Pop princess Taylor Swift‘s surprise new quarantine album, Folklore – announced and then released within a whirlwind 16 hours – signals both a purposeful shift in promotional etiquette and sonic palette that intimates a new normality in terms of music industry fast-tracking and a homespun approach to recording. The pandemic has enabled the 30-year-old singer-songwriter to downsize, shut out the outside world, hook up with indie-rock royalty (The National‘s guitarist Aaron Dessner) and pour her experiences and passions into a stripped-down, doleful and intelligent new indie-folk style that accommodates multiple character studies as well as her trademark first-person confessional yarns.
Just a casual glimpse of Swift’s latest “cabincore” garb – a mix of vintage Americana and pioneer and prairie – and the front cover snap of her draped by the vast California woods suggest that Folklore comes coated in a certain wintry wistfulness. It’s not an entirely accurate summary of its contents, as Folklore, written and recorded in isolation, encapsulates more the stickiness, ennui and sweet ache of late summer, with her acute and acerbic storytelling merging with Lana Del Rey‘s Gothic balladry and shot through with dusty Americana. Its muted country-folk and chamber-pop edges provide a significant swerve away from the frantic and flamboyant bangers of yore.
The 16 tunes comprising her latest song cycle oscillate gracefully around piano keyboards and introduce a series of portraits of fictional and real-life characters (from a terrified child with a traumatized best friend to a ghost scrutinizing her enemies at her funeral) to complement her reflections on the social distancing of quarantine time. “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting / I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting / I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back / I have a lot of regrets about that.” Swift approaches her material with the agility and dexterity of a novelist, serving up three perspectives of the same teenage love triangle on “Cardigan”, “Betty”, and “August”, recounting both sides of the same story on others.
“The 1” opens the record with tinkling trickles of piano, honeyed mellotrons, and sparse drum programming as the singer frames a lost lover from her “roaring 20s”: “You know, the greatest loves of all time are over now.” This marriage of dreamy haze, subdued finger-picking, and glitchy experimentation sets the tone for the rest of the album, a sobering electro-acoustic soundscape that recalls splodges of work from Sufjan Stevens, Imogen Heap, Sarah McLachlan, Mazzy Star, and even the National’s recent output.
“Cardigan” is a skulking, downtempo effort shaped from a Lana Del Rey-inflected slice of soul that ascends from forlorn murmurings to a sweeping chorus. “The Last Great American Dynasty” elegantly builds as Swift invokes the real-life story of Rebekah Harkness and her heir-to-oil-riches husband William through the prism of a whole community as a Greek chorus commentating on the action. It’s an astute conceit that elevates a lyrical tale of small-town life to towering myth. “Invisible String” demonstrates a natural affinity for the campfire as the sky-bound plinking guitar bursts into an acoustic charge of pastoral loveliness whilst dissecting another lost love. “Teal was the color of your shirt when you were 16 at the yogurt shop / You used to work at to make a little money.”
An obvious stand-out is “Exile”, the slinky duet with Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, the bearded avatar of log cabin melancholia. On this mournful examination of infidelity and dissolution, Vernon’s lower, bass register is deftly juxtaposed with Swift’s mid-range, conversational cadences and sharp-eyed observation to thrilling effect. A plaintive hush blossoms into a gleaming swarm of orchestral-gospel-flavored testifying that suggests the physical space of a cathedral: “I can see you staring, honey / Like he’s just your understudy.” It emanates an opulent, life-affirming swell and could easily have sat on the former’s glorious i, i album of last year.
Elsewhere, “Peace”, a weightless reverie pairing somber vocals with a minimal wave of synth and some light piano drizzle, sinks deep into existential matters: “All these people think love’s for show, but I would die for you in secret.” The closing “Hoax” wraps up proceedings on a high of sumptuous exhalation with one of Swift’s most convincing and textured deliveries and elegiac piano garlanded with subtle stabs of strings.
The spartan and bucolic ballads on Folklore represent a compelling and entrancing patchwork of American short stories constructed by a major league pure pop artist maneuvering outside of her comfort zone, offering solace and retreating from the noise of the crowd-pleasing mainstream. These songs lean into a more earthy, elemental, and wounded mode, and Swift’s art feels all the better for it.