The Empress’s new clothes

August 9, 2020

In an apparent attempt at being authentic and insightful, Taylor Swift, however, misses the mark more in Folklore than hits.

Taylor Swift in album artwork from Folklore.

Artist: Taylor Swift

Album: Folklore***

With time on her hands in the Corona lockdown, Taylor Swift did what she has done best recently: she reinvented herself, teamed up with top collaborators (here Aaron Dessner of The National, and mainstay Jack Antonoff, both remotely) and released her eighth album, Folklore. Previously, she had taken pop and dance sounds to the bank with 1989 (pop excellence; 9/10), Reputation (dance inflected hits; 6/10) and Lover (a grab-bag of styles and highs; 7/10).

This time around, the overproduced Taylor has been put away, and she has taken on the garb of a singer-songwriter, with minimal production and spare instrumentation adorning her winning melodies. In an apparent attempt at being authentic and insightful, Taylor however misses the mark more in Folklore than hits; moreover, she ends up revealing a little more of herself than she possibly intended.

A child of privilege (born and brought up by Wall-Street parents), Taylor Swift has always been the Golden Girl. Now in her ‘30s, she is clearly at crossroads. She has already extensively collaborated with a who’s who list of producers (Shelback, Max Martin, Butch Walker, Jack Antonoff). A while back, in these here pages, we had, as a reaction to her overproduced songs, in an album review requested ‘Will the real Taylor Swift please come back?’ Taylor seems to have felt the need to get real too. She has made her play at being authentic and closer to her country roots in the album at hand. For a significant portion of the album she has failed.

The major misstep on the album, the song ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ shows why in her attempt to be authentic Taylor is rather inauthentic and non-representative. The lyrics depict a woman who marries into the Standard Oil Dynasty and ruins the family and the business empire. There is absolutely zero insight or narration in the song as to what and how it happened, or why one need even care, other than Taylor repeatedly saying that people had bad things to say about the poor heiress. So in the end, for the payoff when Taylor claims that the heiress is she, one really does not know why one should care. It is after-all hard to feel bad for the 1 per cent, which is where Taylor often times moves and what she represents publicly. Music from, about and for the Vanity Fair set is really off-putting, especially on an album titled Folklore.

The title of the album Folklore is inapt. ‘F’ has purposely been left lowercase (‘f’), as are all song-titles, so as to indicate that the songs are about ordinary folk. However, the songs often have little to do with ordinary folk, rather often times they are populated by the rich, beautiful and the self-involved. There are no ordinary folk here as in folk music, and the content is much too self-concerned to be considered lore. Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad (similarly spare) this is certainly not.

However, when Taylor writes about more universal stuff, or generally, she connects. She has always had the knack for writing pretty melodies. Four songs on the album are excellent and play to her strengths:

One, the album opener, ‘The 1’ is a standout: it is down-tempo but catchy. In its down vibe, it is also a great representative of the mood of other tracks of the album. The first lines of the song and the album are “I am doing good/ I am on some new sh*t” (an indication of a change in style) and lines that follow state her need to change: “In my defence I have none/ I never leave well enough alone.” So, it sets up the album well for the listen that is to follow.

The best song on the album is ‘Invisible String’: it is the equal of any Taylor classic; it is an ear-worm and cute (“Invisible string tying you to me”). The vocal performance is perfection. While Taylor’s tropes are still here (“Cold was the steel of the axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart”), she endearingly adds: (“Now I send their babies presents”). Overall, it’s a perfect song.

The third excellent song on the album is also the lyrical peak of the album, the song ‘Illicit Affair’. What was hinted at in 1989’s ‘Style’ (“Midnight, you come and pick me up, no headlights”) is deeply explored and for once the content is mature and the insight is spot-on; the song depicts aspects of a heartbreaking and passing dalliance (“What started in beautiful rooms/ Ends with meetings in parking lots”). In effect it serves as a modern-day update of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Part-Time Lover’, without the out-of-place poppiness of Stevie’s track.

Exile is one of the album’s highlights, it features Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon’s baritone and works well in contrast with Taylor’s voice. “Who am I offending now,” worries Taylor once again. It nails the end of a relationship (“Laughing/ but the joke’s not funny at all”) and the heartbreaking denouement (“All you do is let me down”).

The rest of the songs, however, variously fall short of excellence, some greatly so.

‘August’ is as forgettable as the summer dalliance it talks of. Performance-wise, it has breathy Taylor alternating with hooky Taylor: most of the lyrics are sophomoric. Despite dreamy strings and a slow buildup, the song is quite ordinary.

‘Betty’ is much better, with guitar and harmonica, with often-times self-centred Taylor, for once, writing from the perspective of a 17 year old boy who misses his summer crush. It is cute and affecting for the youthful confusion it manages to capture (“I slept next to her/ but I dreamt of you all summer long” and “The worst thing that I ever did/ was what I did to you.”) It is a superlative bit of storytelling. Only problem is that it overstays its welcome, goes on a little too long, like its protagonist.

