Reigning pop queen takes on indie folk
American singing-songwriting sensation, Taylor Alison Swift, has been one of the world’s biggest superstars for the last couple of decades. When she was 16 years old, she dropped her first album, gracing the country music world with her young, sweet vocals and her honest and personal lyrics. That self-titled album ended up being the longest charting album of the 2000s on the Billboard charts. Her sophomore album, Fearless, quickly went number one and is certified Diamond status and won four Grammy awards, including Album of the Year. Speak Now, her third album and the first she wrote completely on her own, was her first to sell over a million copies in the first week. She also won a couple of Grammys for songs on that project as well. The following album, Red, was the first to dabble into mainstream pop and included her first Billboard number one single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Swift’s fifth album, 1989, was the first solely pop album she’d ever released and had three number one US Hits with “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood.” She won three Grammys for this album, including Album of the Year, again, making her the first solo female artist in history to win this award twice.
After a longer break than usual, Swift released her sixth album (second pop album), Reputation, which earned her the title of being the only artist to have four albums sell over a million copies in the first week and also gave us her fifth number one pop hit, “Look What You Made Me Do.” Lover, Swift’s seventh album, was her first album released under Universal Music Group, giving her ownership over her own masters for the first time in her career, and helped her break the record for most simultaneous Billboard 100 entries by a solo female artist and was also the best selling album of 2019. Now in 2020, thanks to the worldwide lockdown, Swift used her time to create and release her eighth studio album, Folklore, which is her first album in the alternative, folk genre and has already been met with great praise.
Already with the album cover art of Swift standing in a grayscale forest, people get a taste of the melancholia and gloomy themes they’ll hear throughout the project. However, opening track “The 1,” eases people into the sadness with a wistful, “what if” motif and sweet, catchy acoustic sound, very akin to her old country, storytelling days. Adding to the moody rock sound of the song is co-writer Aaron Dessner, member of popular indie rock band The National and half of the duo Big Red Machine, which includes fellow indie rocker Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame.
The first official single off the album, “Cardigan,” also co-written by Dessner, fully envelopes the indie, cottagecore vibes the project seems to radiate, especially paired with the eerie fairytale-esque music video. As always, Swift’s impeccable lyricism is what makes the song so good: “To kiss in cars and downtown bars was all we needed/ You drew stars around my scars but now I’m bleeding/ Cause I knew you stepping on the last train, marked me like a bloodstain/ I knew you tried to change the ending Peter losing Wendy/ I knew you leaving like a father, running like water/ When you are young they assume you know nothing.”
Songs like “The Last Great American Dynasty” and “Betty” are a bit upbeat and folky and include some of Swift’s best non-personal storytelling, with lyrics like “Filled the pool with champagne and swam with the big names/ And blew through the money on the boys and the ballet/ And losing on card game bets with Dalí” and “Betty, I won’t make assumptions about why you switched your homeroom, but I think it’s ’cause of me/ Betty, one time I was riding on my skateboard/ When I passed your house, it’s like I couldn’t breathe.” Another song, “Illicit Affairs,” so beautifully paints a vivid and engaging story, listeners almost forget it is about something as unseemly as infidelity.
The only feature on this album is with indie folk band Bon Iver on the track “Exile,” which fits perfectly within the project as the band is basically the archetype for seriously somber indie music. Swift and the lead vocalist, Justin Vernon, heartbreakingly echo the lyrics “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/ So I’m leavin’ out the side door.” Most of the songs on the project emanate an almost equal amount of sorrow and nostalgia, but there are a few, like the song “Hoax,” also co-written by Dessner, that while still heavily inflicted with haunting piano, also have bits of hope laced throughout the lyrics and melody. Dessner helped write many of the album’s songs with Swift and also helped produce many of them too. His mellow, melancholic influence is imprinted throughout the album.
This album is simultaneously the most different project Swift’s taken on, and the most like her with the emotion-evoking lyrics and hauntingly memorable melodies. Folklore is depression and desolation at its most disturbingly beautiful. It truly showcases Swift’s ability to continuously reinvent her sound and is a prime example of why she’s managed to stay at the top of the charts around the globe for over a decade. Her grace, heart and immeasurable talent shine through on every note and word of Folklore.