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Taylor Swift - Folklore (Album Review)

Wednesday, 29 July 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

It’s not a slight to label Taylor Swift as calculating. Very few solo artists have reached the pinnacle of superstardom without being shrewd, savvy, and sometimes ruthless, operators. But where some of her moves, such as defecting from country to pop, proved inspired, others felt like contrived choices to service her brand. That’s certainly not the case with the quietly triumphant ‘Folklore’. Made with little care for perception or reception, it’s an artistically motivated gem and the finest album of her career. 

‘Folklore’ is the work of a locked down singer-songwriter, much like in Swift’s pre-fame days. Here she has crafted unguarded and expressive music from the heart and not the head. Lines such as ‘I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace’, ‘My words shoot to kill when I’m mad, I have a lot of regrets about that’ and ‘The worst thing that I ever did was what I did to you’ find the more self-aware, fallible and mature Swift that began to blossom on ‘Lover’ in full bloom.

Exile, a stunning duet and co-write with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, exemplifies an adult’s ability to see things from both sides. His doomed baritone and her broken croon sway back and forth as they reveal how a relationship slowly fractured in a way that’s refreshingly free of black and white conclusions.

But there’s still a little of the old school Swift to be found on the simmering Mad Woman.  Notable for a devilishly brilliant double entendre—"Or does she mouth, 'Fuck you forever?'"—it’s also home to a well-rounded palette of emotional perspectives. It transcends the eye-rolling scorned woman tag and hits harder because of it.

Mirroring this more philosophical and introspective mindset, as well as echoing the mood of these troubled times, Swift has adopted a musical language that’s a world away from big pop anthemics. With the lion’s share of producing and co-writing completed alongside the National guitarist Aaron Dessner, with a handful from Swift regular Jack Antonoff, there’s a low key dynamic to these tender, spacious and wistful songs.

Empathetically sculpting the requisite ambience and atmosphere, Dessner has created an enchanting series of ethereal, dreamlike folk soundscapes, awash with indie sensibilities and simmering electronica, that allow Swift’s feathery, reverb-lacquered vocals and melancholic storytelling to breathe. 

The 1, which employs gentle piano, whispering fiddle and unobtrusive drum loops, and the mellifluous Cardigan, are emblematic of a delicately etched, bittersweet and nostalgic record that boasts a subtly magnetic, anti-commercial charm to its carefully woven, Easter egg-rich narrative threads. The enchanting Mirrorball, with its seductive harmonies and twinkling alliteration, typifies the picturesque imagery, relatable everyday detail and elegant melodies that make each heartfelt song so intoxicating.

In 2017 Swift released ‘Reputation’, the undoubted nadir of her catalogue. Contrived on almost every level, it was a messy sonic strop. ‘Folklore’ is the opposite of that effort. This artifice-free, humble record shows that beneath the bells and whistles of modern studio production, Swift remains a formidable songwriter. An artistic watershed moment, ‘Folklore’ is the record we’ve always wanted her to make.

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