “Mad Woman,” this album’s one real moment of vituperation. “What did you think I’d say to that?” Swift sings in the opening lines. “Does a scorpion sting when fighting back? / They strike to kill / And you know I will.” Soon, she’s adding gas to the fire: “Now I breathe flames each time I talk / My cannons all firing at your yacht / They say ‘move on’ / But you know I won’t / … women like hunting witches, too.” A coup de grace is delivered: “It’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together.” It’s a message song, and the message is: Swift still really wants her masters back, in 2020. And is really still going to want them back in 2021, 2022 and 2023, too. Whether or not the neighbors of the exec or execs she is imagining really mouth the words “f— you” when these nemeses pull up in their respective driveways may be a matter of projection, but if Swift has a good time imagining it, many of her fans will too.
(A second such reference may be found in the bonus track, “The Lakes,” which will only be found on deluxe CD and vinyl editions not set to arrive for several weeks. There, she sings, “What should be over burrowed under my skin / In heart-stopping waves of hurt / I’ve come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze / Tell me what are my words worth.” The rest of “The Lakes” is a fantasy of a halcyon semi-retirement in the mountains — in which “I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet / Because I haven’t moved in years” — “and not without my muse.” She even imagines red roses growing out of a tundra, “with no one around to tweet it”; fantasies of a social media-free utopia are really pandemic-rampant.)
The other most overtly “confessional” song here is also the most third-person one, up to a telling point. In “The Last Great American Dynasty,” Swift explores the rich history of her seaside manse in Rhode Island, once famous for being home to the heir to the Standard Oil fortune and, after he died, his eccentric widow. Swift has a grand old time identifying with the women who decades before her made fellow coast-dwellers go “there goes the neighborhood”: “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvelous time ruining everything,” she sings of the long-gone widow, Rebekah. “Fifty years is a long time / Holiday House sat quietly on that beach / Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits / Then it was bought by me… the loudest woman this town has ever seen.” (A fine madness among proud women is another recurring theme.)
But, these examples aside, the album is ultimately less obviously self-referential than most of Swift’s. The single “Cardigan,” which has a bit of a Lana Del Rey feel (even though it’s produced by Dessner, not Del Rey’s partner Antonoff) is part of Swift’s fictional high school trilogy, along with “August” and “Betty.” That sweater shows up again in the latter song, in which Swift takes on the role of a 17-year boy publicly apologizing for doing a girl wrong — and which kicks into a triumphant key change at the end that’s right out of “Love Story,” in case anyone imagines Swift has completely moved on from the spirit of early triumphs.
“Exile,” the duet with Bon Iver, recalls another early Swift song, “The Last Time,” which had her trading verses with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol. Then, as now, she gives the guy the first word, and verse, if not the last; it has her agreeing with her partner on some aspects of their dissolution (“I couldn’t turn things around”/”You never turned things around”) and not completely on others (“Cause you never gave a warning sign,” he sings; “I gave so many signs,” she protests).
Picking two standouts — one from the contented pile, one from the tormented — leads to two choices: “Illicit Affairs” is the best cheating song since, well, “Reputation’s” hard-to-top “Getaway Car.” There’s less catharsis in this one, but just as much pungent wisdom, as Swift describes the more mundane details of maintaining an affair (“Tell your friends you’re out for a run / You’ll be flushed when you return”) with the soul-destroying ones of how “what started in beautiful rooms ends with meetings in parking lots,” as “a drug that only worked the first few hundred times” wears off in clandestine bitterness.
But does Swift have a corker of a love song to tip the scales of the album back toward sweetness. It’s not “Invisible String,” though that’s a contender. The champion romance song here is “Peace,” the title of which is slightly deceptive, as Swift promises her beau, or life partner, that that quality of tranquility is the only thing she can’t promise him. If you like your love ballads realistic, it’s a bit of candor that renders all the compensatory vows of fidelity and courage all the more credible and deeply lovely. “All these people think love’s for show / But I would die for you in secret.”
That promise of privacy to her intended is a reminder that Swift is actually quite good at keeping things close to the vest, when she’s not spilling all — qualities that she seems to value and uphold in about ironically equal measure. Perhaps it’s in deference to the sanctity of whatever she’s holding dear right now that there are more outside narratives than before in this album — including a song referring to her grandfather storming the beaches in World War II — even as she goes outside for fresh collaborators and sounds, too. But what keeps you locked in, as always, is the notion of Swift as truth-teller, barred or unbarred, in a world of pop spin. She’s celebrating the masked era by taking hers off again.