Back in the days when she was still primarily a country artist, the conversation around Taylor Swift was that regardless of her genre credibility or vocal abilities, she was a great songwriter.
I largely agreed with that sentiment. My disconnect with her music had more to do with subject matter, which I rationalized as being a byproduct of me simply not being her target audience.
Because I wasn’t paying much attention, I completely missed Red, which heralded the more adult themes that have since defined her work. I first noticed that change in Swift when she went full pop on 1989. The brilliant single, “Blank Space,” is what hooked me. It was so self-aware and deliciously funny, and the production reinforced the attitude that she’d written into the song.
Swift going full pop was the right move. Not because of any nonsense about “real country” or anything like that, but because the pop format allows her to reinvent her sound each time out. She’s been remarkably adept at picking the right sounds to go with the mood of her records. The sharp and sprightly sounds enhanced the “country girl moves to NYC” story line of 1989, while dark and moody trap sounds fit the retaliatory spirit of Reputation to a tee. When she was ready to recalibrate, we got the “come see the softer side of Swift” sound of Lover, which was all dreamy synths as soft and sweet as cotton candy.
With folklore, Swift has met the quarantine moment, with a stripped down sound that isn’t so much unplugged as it is unassuming. The songwriting has to stand completely on its own, with no sonic enhancements to lean on.
Turns out, they’re completely unnecessary, because folklore is one extended mic drop for Taylor Swift, songwriter. She tosses off brilliant turns of phrase as if they’re just casual asides. “In my defense, I have none,” she sings on “The 1,” as she says goodbye to a should’ve been forever with an sigh. “The greatest loves of all time are over now” anyway, but “it would’ve been fun if you had been the one.” On “This is Me Trying,”she delivers devastation as a slow exhale, telling a former lover that “you told me all of my cages were mental, so I got wasted like all my potential.”
Her ability as a storyteller is in full bloom on folklore, as she weaves little vignettes that reveal inner truths about the characters that she has created. On “Illicit Affairs,” she repeats the instructions of the man she’s running around with like they’re a mantra: “Make sure nobody sees you leave. Hood over your head. Keep your eyes down. Tell your friends you’re out for a run. You’ll be flushed when you return.” You get a full picture of the grimier details of the affair, but also the imbalance of power central to its dynamic.
The sexual politics of “Illicit Affairs” are revisited in “Mad Woman,” which slices and dices a gaslighting man, before turning her pity to his wife, who will eventually be betrayed by him. “Good wives always know,” she rues.
She achieves a whole greater than the sum of its parts in her trilogy of songs that recall a high school love triangle from all three perspectives, and they all come off as sympathetic. “Cardigan” captures the loneliness of the first girl who is left behind, while “August” documents the second girl who falls despite knowing she’s nothing but a rebound. So it’s quite the songwriting feat when James, who is obviously the jerk of the three, leaves you rejoicing that “Betty” has taken him back by the time that song completes the storyline.
Because the songwriting does all of the heavy lifting, the album sags at certain points. “Epiphany” and “Invisible String” aren’t very interesting lyrically, and Swift’s restrained vocals fading into the near nothingness of Aaron Dessner’s production. Swift co-produced “Mirrorball” with Jack Antonoff, and its central metaphor cries out for a beat and some bells and whistles to liven it up.
But on most of folklore, the production is an ideal match for the lyrical content, and the understated approach pays off most toward the end, as the album closes with its two strongest tracks. “Peace” is an honest love song that acknowledges the reality of Swift’s fame, and the price paid for loving her: “All these people think love’s for show, but I would die for you in secret….Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?”
It’s a prelude to the incredible vulnerability of “Hoax,” which closes the album on an especially somber note:
You knew the password so I let you in the door
You knew you won so what’s the point of keeping score?
You knew it still hurts underneath my scars
From when they pulled me apart
But what you did was just as dark
Darling, this was just as hard
As when they pulled me apart
Swift gives a stunning vocal performance on this track, possibly her finest moment on record to date. Any serious debate over her credibility as a writer and an artist ended a long time ago, but she’s grown tremendously as a singer, too. folklore isn’t her mic drop moment as a vocalist, but it suggests that one might be coming down the road. Probably soon.
For now, folklore stands as the pinnacle showcase of her songwriting, and an excellent reintroduction to her work for country fans who are curious about how she’s developed as an artist since leaving Nashville behind.
Recommended Tracks: “Hoax,” “Mad Woman,” “Peace,” “Betty”