‘Cardigan’, the first single from the album, is probably the most moody track here, and has a derivative Lana Del Ray vibe. With a lyric “When you are young/ they assume you know nothing,” Taylor seeks to connect with an age group she has grown out of. “A friend to all is a friend to none/ chased all the girls, lose the one” is a nice lyric, “…Your cardigan…/You put me on and said I was your favourite.” Unfortunately, the song just does not cut loose. There is no payoff, and the song could have gone to anthemic places, but does not.

And therein lies the central problem of the album: That the album is so understated at times (piano driven with minimal percussion and strings) and the vibe so uniform that most of many tracks just meld into one. The joyfulness of a Taylor’s past highs is missing. There are no standouts like ‘Delicate’, no ‘Shake it Off’, no ‘I knew you were trouble’ or even a memorable ballad like ‘New Year’s Day’ (which was in a similar vibe as most of this album, but was better).

Among the very good tracks, ‘This is me trying’ is good, a couple of awkward rhymes notwithstanding. One just feels that it would have worked better with someone else singing, someone with more character to her voice. Here breathiness does not work. Vocally, Taylor is still not a powerhouse like P!nk or Jewel or Adele. Her craft is such that often times she doesn’t need to be and she shines on the basis of her outstanding songs. But when the song requires her to be emotive, the songs sometimes suffer on account of her performance. ‘Epiphany’ is dreamy musically but lyrically intense: “Just a flesh wound. Sir, I think he is bleeding now”. It is once again forgettable as a song. And makes one think that this is a mood album, to be put on in the background.

Recently, Taylor Swift has been opening up more and more about political issues: a lot has been welcome especially on feminism (‘The Man’) and LGBTQ issues (‘You need to calm down’). Here the representative track is ‘Mad Woman’. Lyrically, she attempts to do an Alanis and use a four lettered word here or there, but it is not affecting or as visceral as Ms. Morissette.

The album also indicates that age has not brought insight. Taylor still complains like a teenager, and mostly about teen concerns. For someone so loved, Taylor is way too often obsessed with her haters, be it on The Last Great American Dynasty or the many lyrics littered throughout the album (“You told me all of my cages were mental /So I got wasted like my potential). A lot of this is still aimed at girls and wee boys, who have grown up, but real life issues other than love and breakup rarely enter the lyrical concerns of this album (like ‘Soon you’ll get better’, from the album Lover, Taylor’s cancer ballad for her mother on the Lover album).

Even if at times, the lyrics are well-observed regarding teenage love, the songs somewhat feel off like anyone in their ‘30s would feel like obsessing about their teens (“And you will come back to me”). Moreover, Taylor famously moves around with models, stars and the jet-set and often times she monetizes it. This undercuts her credibility: her attempt at authenticity and social commentary fall flat simply because they do not ring true. Much of songs of singer-songwriters depend on their ability to connect and on their insight. In a lot of these here songs there is none. No telling details, no keen observations. So they fail.

In terms of production, this appears to be a mood album. With a similar vibe carrying on throughout, it works to the song’s detriment as few of them rise of the level of outstanding or memorable. There are also too many tracks on the album, sixteen. Listening to the album at length lets monotony sets in. Editing the album to maybe 10 tracks would have made it a lot more focused. But then again it would not be Taylor if she did not overshare.

Whereas the instrumentation is spare, interest is added by vocal arrangements and complex backing vocals (say the opening of ‘My Tears Ricochet’). ‘Hoax’ similarly is sweetened by lovely backing vocals, given the song otherwise only comprise(s) piano and a hint of strings. One wonders how or if the album will translate to live performance, especially as recently Taylor has made grand gestures and stadium sized shows her forte. The tracklisting on the album is interesting as well: the album starts with the song ‘the 1’ and ends with ‘the hoax’, making one wonder if that is a comment on her own star arc by Taylor. The muted artwork of the album also represents its muted vibe.

It is ironic that Taylor who has almost singlehandedly sustained the music industry in recent memory, in her efforts to be authentic here fails to connect. Taylor obsessives will possibly eat up the album as deep and meaningful. But the problem with trying one’s luck as a mature singer-songwriter is that one is faced with giants, and a lot of Taylor’s concerns dwarf in front of what has gone before and even her peers. None of the songs here match the singer-songwriting excellence of a Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Lucinda Williams, or even a Lana Del Ray. On that level, the album fails. That is not to say this is a bad album. There are some good songs here and a few great ones, but overall the album is one of Taylor’s least memorable ones. A few outstanding tracks aside, and a few outstanding lyrics excepted, the authentic Taylor Swift in her ‘30s is rather meh and the album in its entirety, for once, is rather boring.

The Empress’s new clothes