Ghost In The Machine: a review of Taylor Swift’s “folklore”

Sitting in her log cabin and throwing another log on the fire (although it’s June), a quarantined Taylor Swift looks out her window and sees, chiseled in stone, the all too famous monument which is the Mount Rushmore of current pop music. Swift sees her own face, and why wouldn’t she? She smiles as she thinks about all of her amazing accomplishments. Sure, her fans would say she may not have as many Grammys as she should, but the proof is in the proverbial pudding: Taylor Swift sells records.

As she looks at the other faces carved into rock, Swift cannot help but think of her relationship with every member on the mount. Next to her is Beyoncé, the undeniable queen of this century. Yet, the relationship between Taylor and the true Child of Destiny has never been contentious; truly, game has recognized game. To Beyoncé’s right is Drake, a person who has had a similar career arc to Swift. Each dominated their original genre until pop music had no choice but to give them the respect they deserved. Next to Drake is an interesting situation, as construction crews are fervently dynamiting Kanye West’s face off this hallowed monument.

Taylor allows herself a brief smile before turning away from her window, heading to her music room where her piano and guitar sat, and began to get to work.

From these sessions, folklore was born.

—-

Ok, so maybe that’s not exactly true.

folklore, Swift’s eighth studio album and her second in as many years, was written during this age of COVID, but calling it a “quarantine album” feels wildly disingenuous for a record which was recorded in studios all over the country and features over fifteen additional credited studio performers. I don’t know what people were expecting when they heard a new Taylor Swift album was coming (Swift announced the album release about 15 hours before it was available to purchase), but I can promise you that it wasn’t this. folklore (whose lowercase title continually fucks with my Microsoft Word spellcheck) is Swift’s softest album. She has traded in shine and percussion for atmosphere and chamber-pop. It feels like Swift heard all of my criticisms about Reputation and said, “Well, suck on this, asshole.”

The album features longtime Swift collaborator Jack Antonoff for a handful of tracks, but the most prominent producer here is Aaron Dessner. Dessner, a member of indie rock darlings The National, is credited as a co-writer and co-producer on 11 of folklore’s 16 tracks, while his twin brother, Bryce, is credited with instrumentation. And this is important.

Since Red, Swift’s 2012’s album which moved her from country darling to pop superstar, she has always been a woman not afraid to work with (and learn from) her producers. It’s clear in listening to any album from Red that Swift is a people-pleaser, and often will try and make her songs work with any style being thrown at her. When it’s someone like Antonoff, it feels more like a true partnership, which Taylor’s lyrics flowing seemed through a series of popping percussions and whirling instrumentals. When it was someone like Max Martin (as we saw in 1989 and Reputation), Swift seems to get buried under grating production that never quite fits her style.

And that brings us to Dessner.

Aaron Dessner feels like the anti-Max Martin, and if you haven’t caught on to how I feel about the Swiftography, that’s a very good thing. When your goal is to make a quiet album of introspection and feelings, you don’t need the Swede who wrote “Baby, One More Time”; you want the guy who helped craft The National’s “Fake Empire”, one of the most perfect songs of the century. That cabin Swift was living in to start this review? Dessner may not have built the cabin, but he certainly chopped down the trees that it’s built out of.

In the eleven songs these two worked on, we hear things that seem out of place on what people may expect from a Taylor Swift album. Dessner was the man to bring subtly to songs like “cardigan” and “the last great american dynasty”, finding the right instrumentation for Swift’s voice. Our girl Tay Tay has never had the biggest diva voice, but she has learned how to use it over the last few albums, choosing to go for sly whispers over trying to find the big notes. Dessner knows how to work with this.

This record’s lack of traditional percussion is actually jarring at first. The first track, “the 1”, comes out with a whisper to the point where it feels like something that Swift would have stuck near the middle-end of one of her previous albums. By the time you’re through three tracks, you cannot help but think, “Well, I guess this is what we’re being given.” And there’s a comfort there, but also confusion: when Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) sings the first vocals on “exile” in his somber baritone, I was honestly worried that I had procured some kind of weird fake copy. But this is not Limewire, this is simply Taylor Swift in 2020.

