Taylor Swift’s surprise eighth album, Folklore, takes 16 complex and intriguing tunes by pop’s reigning colossus and gussies them up in atmospherics acceptable to the mature indie rock listener. Gone are the brash production values, the musical pugilism that codes Swift as “pop”. Gone are the trademark valedictory shouts at the end of her songs. In their place are tunes that exhibit a desire to be taken seriously by a different demographic, one whose delicate sensibilities are more responsive to ruminative thrums and just-so orchestrations.
Take Epiphany, the war-themed song Swift has said was inspired by her grandfather Dean landing on the beaches of Guadalcanal in 1942. The song is sombre, its medical subplot chiming gently with the suffering being wreaked by coronavirus (“Hold your hand through plastic now/ Doc I think she’s crashing out”). Swift ends some of her lines with emphatic yelps.
The music, unfortunately, is a miasma of gingerly fingered piano and consolatory tonalities – pillowy, but totally unmemorable, the equivalent of a hospital newsagent condolence card. The album closer, Hoax, pairs Swift’s anguished words (“Your faithless love is the only hoax I believe in”) with minimal chamber music of chaste rectitude.
It is a shame that these searching, intelligent songs take so few real risks with form
Swift, now 30, has long been fond of the National, whose multi-instrumentalist lynchpin Aaron Dessner has broken out from the band to become a favoured producer (Sharon Van Etten), collaborator (Big Red Machine with Justin Vernon, Michael Stipe), charity album-wrangler (Dark Was the Night, Day of the Dead), festival organiser, label boss and all-round, eminently commissionable good egg. But most everything Dessner touches turns a nuanced shade of greige.
Folklore is no exception. If it is a strong record – and it is – it is because Swift’s songs survive the nicey-nicey torpor of their treatments, because there are still enough gutsy apercus and Easter eggs here to keep even casual listeners engaged; it is a success because Swift got the bespoke amber-hued liminality she ordered. Folklore is a mission, accomplished – and in secret during lockdown; Dessner didn’t even tell his daughter, a huge Swift fan, what he was working on.
Undoubtedly, this album opens up the vast reserve of Swift’s talent to a new audience. But it is a shame that these searching, intelligent songs take so few real risks with form, even as Swift builds three-song takes on the same events in Cardigan, Betty and August or writes a musical biography of the fortune-squandering heiress Rebekah Harkness on The Last Great American Dynasty.
Occasionally, there are glimpses of what could have been. Peace is little more than an electronic palpitation and a watercolour hue of tension; its minimalism is toothsome. Up top, Taylor remains Taylor, venting about love. In that respect, Peace is an heir of sorts to 1989’s Blank Space, with Smith warning a lover that being with her might not be easy. “Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?” she sings. Best of all the Dessner collaborations is Seven, a moving song about a childhood friend (or, possibly, a little more) whose opening notes have a strangeness to them that could have been mined to far, far greater effect.
This could have been a truly startling left-field endeavour. But as lockdown experiments go, Folklore is nothing if not eminently logical. Who better to duet with than Dessner’s pal Bon Iver, who made his name with For Emma, Forever Ago, an album written in the seclusion of heartbreak? As it is, their head-to-head Exile is instructive, rather than devastating, a duet atomising a relationship from two points of view, with all the song’s moving parts visible. A throaty Bon Iver sings some of his lines just as Swift must have sung them on guide vocal, emphasising every second syllable. “You’re not my homeland any more.” Later, though, he is electrifyingly recognisable as Bon Iver, gusting in from left-field, off the beat rather than on it: “So step right out!” he gnashes. Underneath, some predictably housebroken piano and string stuff goes on: Dessner.
It’s not all Dessner. A clutch of songs where Swift works with her more familiar producer Jack Antonoff are still waftily on-message, but are better. The subdued Mirrorball is Indie Taylor in excelsis, a song with chiming guitars playing in the next room in which Swift considers her many faces, how women try to reflect back what is wanted from them.
One of many relationship autopsies here, My Tears Ricochet opens with spectral cooing and assumes its form very, very slowly; the lyrics, by contrast, are packed with zingers. “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace,” rues Swift, “and you’re the hero flying around, saving face.”
If Folklore has one major use it is this: it helps the seasoned Swift fan sell the woman’s immense talents to other grown-ups, who have previously shielded themselves from her brand of eloquent drama with vinyl copies of Sufjan Stevens records. These 16 tracks (17 on the deluxe version) play out quite pleasurably in their entirety, the joins between Swift, Dessner and Antonoff ultimately only of niche interest. But Swift’s powerful songs reach their climaxes with bittersweet orchestrations, rather than blows to the solar plexus or a ringing in the ears. Everything hovers; little truly lands.
Kitty Empire is the Observer’s pop critic