Saturday, July 25, 2020

Review: Folklore • Taylor Swift

When Taylor Swift detailed the creation of her last studio record, Lover, in a Netflix documentary, she spoke at length about invisible rules engrained in American society that dictate how a young woman should look, feel, and act in entertainment. Reinvention, she deduced, is a woman’s necessity about which a man would know nothing. Moreover, what is age to a man is an expiry date to a woman, and how many album rotations can be harvested before her time is up defines the success of a woman in Hollywood. “As I'm reaching 30, I'm like, I want to work really hard while society is still tolerating me being successful,” she told the camera, bearing the pressure of having been the pinnacle of celebrity status – and among the industry’s highest achievers – for nearly half her life.

Swift hit age 30 last December, about half a year after releasing Lover and few months before COVID-19 would make landfall in the United States. Shuttering live music venues and reshaping everyday life, the viral illness stomped the entertainment industry in many ways. But soon after it was realized that the virus would not be a fleeting moment in history, it was determined that the show must go on, upon the backs of artists who performed virtually from their living rooms and continued their record promotion with only their smartphones. And to someone who wouldn’t have known better, it would have looked like Swift was buoying her brand through the storm via nostalgia when a 2008 live record was released online.

The live record, however, was the work of her former record label, after its two leaders claimed ownership over the masters of her first 11 years of work and began wringing profitability through limited physical runs and special digital releases. Having already spoken her piece once, Swift swiped at the unethical practices and moved on. At the time, little did we know, she was actually readying to subvert expectations with Folklore, a 16-track folk novella written and produced in quarantine with Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dressner. Announced with less than a day’s notice and unveiled with a fully actualized marketing campaign that some artists can barely bother to muster under typical circumstances, the record uses an acoustic alternative blanket to commodify the vulnerable, lonely feelings that self-isolation can bring.

Given Taylor Swift’s artistry and folk music tradition both find cornerstones in storytelling, a stripped record like Folklore feels, at the very least, natural and a bit expected. While she has been criticized as selfish and short-sighted at times, Swift’s ability to romanticize or deject ordinary situations with vivid intensity is nearly unmatched – and this time around, she spreads a cast of characters across the album and entangles their affairs tightly with her own, suspending the listener’s perception of autobiography versus fiction. "Cardigan," an incredible choice for the record's lead single with lush orchestration and subtle harmonies, marks one point of the love triangle formed alongside the more optimistic "August" and "Betty."

Channeling the spirits that roam her Rhode Island manor, she also superimposes her own story over that of a deceased socialite who owned the home before her. Perhaps the most technicolor cut from the album, "The Last Great American Dynasty" details the overblown speculation that they both endured as women of a certain financial standing; "Mad Woman" later interpolates the same ideas with a less sarcastic tone. She inserts herself into the storyboard more directly on something like "Mirrorball," a hazy, open track that parallels her personality to an alluring but fragile disco ball, or "Invisible String," a casual stream of consciousness that hints at her own song titles and her boyfriend's teenage part-time job. "My Tears Ricochet," another standout, builds gradually to match the intensity of her destroyed relationship – assumed to be the one with her former record label.

Opposed to her last three records, Folklore boasts an under-produced acoustic ecosystem of guitars, strings, and keys – an environment in which Swift can relax her voice into a thin, natural tone, with nothing in the musical landscape to tug at its limits. The 16 songs send listeners on a trip into an endless forest; once sucked in through the first few songs, it's nearly impossible to stop the journey until the edge is finally reached – in the record's case, the ending tracks "Peace" and "Hoax," the former of which feels like a more appropriate closing number. Though the record's long-winded nature equates to feeling like she retraces territory already explored at times, Folklore sounds effortless and uncomplicated – and deservedly so, it's the most at ease Taylor Swift has ever sounded.

Folklore is available now under Republic Records.

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