Cardigans, Bon Iver and obscure history lessons on 20th century American socialites feature on Swift’s surprise 8th album.
Swift wrote and produced most of folklore remotely with The National’s Aaron Dessner, who provides a lush, subdued bed of folk and indie rock sounds upon which Swift mines corners of her songwriting brain that many fans have missed in recent years. As The Guardian’s Laura Snapes observes, the mass cancellation of tour dates for Swift’s last album Lover (which came out just 11 months ago) may have proved liberating, as for the first time in years Swift doesn’t seem beholden to writing songs that will one day fill stadiums.
Instead, she’s brought out a 16-track collection of songs that seem better suited to fit the four walls of the bedrooms and homes we’ve been holed up in for much of 2020, from Mad Woman’s quiet reflection on sexism and righteous anger to the sad nostalgia of the Phoebe Bridgers-esque Seven. The wistful folktronica of Cardigan is certainly unlike any of her past lead singles (even if the links to tie-in knitwear for sale on her merch store suggests not even COVID-19 can subdue Swift’s instinct for branding synergy).
Obviously though, celebrities like Swift have had quite a different experience of lockdown to the rest of us, something she tacitly acknowledges on The Last Great American Dynasty, which retells the colourful life of Rebekah Harkness, the wife of an American oil heir whose Rhode Island holiday house Swift later bought (and threw all those July 4th parties at).
After years of pseudo-autobiographical themes in her songwriting and broader album narratives, culminating in last year’s Netflix doco Miss Americana, Swift makes a return to some of the creative storytelling of her earlier work on tracks like Mirror Ball and Betty, in which she adopts the point of view of a deadshit ex now filled with regret. Whether intentional or not, the latter track’s use of female pronouns for the object of Swift’s sung affections has also furnished Queer fans with a new anthem.
Late-album highlight Invisible String does makes some unambiguous allusions to Swift’ own life, while teasing out a sweet, kind of universal sentiment about how the people we meet and love are the culmination of years of decisions and circumstances. A decade ago, a younger Swift might have spun a giant, star-crossed lovers fairy tale out of the same basic ingredients. Even six months ago, one can imagine her opting for a much bigger chorus than a wordless, descending coo over fingerpicked guitar and strings. But here there’s a sense of lived-in contentedness that is obviously hard-won, something the album’s penultimate track Peace drives it home even further.
The prospect of Swift courting overnight critical cred by teaming up with a handful of cool, bearded rock dudes famous for making ‘indie record[s] much cooler than mine’ is a scenario many have predicted over the years. That dated, gendered premise skates over the fact that, after years of chart domination and an undeniable mastery of the craft of pop songwriting, Swift doesn’t really have anything left to prove.
But, in a career that is certainly not without its share of carefully curated narratives, even the ones she wants to be ‘removed’ from, perhaps the biggest surprise of the The Taylor Swift Lockdown Album is how refreshingly uncalculated it all feels.
folklore is out now via Republic
Main image: Beth Garrabrant