‘folklore’ is Taylor Swift at her boldest and, quite possibly, at her best

“folklore” is the eighth studio album from Taylor Swift, arguably the biggest name in modern music. This project is also the quickest back-to-back release Swift has ever come out, with a July 24 release date coming just over 11 months after the Aug. 23 release of “Lover.” 

This 16-song, 64-minute-long album holds just one feature, Bon Iver, on the song “exile,” and was a surprise announced on the eve of its release.

Not only was this a surprise release, but add to it the concept of a song full of a wide variety of stories – something Taylor Swift is exceptional at – a Bon Iver feature, and production credits by Aaron Dessner of The National as well as typical collaborator Jack Antonoff, and I was very excited to hear this new, possibly folky direction that Taylor was electing to go with.

The Good

Let’s get right to it: this sound, this style and this direction that Taylor Swift has gone with on “folklore” isn’t just some new, interesting wave that she is trying out.  No, “folklore” is THE sound that fits Taylor Swift’s vocals, it is THE style that signals a change from her typical spot in the pop genre to something much more, and it is THE direction that she was meant to go in as she enters her 30s.

I have thoroughly enjoyed most of everything Taylor Swift has put out since “Fearless” back in 2010, but it felt like she wasn’t necessarily growing a ton with her sound ever since changing over to majorly pop with “1989.” Those feelings are gone now with “folklore,” which feels like such a mature, impressive step for Taylor to be taking with her sound in so many ways.

“folklore” succeeds not just because it is a new, more mature sound, but because it is those things being executed at the highest of levels nearly from start to finish, and it was a delight to be on the journey that this album is while never knowing how Taylor would one-up herself as the tracklist continued on.

This starts out with the highest of high notes on “the 1,” a song that immediately gives you a taste of what is to come. For starters, the eighth word said in this album is “shit,” something that would not be a big deal to most, but is for Taylor Swift, who has explicit tracks for the first time in her discography.

More importantly, changes can be felt by Dessner’s production, with an outstanding piano behind Taylor’s strong lyrics and terrific flow and delivery makes for a gorgeous little opener that is just so enjoyable to listen to.

A few songs later is the track “exile” with Bon Iver, which, immediately on first listen and then solidified on every listen since, might just be my favorite Taylor Swift song of all-time. Having Bon Iver featured and Dessner on the production is strong in theory, but the way that the two brilliantly combine with Taylor Swift’s superb vocals on the track is a thing of beauty and makes for a true standout among a wide list of standout tracks.

I also love the lyrics on this song, which is about two former partners seeing each other after breaking up. The use of the movie motifs and the lines where Iver and Swift talk over each other with contrasting lines is just excellent and gives me chills each time I hear it.

There are great tracks to be found in the opening half of the record, but I think it is the back half, starting with “august,” where Swift really hits her stride with this new sound. This is a great storytelling track, like many here, that is about young heartbreak. Per usual, Swift’s lyrics are great, but it is really Antonoff’s production that shines brightest here, especially in the back half of the song when it starts to hit its climax.

The next trio of tracks – “this is me trying,” “illicit affairs” and “invisible string” – are all very much worth talking about, as each are great for their own ways and show just how much range that Swift is able to pull off when she’s pushing the boundaries for her own sound.

These songs also really show off Swift’s talent as a lyricist, with the first of the three beautifully depicting the struggles of taking fault in a failed relationship, the second explaining the hardships of a, well, illicit affair, and “invisible string” using a metaphor about being tied to your lover. It is all just great stuff on words alone, and the diverse and creative production each of the three tracks gets is just the added icing on the cake.

“mad woman” is another personal favorite of mine that does a great job lyrically at attacking some gender stereotypes, but what I really want to talk about is “epiphany.” This song absolutely encaptures me when I listen to it, as it has an almost ethereal quality that completely sucks me in.

Even with an album that, despite a clear, diverse palette in the production, does mostly follow one specific vibe, Taylor manages to still throw a bit of a curveball with “betty,” a song that feels a little bit like a country throwback but while still remaining in this new vibe just enough to fit into the tracklist.

There are plenty of theories on what this song means, but on its surface, this is yet another great moment for Swift as a storyteller, and a great way to do a throwback while still improving her sound in a wide variety of ways.

The last track I want to praise to the highest of heavens is the closer, “hoax.” This is an incredibly powerful track that goes into Taylor’s struggles with a relationship that has clear problems. The chorus lines of “Your faithless love’s the only hoax I believe in / Don’t want no other shade of blue but you / No other sadness in the world would do,” absolutely rip my heart out, done so exponentially by the heartache I can feel in Taylor’s voice.

She has done some really amazing closers to albums before, but I’m not sure any have hit harder than this one.

The Bad

To call really anything “the bad” would be a lie, so consider this section the “less than amazing.” Past “the 1” and “exile,” there are some songs early on that don’t necessarily wow me, and that starts with “the last great american dynasty.” 

It’s a decent tune that tells a unique story, but it is just not a track that grabs my attention as much as most others on this album. 

The same could be said for me with “mirrorball” and “seven.” While I can see the appeal of the former, the latter really feels like a filler moment for me, and would probably be the only track that I would have cut from this album that currently sits at over an hour long.

Conclusion

In the mere hours I had to form an opinion before “folklore” was released, I had my concerns that Taylor Swift would make a change in her sound and that it wouldn’t pay off. There was a fear on my end that maybe she gets the help of Dessner and Antonoff and Bon Iver to go in this indie, folk sound, and that she would just sound like an imposter.

Those fears were put to bed and may be asleep forever.

Nothing about “folklore” feels like it is out of Taylor Swift’s wheelhouse, with the results instead proving that this is the music that Swift can and should be making, both now and in the future. There is a vibe here that is beautiful to listen to, that brings the best out of Swift’s talents, and this amazing project works because she has the talent to work with these fantastic collaborators and still find a way to shine above them in many ways.

There is not a bad track on “folklore,” and there are more than several highlights that stand near the top as far as anything Taylor Swift has ever put out. This may just be her best album to date, something that felt almost unachievable just a year ago.

The best part? It feels like she can still go up from here.

Badge-9.5


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