On folklore, an album that is very easy to like though maybe too easy to pigeonhole for those resistant to a singular mood, Taylor Swift invites several easy, understandable, but nonetheless clear misunderstandings and misreadings - both those she intends and those we impose.
This of course is characteristic of her, and even more so of the way we have long talked about her, with social signifiers and personal obsessions, topicality and malleability all part of a debate begun in mild terms when she was a teen avatar (when “only” young women, though a hell of a lot of them, seemed to be paying attention) and ramped up since the escalation of her rise to cultural centrepiece (where not having an opinion on her marked you as a social illiterate).
It’s what we expect in other words. So we know her so well, right? Well, of course not. As emotionally powerful as stunning songs of desolation such as cardigan and my tears ricochet are, as casually confessional as the possibly linked betty and illicit affairs are, as possibly revealing as what seems to be a reference to anti-depressants in the 1 are, these aren’t diary entries transcribed to the music, or unguarded comments in the wild.
She’s a songwriter folks, like all those blokes who aren’t assumed to be revelatory every time they open their mouths to sing, and we see only as much as she wants us to see and on the terms she wants us to see, and whatever judgement any of us have ever made about her being a sister or a user, a spokeswoman or businesswoman, a coward, a friend, an activist, a lightweight etc etc has come in large part from our needs and our reading, not her.
Lest that sound like a snark, I will point out that unless we’re talking therapy couch here, that is the artist’s bloody job: to give us enough to convince us we know and understand them, and in turn ourselves, while retaining enough to protect themselves as someone for whom an interior life is not, cannot be, public property.
And yet, there’s still something surprising about how we say so much more about ourselves in framing her than she does as she so famously, so obviously, so deliberately “exposes” herself in her songs and utterances.
After all, it’s true that her most enduring subject, the object of her greatest fascination, remains herself: from school yard ostracism, heartbreak, unclear desire, and ambition, to friendship, betrayal, heartbreak, very clear desire, and ambition. There’s even a song on this, her eighth album, released as she has turned 30, which is set in a high school environment familiar to anyone who was listening to her around the time of 2008’s Fearless.
And Swift continues to excavate if not meaning then at least points of observation from this self-source, now declaring in interviews and liner notes as much as lyrics that she’s done with pleasing people (“who am I offending now?”, she asks wryly in exile) changing to keep others relaxed, and hiding her hunger for life.
Even on this album’s surprise non-personal narrative, the last great american dynasty, which is the true tale of a woman who married into America’s moneyed upper class (“Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money”), scandalised them as a widow with a will of her own (“Who knows, if she never showed up, what could've been/There goes the most shameless woman this town has ever seen?/She had a marvellous time ruining everything”) and left a grand coastal house eventually bought by T. Swift “(“Holiday House sat quietly on that beach/Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/And then it was bought by me”), the song’s conclusion finds Swift shifting from third to first person, from narrator to a woman being called “the loudest woman this town has ever seen”, and, like its previous owner, thumbing her nose at the concept of fitting in by changing those bad habits and doing the “right” thing (“I had a marvellous time running everything”).
Similarly, folklore is her most subdued – sonically and emotionally – album: free of obvious studio baubles and writing room contrivances, much reduced in the way of instrumentation, spiked with far fewer obvious barbs, and often sung in a tone of what Helen Reddy might have called wisdom born of pain.
The joy and expectation – the absolute spring - of almost every song on 2019’s generally excellent hybrid pop record, Lover, has given way to the scudding clouds sky aftermath of a breakup (the absence of any dabbling in British slang and references suggesting a certain English actor chap no longer sits at the right hand of this queen), to songs sung in and now received in home isolation and retreat from the world.
The inference drawn is that it must be her most intimate album, but all we can say is that it is her most intimate sounding and, in some ways, in spite of its quite different approach, the closest to the suggestion of realism in her earliest recordings. It was no coincidence that the in-house, old school, Taylor Swift fan at home, the one who never really came out the other side of Red – finding the Swift who would soon enough make the globe-bestraddling pop gem1989 too shiny, too contrived, too familiar in a world already full of sparkling, contrived and familiar pop stars against whom she once stood in contrast - nodded sagely when I commented that in its DNA folklore was the most country album Swift had made in a very long time. And not just because invisible string sounds like The Dixie Chicks’ version of Landslide.
With principal co-writer and co-producer, Aaron Dessner, of indie rock’s own monarchs of adult pain, The National, Swift builds a soundscape of shimmer and shadows, of murmuring rhythms and back-of-the-room guitars, of upfront voice unadorned and (on one track) counter voice of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon sounding like a month of lost days, of acoustic piano and electronic drums, of Phoebe Bridgers and Sufjan Stevens, of The Sundays and Mark Lanegan, of Allison Krause and, well, The National.
The stumbling block for some will be that folklore – which you may have noticed has its title and every track name resolutely in lowercase: possibly in keeping with the lower profile of its sound and the lowered temperature of its performances – operates within a narrow tonal range that doesn’t waver across 16 tracks and one hour and three minutes.
The shiny floored pop is wholly absent, the exultations and celebrations are filed away, the hooks catch on you rather than dig into you. Which brings us maybe to the last misconception, that Swift wants us to see this album as that of a “serious artiste”, or that a collection of interior ballads will appeal to contrary critics resistant to pop, while those who aren’t rusted-on Swiftians get bored well before the end with underwritten material hoping for the revival of MTV Unplugged.
This is in fact a pop record, just a quiet one, the variety evident once you get past the limited palette. It’s packed with very good writing and some of the best songs of her career and it tells enough and shows enough to bring her closer to our lives, but lets the listener make the last part of the connection her or himself.
Yeah, it may be too long - though come on, how many of you still play albums in full anyway when the skip button is practically bolted to some people’s twitchy hands? - but I’m not sure yet what songs I’d take off. If any. And that’s no misunderstanding.