The track that catapulted Taylor Swift from too-cool-for-country phenom to the-world-is-not-enough pop supernova was “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the debut single from her fourth album, “Red,” in 2012. The first of her songs to high the Billboard Hot 100, it deployed nation references as a tease on the best way to an ecstatically saccharine, unmistakably pop hook — a common anthem of I’m over it.
Right after the track’s gleeful taunt of a first refrain, Swift drilled down on simply the form of man she was thrilled to be rid of: “You would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.”
Sick burn. Delivered with an eye fixed roll — actually, within the track’s video — it introduced that Swift understood the facility and funky of her personal music (which was not, at that time, broadly conceded). And it tautly encapsulated the best way that mopey interiority has usually been perceived as — make that mistaken for — depth. That’s about males, after all, however actually about songs, too. It’s a entice that entire genres are constructed on.
Now, eight years later, Swift has made, properly, a kind of data herself, or no less than one thing prefer it. “Folklore,” her alternately soothing and soppy, pensive and suffocating eighth album, is a definitive jolt away from the final close to decade of Swift’s high-gloss, style-fluid, emotionally astute big-tent pop.
Made from scratch within the quarantine period, “Folklore” was recorded at her house in Los Angeles, and written and produced in distant collaboration largely with Aaron Dessner (from the National) and her go-to emotional extractor, Jack Antonoff.
Choosing this method could also be purely a perform of circumstance, however Swift has been due for a rebaptism for a while now. “Folklore” marks a conclusion (momentary or not, it’s unclear) to her lengthy march into the enamel of up to date mega-pop, which over the course of 4 albums — “Red,” “1989,” “Reputation” and “Lover” — has paid lowering dividends, musical and social. Becoming a true centrist pop star is a battle Swift by no means fairly gained, and is a battle not price waging.
“Folklore” is the primary try at a post-pop Swift, and it’s many issues that Swift albums typically aren’t: rough-edged, downtrodden, spacey. It is a fully canny pop album smothered in locations by Dessner, whose manufacturing will be like moist clothes tugging at Swift, slowing her down, sapping her vim. Swift isn’t an particularly highly effective singer, although she achieves a lot with a naturally jumpy tone and enthusiasm. But each of these signatures wilt right here as usually as not. The tart edge that she makes a speciality of — the one which’s viciously efficient when taunting, or pining — is coated with layers of gauzy strings (there’s loads of cello), austere piano, throbbing Mellotron, smeared saxophone, atmospherics that thicken the air.
As Swift has lengthy demonstrated, contemplation and enthusiasm aren’t mutually unique, neither is brightness and reflection. And so “Folklore” songs fall into roughly two camps — wonderful Swift-penned songs which might be sturdy sufficient to bear the manufacturing, and others that find yourself obscured by murk.
Some of the album’s greatest songs are mildly restrained variations of acquainted Swift modes. On “Betty,” she delivers teenage romantic remorse with the icy, figuring out vocal shiver she deploys in her most felt moments, with faint echoes of the wistful “Tim McGraw,” her 2006 debut single. The ethereal, earthy “Invisible String,” about trusting destiny, is the one actually hopeful-sounding track on the album (and the one one about a comfortable, fulfilled relationship), and it options a few of Swift’s most vivid lyrics: “Cold was the steel of my ax to grind/For the boys who broke my heart/Now I send their babies presents.”
More intriguing are the tracks the place the experimentation with tonal method succeeds. “Seven” opens with an ethereally lustrous vocal, with Swift sighing her lyrics, touchdown the rhymes in sudden locations. On “Illicit Affairs,” she whispers her phrases like long-resented secrets and techniques — “Tell your friends you’re out for a run/ You’ll be flushed when you return” — sprinkled with sunburst syllables designed to freeze perpetrators of their tracks.
