Folklore- Taylor Swift Album Review
The pop superstar pivots once more to the most quiet and intimate release of her long career, for what is ultimately a mixed bag.
In 2020, the concert halls, clubs, and stadiums that are usually filled with screaming fans and touring artists sit empty, collecting dust. But the pause on tradition hasn’t stopped some of the biggest artists in music from releasing original material. Now it seems that the isolation of our new abnormal has inspired the biggest pop star on the planet to pivot entirely once again, in a poetic reversal, from pop star to indie singer-songwriter. Folklore marks Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album to date and and an all new direction for her as an artist. The understated rollout fits nicely beside her quietest and most intimate musical release in years, maybe ever.
The title, folklore, and the coppiced album cover had me excited to hear what looked to be a true blue indie record. For the most part that is exactly what Taylor has delivered on folklore, and I do feel that her change in artistic direction is for the best. I have always held the opinion that while she is a gifted songwriter, her pop sensibilities don’t measure up to her contemporaries. Even the best T-Swift pop record can’t compete with the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX, or a whole crop of newcomers like Rina Sawayama or Dua Lipa. So now having departed from her traditional sound once more I do think I can say that folklore, while not without its faults, is Taylor Swift’s best album in years.
The album starts off very solidly with “the 1” and into the lone single for this album “cardigan,” a song that gives off strong Lana Del Ray vibes but is still a great track nonetheless. Taylor makes it clear right from the opening notes “the 1” what this album is going to sound like. The song that follows, “the last great american dynasty” is without a doubt my least favorite of the entire album, but it is an oddity in the first half of folklore. On “dynasty” Taylor’s love for fictional poetry becomes too impersonal for its own good, to the point that I’m disinterested in the story. From this point on though the album is focused and tight, delivering the best stretch of songs in the whole tracklist. “Exile” with Bon Iver aka Justin Vernon sees the indie legend switching lanes himself into his richer, deeper delivery that we rarely get to see. It’s nice to hear Vernon in this style and the two show impressive chemistry towards the back end of the song. Track five on every Taylor Swift album is traditionally saved for the saddest or heaviest song of the bunch. So on an album like folklore its no surprise that “my tears ricochet” packs a particularly powerful punch. Several more solid songs follow, “mirrorball,” “seven,” and “august,” but after those the cracks begin to show.
What once was fresh on the first half of folklore becomes tired and repetitive on the second half. The instrumentals all follow very similar progressions and while the lyricism is still solid there are no great or sticky melodies that carry with the listener. If you asked me to right now, I don’t think I could sing back even one melody from this entire album that I have listened to five times. The closest we get to a catchy melody is the chorus of “cardigan,” or parts of “invisible string.” It is worth saying that you don’t have to have catchy songs for an album to be good, some of my favorite music especially in the indie scene is devoid of traditional melodies. But Taylor’s lyrics and vocals, while not bad, are not mind-blowing enough to carry the more lackluster parts of the album.
Many have pointed out the obvious issue with the production on folklore is the way Taylor’s vocals are mixed on nearly every song here. They erupt off the track, often dominating the instruemtnal entirely. It is the way vocals should be mixed on a pop record, not on an indie singer-songwriter album. A more hushed vocal style or different production choice would have done many of these tracks a favor.
Across the music community a comparison that many, including myself, have drawn to folklore is Phoebe Bridger’s newest album Punisher. A comparison that is quite honestly unfair to Phoebe Bridgers. If anything Punisher is what Taylor’s album should sound like not what it does sound like. Punisher is varied instrumentally and lyrically with several ear grabbing moments and a cathartic closing track. While Folklore is more like wallpaper indie music with much simpler instrumentals and vocal performances.
In general on this album the songs are well made in a simple but effective style. There are no instrumentals or vocal deliveries that immediately jump out at you, and this allows Taylor’s lyrics to assume center stage, lyrics that are some of her best in nearly a decade. The issue arises when the instrumentals start to become repetitive and the vocal production issues become more obvious.
Folklore represents a seismic shift not only for Taylor Swift as an artist but for the entire indie genre. Indie folk was once style of music so underground the man who pioneered it died penniless. Now that same genre has been cosigned by the biggest pop star on the planet. So while Taylor Swift’s attempt at this once esoteric genre may not be the best or most inventive, it is for many people, the most accessible.