When this album is at its most sonically interesting, it’s ethereal and wispy, floating from track to track like a haunting spirit. Minimal strings, little pieces of percussion, piano replacing a lot of Swift’s trademark acoustic guitar… all of these things help create an ambient energy that feels like nothing Swift has delivered before. Even when it’s Antonoff’s turn to play producer (his block of songs make up the middle of the album), he’s playing by the rules as well, and it feels like he’s forgotten the tricks that make him one of the most in-demand producers for the indie-pop crowd. But he’s following the Swift/Dessner road map, and that’s good, or else those tracks would sound wildly out of place.

—-

It’s crazy that I’ve come this far and haven’t even talked about Swift’s lyrics, which have come to define her albums way more than her voice or production. Here, Swift takes a few chances, willing to write songs that are less autobiographical (or perceived as such) and willing to write more as characters. “the last great american dynasty” is about Rebekah Harness and other women who “have a marvelous time ruining everything”. “betty” (more on this song later) is about a 17-year old boy trying to win back a girl he done wronged. Swift has spent seven albums singing about her romantic escapades, on folklore, she’s more than happy to create tales about others.

Honestly, the lyrics here wouldn’t feel about of place on works like Lover or 1989. What makes them different is that the production is more suiting their tone.

—-

folklore has no single. This is a benefit.

There is no song that makes sense to hear on the radio. KISS FM, who would murder everyone for a new Swift single, wants no part of this album as there is no song that would fit well between Dua Lipa and Doja Cat. However, that is a massive plus to this album because there’s a little fact that Swift’s fan base (who should be called Swift Boats and it’s a shame they haven’t realized that) don’t want to admit to themselves.

Taylor Swift’s hits are, usually, her worst songs.

Almost every one of Swift’s albums has a track that’s eye-roll bad and pretty embarrassing. Hell, on her last album, she re-edited a line out of one of her songs after the album was released because it was mocked both by critics and listeners.

However, with no single, and no need to even consider releasing a single, folklore has absolutely no obligation to try and make something the masses will enjoy on the airwaves. Swift can just rely on the fact that the Swift Boats (not giving up on this one!) will catapult album sales and everyone will just leave her be.

No one wants there to be the catastrophe that is COVID, but there are elements that come with this pandemic which benefit Swift and this album. I don’t think any of these songs will work in a concert setting. But, if you’re unable to tour, then you can make whatever kind of songs you want. And that is exactly what Swift has done.

—-

So, let’s answer the real question here: how good is folklore?

As I’ve said before, this is a sonically ethereal album. However, there is a meaner synonym for “ethereal” and that word is “sleepy”. And if someone told me they found the new Taylor Swift album sleepy, it would be hard for me to disagree. Even with closer listens under headphones, some of the tracks feel like they just blend into each other, and I’m not sure that’s intentional. And while this record doesn’t have a bad track, I’m not sure how many of these will be counted among Swift’s best.

One song that is near perfect is the aforementioned “betty”. This track is a seemless combination of the things that have always made Taylor who she is and the direction Dessner is taking her on this album. Had this song been released on any of her previous albums, it would have been a polished pop masterpiece with drums and triple harmonies and a little sass in the lead vocal. On this album, it’s pared down to a guitar and piano and a harmonica, and that makes what would be a traditionally good song even better… because it’s different and special.

Clearly, this is Swift trying to make an “adult” album. Sometimes that seems forced (the fact that every title is uncapitalized is, AT BEST, irritating). But, there are no songs about Los Angeles dive bars or things of that nature, and that helps make these songs feel more timeless. Even when writing about high schoolers, Swift feels more mature about it.

I don’t know that Taylor Swift will make another record like this; folklore feels more like she’s traveling somewhere than a conscious arrival. But being an adult means learning that the travel is usually better than the destination.

Taylor Swift, at 30, is growing up. And listening to that happen is very exciting.

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