Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Taylor Swift folklore

The first time Taylor Swift uses the word “fuck” on a record, she does it all wrong. This historic occasion arrives near the end of Swift’s new album folklore, and it’s on “mad woman,” a song about feeling hated and misunderstood. The line is this: “What do you sing on your drive home?/ Do you see my face in the neighbor’s lawn?/ Does she smile?/ Or does she mouth, ‘Fuck you forever’?” But you can’t hear commas or quotation marks when people are singing, so it sounds like Swift is asking this: “Does she mouth-fuck you forever?” Those two phrases are the same phonetically, but they mean some pretty different things. It might be the biggest double-take moment on a Taylor Swift album since the first dubstep bass-drop exploded onto “I Knew You Were Trouble” eight years ago.

There’s something so endearing about the clumsiness of that moment. Swift has been a popular musician for 14 years, nearly half her life, and she has not felt like she could sing the word “fuck” until this morning. In Miss Americana, the documentary she released earlier this year, Swift talks about all the years she spent mortally terrified that she might alienate some tiny sliver of her audience. Swift is finally shaking that fear off, becoming the kind of adult artist that she wants to be. (She says “fuck” in the documentary, too.) But the first time she drops the F-bomb, she ends up singing something that is clearly not the thing that she meant.

As little as 15 months ago, Swift was still consumed with finding the grandest possible way to announce a new album. Last year’s excellent Lover was the smallest, most personal album that Swift had released to that point, but she still felt compelled to proclaim its arrival with “ME!,” a garish and horrifying Panic! At The Disco duet with a Disney-ass neon-CGI-splatter video and a peppy mid-song chant so grating that she deleted it from some later versions of the song. Swift used every loud corporate bullhorn at her disposal to roll out Lover. She debuted the single on NFL draft night, the weekend that Avengers: Endgame came out in theaters. If it was still possible to turn a Taylor Swift album release into a monocultural event, Taylor Swift was going to do it.

Things done changed. The unveiling of folklore was as minimal as it could get: One single Instagram post, a black-and-white forest image that looked a whole lot like a black metal album cover. The messaging was telling. Swift is done attempting to control the Billboard Hot 100 through sheer force of will. She’s doing good, and she’s on some new shit.

The long-prophesied Taylor Swift singer-songwriter album has come to pass, though it’s taken a form that none of us imagined. Swift has not regressed to the Nashville pop-country comforts of her youth. She has not made the soft-glowing Laurel Canyon folk-rock that her recent quieter moments have suggested, either. Instead, Swift has gone full NPR-core indie. Swift’s main collaborator on folklore is the National’s Aaron Dessner. The liner-note credits look like a dang Eaux Claires lineup: Bon Iver, yMusic, Doveman, a couple of guys from Bonny Light Horseman and Beirut, a couple of Dessner’s bandmates from the National. These are the people you call if you’re looking for delicate mellotron hums and artfully layered string sounds, not if you’re trying to figure out how to stage a global stadium tour once the pandemic ends.

Eight years after clowning an ex for playing an indie record much cooler than hers, Swift has made an indie record that’s not remotely worried about being cool. It’s important to note that Swift is not chasing trendsetter points here — or, if she is, she’s not trying to get them from anyone under 35. Swift’s old adversary Kanye West was duetting with Bon Iver a full decade before she tried it. If Swift was truly hunting for aesthete cred, she would’ve enlisted Arca or 100 gecs or someone, and it would’ve seemed faintly desperate. If she was trying to reach the 2020 pop zeitgeist on its own terms, she would’ve made a Brooklyn drill record full of Lil Baby guest verses, and it would’ve seemed terribly desperate. If she was trying to recapture old glories, she presumably still has Max Martin’s number. Instead, Swift has made an album of the kind of quiet, genteel, careful quasi-rock that she probably listens to at home.

I won’t lie: I was worried. Yesterday, I found myself playing “Cornelia Street” on repeat, wondering whether Aaron Dessner was capable of crafting a banger like that. Dessner and his cohort have a set of skills — vibe, allusion, sound design — that do not exactly align with those of Taylor Swift. Even in her country-star teenage years, Swift has always trafficked in big, bold, bright, direct pop music. She has never made background music in her life. The softest, most delicate Taylor Swift ballad will still cut through the air and grab your heart if you let it. I think that’s why Ryan Adams’ full-album 1989 cover was so inescapable in coffeeshops and bourgie breweries for a little while: It was an excuse to play Taylor Swift songs in rooms with dark wood panelling, rooms where actual Taylor Swift songs would’ve refused to inoffensively fade into atmosphere.

I shouldn’t have worried. Taylor Swift knows what she’s doing. While it isn’t her best album, folklore has some of the best vocals of Swift’s career. Her voice is sharp, crystalline, and controlled, and she delivers her massive and world-beating melodies with the same crisp precision as ever. This time, though, there’s an appealing tension between those melodies and the soft-focus churn of the music beneath her. Dessner and his collaborators gracefully retreat to the back of the stage, and the spotlight falls onto Swift and onto the songs that she sings.

