Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’ Burns Bright In Dark Times

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Communal moments are a rarity in 2020. It’s an obvious repercussion from a world turned upside down, where months into a pandemic, many are still holding tight to “safer at home” and social isolation recommendations. Music festivals are non-existent, the movie theater experience is threatening to disappear altogether, and even gathering with our closest friends and family, be it for an intimate meal or a raucous house party, all violate common-sense best practices for keeping the most vulnerable around us safe. IRL congregating has largely been limited to essential protests around the country, with participants taking what is viewed as essential risks in order to bring about much-needed societal change that’s been centuries in the making.

As such, communal moments in 2020 are largely limited to the virtual world. Verzuz battles and Club Quarantine have allowed fans to congregate and debate on social platforms. Artists like Post Malone, Mark Ronson, and Nick Cave have pushed boundaries as to what is possible from streaming events. Movies like Palm Springs, The Old Guard, and The King Of Staten Island or TV events like The Last Dance have provided cultural currency that most can share, with the relatively sparse offerings of entertainment making it feel like literally everyone is watching the same things. Some album releases have managed to attain greater synchronicity, but few hold so much cultural cachet as to deserve a custom emoji for their trending Twitter hashtag.

On Thursday night, that hand-drawn “T” and “S” could be seen up and down the timeline. Music fans and critics across genres unveiled hot takes, quoted lyrics like Myspace teens writing on the back of textbooks or crafting the perfect AIM away message, and debated Folklore‘s place in the unimpeachable Taylor Swift canon. For a couple hours, it felt like we were all together, experiencing something that did not equate to injustice or existential dread or the imminent death of thousands. While escapism is undoubtedly a privilege, taking that brief opportunity to exist in someone else’s orbit felt good for the collective soul, the reciprocal of the isolation that proved so inspiring to Swift’s songwriting.

It’s a strange dichotomy that a period away from a canceled tour that would have seen her creating her very own festival, as well as headlining some of the biggest international events in existence, could, in turn, bring so many people together. And just as it has been for her last four album releases, everyone from day ones to uninvested tourists held an opinion on where the Nashville songwriting great should be headed. You can’t get a Swift song cycle without some bemoaning her interest in contemporary pop textures, hoping for a step back closer to her mainstream country roots, despite the fact that her recent turn to outspoken political activism has all but burned that bridge (good riddance, I say). But for her fans, the ones that Swift speaks directly to through endless Easter eggs and social media outreach, there is the understanding that every step she takes is necessary for the journey. There is never going to be a “back” — an artist like Taylor Swift only knows forward motion. And even with Folklore, the most timeless work she’s ever created, a turn away from mainstream pop isn’t as much of a statement as it is a necessity, reflecting the way the album was created and the times that it was created in.

The album follows a return to critical favor (Lover) after a short run as a critical punching bag (Reputation), incorporating help from artists she’s long admired and amplified — both The National, whose Aaron Dessner produces and writes on the majority of the album, and Bon Iver, who guests on one song, have been featuring regularly on Taylor Swift playlists for years — as well as her “musical family” member Jack Antonoff. But even with new people in tow, Swift never loses herself in the palette of others. “The Last Great American Dynasty” and “Cardigan” are both deeply rooted in the vivid details and melodic warmth that characterizes much of her music, even if they benefit from Dessner’s talent for turning slow-burn builds into huge emotional payoffs. And it’s a flex to have Bon Iver barely sound like himself for the first half of “Exile,” avoiding his characteristic falsetto in favor of the cruise-control ease that makes his best work feel as comforting as a dusty welcome mat. When he belts “so step right out” at the song’s midpoint, try not to imagine clouds parting to reveal the vibrant, affirming sunshine.

It’s a narrative that will find many men “finally” giving Swift a chance, praising her for conforming to their ideal of what a female pop artist should sound like. There’s something inherently frustrating in that it takes her aligning with indie-cred to get respect from those corners, as if she hasn’t packed album after album with wise-beyond-her-years observations and sturdy melodies that would sound great against the backdrop of most collaborators and production choices. In her recent Netflix documentary Miss Americana, Swift gave a view inside her songwriting process, where a song like her widely-derided Lover first single “Me!” is shown to be unexpectedly dexterous outside of its commercial-ready bombast and Brandon Urie feature. Most of Swift’s songs follow this same pattern, the kind of tunes that are vigorous and intricate, that can sound equally captivating accompanied by lone acoustic strums or piano plucks as they are when bolstered by a dance routine under stadium lights. When it comes to Taylor Swift, people have often conflated not liking her style or presentation with disliking the song or the artist, and an album where the sonic choices around her are subtle and dialed down jukes those notions. But be wary of anyone that calls this album a songwriting breakthrough or a return to form.

All that said, maybe Folklore is a songwriting breakthrough and a return to form. Many of the strongest moments throughout Folklore echo Swift’s previous heights, whether it’s the scarves now becoming sweaters or teen romances getting the retrospective wisdom they deserve. And while her lyrical buttons are their typically masterful self (or, as on “Mirrorball,” an extended metaphor transports the audience to Swift’s universe), the choices she makes with her voice are often as captivating as what she’s saying. This can be the unexpected falsetto of “Illicit Affairs,” the playful lilts of “August,” or the little yelp at the end of the first verse in “Epiphany.” On the most cohesive album she’s ever made, she’s fully aware that the record lacks for levity, and these assorted vocal ticks provide balance to a tone that is mostly rooted in general seriousness.

But even as she breaks free into new genre territory, and displays influences from the contemporary indie artists she’s chosen as collaborators, nothing about Folklore reads like culture vulturing. Some of the best songs of the album, “The Last Great American Dynasty” and “Betty,” thrive in the specific storytelling she’s been crafting since she was a teenager. Many of the other songs drift from the spare sonics into rapid-fire pop cadences she’s been perfecting since Red. While moments here and there find parallels to other indie stars, there isn’t a song on the record that another artist could write.

That’s why some of the discourse surrounding the album in its first few days of release has been so disappointing. Across social media platforms, indie music gatekeepers and artists have taken shots at Swift for infiltrating a scene where female-led indie-folk is having a moment, displaying all the pretension and exclusivity that gives the community a bad name. In reality, Swift’s “indie album” will only serve to provide more opportunities to those that work in a similar space as interest is raised, and will not impede the forward momentum of anyone. And, it’s particularly telling that the people she’s working with — Vernon, Dessner, Antonoff — are known for fostering creative communities and welcoming surprising collaborators into their worlds.

There’s a lesson we can all take there, about inclusion and open-mindedness, but that’s hardly the point of Folklore. The lack of a rollout paints it as both the most low-key and instantly impactful album of her career, one crafted during impossible times and used as an opportunity to make music with her heroes, free of many the expectations she’s set for herself. Folklore will likely wind up being her album that reaches the widest cross-section of music fans yet, and while the indie world might still be lifting up their drawbridge, don’t worry, because the Swifties are ready to welcome anyone new to the party with open arms. There is no bandwagon here, only fans of one of the last decade’s defining figures who’s still finding ways to shatter expectations. All aboard.

Folklore is out now on Republic. Get it here.