In a year that’s been almost fictional, you can be forgiven for thinking “it can’t get more surreal than this, right?”
And then, quietly and without fuss, one of the world’s biggest pop stars releases her eighth studio album.
And the most surprising part? It’s so beautiful, it might actually be my favourite album this year.
For fans of The National, Bon Iver and Big Red Machine, the news that Aaron Dessner has been the driving force behind a Taylor Swift album with a ‘ft. Bon Iver’ track must have come as quite a shock. Why wouldn’t it? We’d all like to think that our favourite ‘indie/folk’ artists exist somewhere outside of the ‘mainstream’ music industry, because that’s part of their appeal, isn’t it? So when an album like folklore comes along, revealing a partnership between a pop princess and an indie guitarist, it’s almost always going to be met with at least some scepticism.
The fact is, these somewhat surprising collaborations are happening all the time now, if you read the small print. Artists write for other artists and so on, as they have for many years, but it doesn’t stop these tracks from being any less surprising. Take Bon Iver and Kanye West, for example – a seemingly unlikely friendship that might not be too fresh now, but at the time resulted in some unexpected and really great music (including a cute little track called ‘Friends’ with Francis and the Lights). More recently – and though there’s been no official collaboration (yet) – there’s the very surreal relationship between Harry Styles, Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks, with Nicks recently hailing Fine Lines as the former One Directioner’s ‘Rumours’.
I guess where I’m going with all this is that it’s really important to approach these things with an open mind. If you can leave your musical elitism at the door, you might well find at least one track on the latest offering from Taylor Swift worth falling in love with.
Now, I’m a bit of a sucker for albums with a narrative thread (check my review of The Lumineers – III which is a really great example). Swift’s already quite well known for weaving her personal life into her music (‘Teardrops on My Guitar’, ‘Bad Blood’ etc.) and this is definitely something she’s carried over to folklore. Unlike the narrative arc that tracks The Lumineers’ III, this reads more like a collection of short stories from different perspectives, which I quite like about this album. It’s not the usual teenybopper heartache stuff we’ve come to expect from Swift, there’s much more depth here.
Dessner has obviously had a lot of influence on the overall musicality, but I think what makes this album really interesting for me is that Swift has seemingly been quite magpie-like, drawing inspiration from other artists. If you listen closely to ‘cardigan’, for example, you might hear hints of early Lana Del Rey circa Born to Die – the sort of smoky, dreamy vocals that come through on ‘Blue Jeans’ (interesting that both tracks also reference clothing). And then there’s perhaps my favourite track – ‘invisible string’ – that sounds like it wouldn’t be misplaced on Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell (although perhaps it’s a bit poppier). I’m not trying to say that Swift has deliberately emulated these artists, of course – it’s just a really interesting coincidence that makes this album quite special, and perhaps more accessible for folk fans.
What I really love about folklore is that it makes for easy listening, which is not what you’d usually expect from Swift. There’s depth, but it’s not too heavy, and no two tracks are the same. For example, ‘invisible string’ and ‘this is me trying’ are both so different, but are equally beautifully written and ‘pretty’. Of course, the star attraction has to be ‘exile’ ft. Bon Iver, although I’m tempted to write ‘Bon Iver ft. Taylor Swift’ because that’s how it feels from start to finish. I think for a lot of people this will be folklore‘s saving grace, if this review doesn’t sway you. I have to say though, Bon Iver influence aside, Swift really does deserve credit here for her lyrics, because they’re stunning: “I think I’ve seen this film before, and I didn’t like the ending. You’re not my homeland anymore, so what am I defending now? You were my town, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out. I think I’ve seen this film before.”
Another excellent track that took a little while to grow on me is ‘the last great american dynasty’. It’s a great example of Swift’s storytelling technique as it explores a Gatsby-esque narrative. It’s also perhaps the only song that wouldn’t be misplaced on any other Swift album – the only reminder that this album is hers and not a debut from a new folk singer. I only really started to warm to it after looking up the back story – I’ll spare you the details, but it’s fascinating. I think the only track I really struggled with was ‘mad woman’ – there’s a darkness to it which others might find compelling, but didn’t really strike a chord with me. I’m also really not a fan of all the lower-case lettering, which I know has nothing to do with the quality of the album, I just can’t get my head around it as a stylistic choice…
Overall, this is a really unexpected album that I have fallen in love with. While I don’t think Swift will completely reinvent herself off the back of folklore, I do hope to hear more of this from her in the future.
Words by Kathy Halliday