Yesterday, we had no idea we'd be writing about a 16-track Taylor Swift album. Even more of a surprise, we never imagined we'd ever write about a Swift project co-helmed by The National's Aaron Dessner. Here we are though. A quarantine surprise in the form of a brand new Taylor Swift album. My thoughts from the first run-through are below.
"I'm doing great, I'm on some new shit," is an excellent beginning to a Taylor Swift album. The 1 is a rejuvenating break-up anthem and while it's fun to speculate this being about boyfriend Joe Alwyn, I suspect that this is a fictional tale. This may be the most subtle entrance to a Swift album since Tim McGraw.
This is assumed to be the single of the bunch given that it got the video treatment. It's not an obvious single but I suspect you're not going to find one of those on Folklore. There's something distinctly whimsical to this one. There are instruments creating faint noise in the distance and it adds indescribable magic to the whole thing. "When you are young they assume you know nothing," Swift sings, as she concludes, "I knew everything when I was young." It's a beautiful song and one that immediately lays bare the strength of Aaron Dessner and Swift's partnership.
The Last Great American Dynasty
This album is definitely in the realm of Phoebe Bridgers, Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver. It's using very subtle percussion to pump it along at a gradual pace. This is folklore. Tales about names you may have never heard about, coming through a town like a hurricane. This ones about Rebekah Harkness, an heiress, who once owned the Rhode Island home that Swift bought.
Exile (Feat. Bon Iver)
Hearing a voice as dark and damning as Justin Vernon's opening a Swift song is jarring at first but there's something heart-shattering about this partnership. Vernon takes the first verse while Swift comes in on the second singing, "I'm not your problem anymore." The choruses are great here but the climax where Vernon and Swift meet for the first time is thrilling.
My Tears Ricochet
Track 5 on a Swift album is traditionally the emotional heart of the record. Jack Antonoff produced Lover's The Archer and he reprises that role here on a track he calls one of his favourite Swift songs. "I don't have it in myself to go with grace," Swift sings as the song starts to take flight on a bed of vocal coos and light orchestrals. Most of these songs so far situate themselves in a melancholic aftermath. She's recounting fury but the retelling is calm and sad.
This may be the haziest song Swift has ever done. Her vocals are delivered in a slight blur as guitars circle in the background. This is perhaps the best evidence that this is an "indie Swift" album. It's the one that sounds the most like Bridgers. "I can change everything about me to fit in," is quite the crushing lyric but it's juxtaposed by this vision of Swift dancing for her lover. As always, Antonoff and Swift pull together a killer third verse.
This has surely been influenced by Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell. Swift sings over crystalline keys in one of the highest registers we've ever heard her on. She also taps into her (or someone else's?) childhood and directly addresses the idea of folklore. That theme of being uninhibited as a child pops up again as she sings, "Before I learned civility, I used to scream ferociously." That may be the best lyric of the album so far.
August feels like it's been pulled from a scene of Dawson's Creek in the '90s. It's indebted to artists like Leonardo's Bridge and Sixpence None The Richer which actually really suits Swift. This is another one with Antonoff and together they've crafted something spectacular. The way the instrumentation on this slowly take flight is a stroke of genius, matched by Swift's gently undulating songwriting. That outro too is brilliant. This may actually be the best thing Antonoff and Swift have ever made together. The album's true centrepiece and the best song so far.
This Is Me Trying
August was such an emotional whirlwind that you'd think she'd give you some reprieve but she just sticks the knife in even further. "I had the shiniest wheels, now they're rusting," she sings as she tries to heel a broken relationship. The instrumentation hovers over the verses like a brooding storm, opening up ever so gently as the chorus comes to a hush. Some of my favourite songs by Swift are her addressing her perceived downfall like Call It What You Want. Here she sings about being ahead of the curve until the curve became a sphere and she fell behind. It's clear losing her grip on the top affected her but now she's relaxed into herself, she's making the best music of her career.
Illicit Affairs pails in comparison to the two tracks that appeared before it but it's still excellent. That line, "For you, I would ruin myself / A million times," is a slam-dunk of a closing line.
The Sufjan influence is back on this one. This is a paint-by-numbers folk song from the opening line, "Green was the colour of the grass," to the "Ooohs" that close the chorus. This one is going to be for somebody but it ain't for me.
Those whimsical keys are back but this time the magic has been replaced with something slightly unhinged. If reputation had a folk moment this would be it. "They strike to kill, and you know I will," Swift sings while also throwing in the F-bomb. On last year's Lover, Swift took on the patriarchy with The Man. She does so again here singing, "No one likes a mad woman / You made her like that." The Man may have had the arena-ready virality but this one stings more.
Epiphany is the first moment on the album that truly looks for peace. It's a sprawling, atmospheric beast that has Swift like you've never heard her before. This seems to be about the doctors working through COVID-19 and if so, it's absolutely heartwrenching. "Some things you just can't speak about," she sings as the doctors attempt, "to make sense of what you've seen." Only in their dreams do they find that.
The harmonica is out and we're back to singing about people we've never heard about. This one situates us in high school. Swift and Betty had a falling out but Betty is also falling in love with James. "Would you tell me to go fuck myself," is a lyric that I never expected Swift to sing but it sounds good here. Oh hang on a minute. Are Swift and Betty in love? Or is it James singing? This is all too much gossip to handle. Great song though.
You just know from that beginning that Swift is about to fuck us up on this one. Once again that instrumentation gently lifts as Swift sings, "I could never give you peace." After the Betty debacle I can't work out who any of these songs are about but I like to think this is about Swift and Joe. Swift's life has often been very publicly picked apart. Her relationships have become gossip mag fodder and it seems here she's admitting that it's not going to be an easy ride for anyone who gets close to her. She manages to turn that into a beautiful love song though with lines like, "Give you the silence that only comes when two people understand each other."
Back to Sufjan territory as we close what's been a long but touching listen. I don't think Swift has ever written a song quite as simultaneously haunting and heartwarming as this one. There's an eeriness to the way the keys dance but there's a clam in Swift's delivery. Intoxicating songwriting that hovers over you long after the song comes to a close.