Now that we’ve had six weeks to let it settle in, can we agree that Folklore, which has been compared to the music of just about every indie artist from the past two decades, sounds like nothing so much as... a Taylor Swift album?
Yes, even without peeking you can likely ID which tracks were produced by Aaron Dessner of erudite sadsacks the National and which returning collaborator Jack Antonoff handled. But Folklore bears the individual stamp of the star’s sensibility (not to mention a few familiar melodic habits), just as her fling with megapop maestro Max Martin and cowrites with Music Row ace Liz Rose had. Swift has chosen the ideal sound for her coolly constructed fantasies of romantic extravagance at this moment of extreme collective isolation.
Of course, Swift’s eighth album is not not a branding exercise. The lady who’s peddling multiple shortened faux-boutique reconfigurations of this bestseller at Target to both longtime fans and newly converted vinyl fetishists doesn’t make career moves on a whim. If Swift, like many stars before her, seemed to have checkmated herself around the time of Reputation, she sidestepped the question of what could come next with Lover, and has now landed purposefully on a square she’s convinced the world to call “indie folk.”
If that’s an apt term (how could it be, but let’s play along), then what a long twisted journey “indie” and “folk” have undergone in this short twisted century, narrowing from a description of the economic and social conditions under which music is created down to discrete genres and finally to the sonic equivalent of lifestyle hashtags. When we reach the point where demented stans are frothing at Pitchfork for classifying Folklore as a pop album and “not understanding indie music” (and then doxxing and harassing critic Jillian Mapes, for a positive review no less), we’re certainly in some kind of crazy late-capitalist fun-house.
Just as Swift redefined reigning pop styles on her own terms with 1989, she appropriates the trappings of middlebrow indie on Folklore for her own ends. “Seven” streamlines Sufjan Stevens into pop form much in the way “Wildest Dreams” once one-upped Lana Del Rey. Dessner knows how to generate a sound that’s both crisp and gauzy, with recurrent elements—a hard snare that trails off in diminishing echoes, a reverberant piano—snapping into focus then ebbing. And orchestrations from bro Bryce meld with the guitars till its hard to tell just what instrumentation is swelling in the background.
I’ve seen approving descriptions of Dessner’s production as “tasteful”--which as always, raises the question of “whose taste?”—and I’ve even seen reluctant new fans wishing Fearless sounded this fashionable, which is just consumer preference disguised as aesthetic judgment. Folklore is no more carefully crafted than the booming pop country that earned Swift her fame. Fortunately, despite her classier sound, Swift remains to her core “charming if a little gauche,” to quote a line she throws out to describe the wedding of the nouveau-riche heroine of “The Last Great American Dynasty.”
Structurally, lyrically, these remain Taylor Swift songs. Swift reaches beyond the vague emotional pull indie often settles for to articulate the thoughts it leaves fuzzy so as to avoid sounding corny. The key moment in this process comes on “Exile,” when she not only convinces Justin Vernon to sing in his natural baritone but places straightforwardly expressive sentiments in his mouth. Yes, the he said/she said breakup ballad is a cliché, but so was a teen girl comparing her love life to Romeo and Juliet. Pop is about excavating the truths calcified in those cliches through craft and commitment. Forcing Justin Vernon to enter that world, and to be emotionally and lyrically legible, is a hell of a power move.
What results is not so much a mature sound as a sound intended to register maturity—all the better to provide perspective on memories of youth. Beginning with “The 1,” and its sigh of “If wishes came true/ It would have been you,” this is an album of not-quite-regret, of untravelled paths compulsively re-examined, alternate lives indulged in. As critic Lindsay Zoladz put it, Folklore is “a huge ‘quarantining in your childhood bedroom’ record.” With long-term monogamy freeing her from the burdens of celebrity autobiography her dating life perpetually roused (though if you want to hear Folklore as a coded profession of love to model Karlie Kloss, apparently that’s still possible?) Swift is free to daydream. Which, in the era of social distancing, is all many of us can do. Folklore is music for a world without a foreseeable future; when you’re left with nothing but imagination and aren’t meeting anyone new to yearn for, you resuscitate dead crushes. And it hurts.
For its first half, Folklore generates the apprehensive thrill of watching a perfect game. At the midway point, its focus strays—there are no disasters here, but let’s just say her no-hitter is marred by a few walks. We do get to find out just how shocking it is to be shocked by hearing a 30-year-old say “fuck.” (When she sings “Does she mouth, “fuck you forever” on “Mad Woman” I dare you not to hear “mouthfuck”—which, as misheard lyrics goes, is certainly the “Starbucks lovers” that 2020 deserves.) The highlight of the second half is “Betty,” in which Swift plays a teen boy trying to win back his girl’s love as “Thunder Road” harmonica wheezes in support. Who else could get away with “right now is the last time I can dream about what happens when you see my face again,” let alone rhyming “cardigan” with “kissing in my car again”?
But “Betty” is the rare exception to Folklore’s pensive tone—even an attempt at cheer like “Mirrorball” is consciously willed, edging toward desperate. Divining our national mood, Swift intuits that there’s a larger audience for company-loving misery than young indie women like Phoebe Bridgers and Snail Mail can quite tap, a masochistic need to overwhelm our free-floating everyday anxiety in actual pain. And don’t let the pretty cover art fool you: Swift’s sadness is indeed sadistic, with a targeted cruelty to its nostalgia, a premeditated wickedness. Each lyrical stab—“I knew you/Leaving like a father/Running like water,” “If I’m dead to you/Why are you still at the wake”—is sunk deeper into the wound with a melodic flourish. If you’ve been numbed by pandemic isolation and you’re looking for a safe way to hurt yourself, well then, as Swift herself says on “Hoax,” “No other sadness in the world will do.”