As ever, Taylor Swift is one hell of a songwriter. If folklore is Swift’s cool-dad-rock genre exercise, it’s also a great experiment in songwriting empathy. For virtually her entire career, Swift has built her songs on top of her own public perception, slyly referencing recent romantic drama and trolling the tabloid press that couldn’t get enough of her. That’s not what we get on folklore.

Swift has now spent years in what appears to be a stable romantic relationship with a not-that-famous man, the actor Joe Alwyn. A good number of the songs on folklore are about that kind of relationship, but they’re not charged with the blissed-out frenzy of new love or the ambient anxiety that it’ll end. Instead, Swift sings contented hymns to mutual support and comfort. She sings that she would “give you my wild, give you a child, give you the silence that only comes when two people understand each other.” And this time, it’s clear that the silence means more than the wild, maybe even more than the hypothetical child.

But some of the better songs on folklore don’t seem to be about Swift at all. Instead, they’re brief little glimpses at other people. There’s already been a lot of talk about the teenage love-triangle trilogy of “cardigan,” “august,” and “betty.” Online-superfan types are speculating that it’s really a story about young queer love, since two of the saga’s principal characters seem to be named after Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ daughters. That’s cool if it’s true, but I think it’s cooler that Swift has found ways to fully inhabit the emotions of three distinct characters, understanding and relating to each of them.

Meanwhile, “seven,” Swift’s song about a childhood friend, just slays me. Swift can’t remember the kid’s face, but she still feels the hopelessness of the girl’s toxic home life: “I’ve been meaning to tell you, I think your house is haunted/ Your dad is always mad, and that must be why/ And I think you should come live with me.” On “illicit affairs,” Swift digs into the appeal of infidelity, a cardinal sin on her past records: “It’s born from just one single glance/ But it dies and it dies and it dies, a million little times.” Best of all is “the last great american dynasty,” Swift’s ode to Rebekah Harkness, the rich and idiosyncratic arts-patron widow who once owned the Rhode Island mansion where Swift now lives. Swift clearly identifies with Harkness, a libertine who was hated in her time, and she just as clearly admires her the same way she once admired the Kennedys or James Dean. That admiration is weirdly moving.

Swift couches all those melodies and all that empathy in unobtrusive sonic landscapes that recall some of the most soft-batch alt-rock of the ’90s. The Justin Vernon duet “exile” sounds a bit like Counting Crows, while “invisible string” has Natalie Imbruglia in its DNA. It’s all very satisfying, in a low-stakes kind of way. I miss the world-conquering crunch of past Swift pop anthems, but those anthems, when they didn’t work, could be ferociously annoying. There’s nothing annoying on folklore. There are no skips. It’s an overwhelmingly pleasant piece of work.

Still, the most immediately appealing songs on folklore generally aren’t the ones that Swift made with Aaron Dessner and his crew. Instead, Swift continues to do her best work with longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, who remains great at conjuring ’80s synth-rock fire. The Antonoff collaborations on folklore are just as quiet as the Dessner ones, but they’re also the moments where Taylor Swift sounds the most like Taylor Swift. Together, Swift and Antonoff produced a mid-album run of glimmering electro hymns — “my tears richochet,” “mirrorball,” “this is me trying,” “illicit affairs” — that just slaps. (There’s also “august,” an Antonoff collab that doesn’t quite live up to the others, though maybe I’m just reacting against anything that reminds me of Sixpence None The Richer.) These aren’t the jugular-slashing overdriven scream-along anthems that they probably could be, but if you play them loud enough, all of them might make your heart feel like it’ll burst. Even when she’s in a forest-bound quarantine-meditation state of mind, Taylor Swift can still do that.

With folklore, Swift has made a self-consciously minor transitional album, a grand readjustment. She’s nailed it. Swift, it turns out, is one of the few great pop chameleons to come along in recent years. She was great at gleaming Walmart country. She was great at bright-plastic global-domination ultra-pop. She was a bit less great at quasi-trap club music, but she made do. And now she’s great at lightly challenging soft-thrum dinner party music.

Over the next few days, folklore will get a whole lot of breathless praise from critics like me. That will get old fast. I reserve the right to be vaguely annoyed if and when folklore wins the Album Of The Year Grammy, inevitably defeating something like Lil Baby’s My Turn. (I probably like folklore better than My Turn, and I’ll still be annoyed. There’s just no pleasing me! Don’t try!) But that won’t change the fact that Swift has still made a perfectly gorgeous album in a style that’s almost completely new to her. Swift might not be able to sing the word “fuck” gracefully yet, but she’s got just about everything else figured out.

folklore is out now on Republic Records.

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