Everyone loves a good story, and Taylor Swift’s Folklore comes with a really good one.
I assume no one needs me to tell them who Swift is. A darling of the country circuit as a teenager, Swift has masterfully evolved herself into one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Along the way, she’s shown a legimitate knack for tuneful, catchy songcraft, and for choosing some of the best collaborators in the business to bring her songs to life. The effervescent thrills of a record like 1989 or last year’s Lover cannot be overstated, and they helped elevate Swift to a position where her every move is watched and scrutinized.
So the fact that she made an entire new album in secret, while in lockdown like the rest of us, is a strong hook. Even on paper this is intriguing stuff: Swift’s main collaborator here is Aaron Dessner of the National, a band that exists about a thousand miles away from her usual fare. Folklore contains a duet with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and musical contributions from Bryce Dessner, Rob Moose and James McAllister. It comes adorned with monochromatic photos of nature scenes.
And the fact that Swift did not even tell her record company that she was making Folklore is all part of its legend, which Swift has spun here with aplomb. Every part of this story is designed to tell you that this is unlike any Swift album you have heard. Dropping it 24 hours after announcing it, which she did on July 24, was an essential part of the story: everyone will be talking about this album for the next couple weeks, and if you want in on the conversation, you better buy it.
I mention all of this up front because I did buy it directly from her, and the story behind it is one of the reasons why. I like Swift, and have picked up her records in the past, but I’ve not felt that pull to be part of the discussion about her the way I have with Folklore. I kinda bought in – I had to hear this right away so I could talk about it. I don’t know if this is a failing or not, but I expect this is going to be part of the new music experience going forward. FOMO will play a part in how well projects like this do.
Thankfully, while I appreciate the story, I appreciate the record even more. Folklore might be a calculated move, a bid for respectability and critical acclaim, but there’s a genuine artistry behind it, and its songs point to significant growth in Swift’s writing. Dessner turns out to be a strong partner for her. I have struggled to like the National, and a lot of that can be attributed to the lack of passion in their delivery. Their songs just kind of sit there. But the Swift-Dessner songs on Folklore, despite using the same trappings, are never boring. The best ones are melodic and interesting in ways we’ve never heard from Swift.
Yes, I know it’s a cliché to consider the slow, quiet folk-pop that makes up all of Folklore as more mature than a record like 1989, but hear me out. The main step forward here for me is in Swift’s storytelling. Her previous records have felt at times like extensions of her Twitter feed, addressing her romances and her celebrity with first-person bluntness. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s the first-draft way to make her points. Folklore is more oblique – it finds Swift speaking through characters, delivering third-person narratives, and leaving clues for attentive listeners to pick up.
The two best examples of this are ones I picked up by being part of the conversation around this record as it unfolded. First there is “My Tears Ricochet,” which reads like a broken love song, but is sneakily about her travails with her record company. It’s the same lovely trick Aimee Mann pulled on Bachelor No. 2, and if you’re drawing comparisons to Aimee Mann, you’re doing something right.
Second, of course, is the teenage love triangle trilogy, which includes “Cardigan,” “August” and “Betty.” These three songs are each sung from the point of view of one character in this love triangle, with little lyrical breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout. Together they tell the story of a summer affair, from the perspective of the boyfriend, the girlfriend and the other woman. Swift does a nice job of telling the same events different ways, putting us inside the minds of all three characters. This is just good songwriting, of a caliber we haven’t seen from Swift before.
And these are not even the best songs. I have three favorites on Folklore that I think are as good as any songs I’ve heard this year. (While I do like the Bon Iver duet, “Exile,” it isn’t one of them.) “The Last Great American Dynasty” spins the story of Rebekah Harkness, who first lived in the Rhode Island mansion Swift now owns. Swift draws some nice parallels between herself and Harkness, and tells her tale sympathetically. “Seven” is a wonder, a song I would gladly accept from Tori Amos. It’s a nostalgic look back at a long-lost friend who had to hide her queerness from her father, told with the clarity of adulthood.
And then there is “Invisible String,” a song I cannot stop listening to. Its central idea is a reference to Jane Eyre, and Swift uses it to discuss the hand of fate connecting people and moving them together. It’s a very pretty lyric married to a gorgeous piece of music – the descending melody on “me” is my favorite thing on Folklore. This is a remarkably rich song, and I would have suffered through an album far worse than this one to get to it.
My main issue with this album is that it is too long, and that some of the songs here don’t pop like others. The CD version sports 17 songs over 67 minutes, and paring down some of the lesser tunes (like “Mirrorball” or “Mad Woman”) would have helped. But there isn’t much of Folklore that I don’t like. This album represents a shift not only in sound but in substance for Swift, and it’s an impressive one. It lives up to its story, and given how compelling its story is, that’s an achievement. I’m glad this album was a success, and now I can’t wait to see how she moves forward from here.
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Of course, great albums are not always accompanied by backstories or by a cultural conversation that dominates social media. Sometimes the best records are the ones no one is talking about. Do I have an example? Of course I do, and it’s the self-titled album from Lianne La Havas. And frankly, this is a record that more people should be discussing.
La Havas is a British singer-songwriter whose work with Matt Hales, better known as Aqualung, brought her to my attention. Her work on her own is a complex form of R&B that centers her supple, soulful voice, and this – her third album – is the best example of it she’s given us. It is her first in five years, and it’s a breakup record, but a deeply joyous one. There are shades of Esperanza Spalding in these songs, but La Havas’s work is more straightforward and accessible.
It’s also awesome. Opener “Bittersweet” lets you know what’s up – it flutters to life on a slinky beat, and when La Havas draws back and lets those pipes loose halfway through, the moment is revelatory. “Green Papaya” is a lovely, jazzy folk song, while “Can’t Fight” is a loose and funky number with some sweet harmonies. La Havas again works with Hales behind the boards, and the production is exactly what it should be – the guitars are airy and rubbery, the bass is minimal but effective, and the sound is full without being crowded. There’s a live-band feel to most of this, and it works really well with her voice.
And at track six you get the best Radiohead cover you’ve ever heard. “Weird Fishes” is such a fascinating choice to take on, but she transforms it from a fussy bit of math-rock to a jazz-soul showstopper. I don’t know where the hell this came from, but I’m so glad it exists. Lianne La Havas is an artist who deserves far more attention than she gets, and I hope this album brings her some of the acclaim she’s been due. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how many people are talking about it, or not talking about it. A great record is a great record, and this is certainly a great record.
Next week, something that scares me a little.
See you in line Tuesday morning.