And then there’s “Exile,” probably the most atypical track on the album. A stunning, anguished duet with Justin Vernon (credited as Bon Iver), it’s a stark and unsettling backwards and forwards of recriminations. Swift telegraphs distance and skepticism: “I can see you staring, honey/Like he’s just your understudy/Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me.” But it’s the top of the track, when Swift and a husky-voiced Vernon go line for line in some mixture of hard-whiskey nation, determined R&B and black-box-theater dialogue, that you just really feel the complete emotional corrosion. All round them, pianos toll like grandfather clocks, stern and fatalistic.
Far extra usually, although, the manufacturing dictates Swift’s boundaries. The smoky “Cardigan” has a variety of shifting elements, distracting from Swift’s breathy, undersung vocals. The hymnal “Epiphany” feels claustrophobic — Enya-like with out the flutter. “Mirrorball” verges on shoegaze, and “Mad Woman” has the mix of morose and wry that’s a Lana Del Rey trademark.
Dessner’s specialty — right here and within the National, the rumbling, somber band that’s been probably the most acclaimed indie rock acts of the 2000s — is making music that haunts. Swift has displayed a weak spot for this aesthetic earlier than; see her 2012 dalliance with the hazy, wheaty people duo the Civil Wars. She additionally included the National on a 2017 “Songs Taylor Loves” playlist for Spotify.
But the enjoyment of Swift’s music has all the time stood in distinction to this kind of studied ponderousness. Only on “Reputation,” her underloved 2017 hip-hop-inflected album, did she search to commerce on the credibility of an unfamiliar style. But these sounds illuminated Swift’s playfulness and chew — those she turns to right here are sometimes at direct odds together with her presents as a melodist and lyricist. In reality, they’re virtually designed to obscure them. If that is a ploy to be cloaked in — and enhanced by — the alleged seriousness of indie rock, it solely underscores how frail and unversatile that seriousness is.
That’s clearest on “The Last Great American Dynasty,” a musical biography of Rebekah Harkness, an heiress with a wild life story who occurred to personal Swift’s house in Rhode Island. Harkness is a traditional Swift heroine — purposeful, disruptive and misunderstood: “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen/She had a marvelous time ruining everything.” On a totally different Swift album, a track like this is able to have reveled within the mess, however this model is managed, virtually unhappy. Inside, there’s a brash model of this track craving for air.
Autobiography has all the time been baked into Swift’s worth proposition, each in the best way she laded her songs with Easter eggs about her personal life, and in how her inventive rise was echoed in tabloid hysterics. But within the “Folklore” liner notes, she emphasizes that the album spans a number of characters and factors of view. Maybe it’s true, possibly it’s a feint — all writing is autobiography, in spite of everything. But both approach, stating it outright is supposed to demarcate the brand new Taylor from the outdated, and stakes a declare to not be scrutinized.
That’s simply one among her retreats right here. “Folklore” can be a full retreat to whiteness after dalliances with Black music on “Reputation.” (It can be, possibly, as near a backdoor nation album as Swift is prone to enterprise — see the harmonica and pedal metal on “Betty.”) And given its total dourness, it’s a retreat from standard pop language, which is to say, it could be a retreat from radio. Not that that a lot issues for Swift, who has spent greater than a decade incomes her followers, and could be approaching the Beyoncé stage of her profession, the place cultural authority isn’t depending on regular hitmaking. That’s the brand new nature of pop superstardom anyhow — mass-scale cult figures superserving their most ardent followers by the hundreds of thousands.
Seen that approach, maybe the sonic experimentation on “Folklore” isn’t actually about embracing a new style a lot as abandoning any sense of obligation to those she’s been constructed upon. Country, pop, ’80s rock, hip-hop: they’ve merely been vessels, weapons she is aware of methods to set off to advance the central tenets of Swiftiness.
The desolate, cussed, overcomposed indie rock of “Folklore,” although, is a powerful thicket to tame. Sometimes she triumphs, wrestling it till it’s slack. But when it stifles her, it deserves all the attention rolls it will get.