Taylor Swift, a Pop star done with Pop
By Jon Caramaniza
The song that catapulted Taylor Swift from too-cool-for-country phenom to the-world-is-not-enough pop supernova was “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the debut single from her fourth album, “Red,” in 2012. The first of her songs to top the Billboard Hot 100, it deployed country references as a tease on the way to an ecstatically saccharine, unmistakably pop hook — a universal anthem of I’m over it.
Right after the song’s gleeful taunt of a first chorus, Swift drilled down on just the kind of guy she was thrilled to be rid of: “You would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.”
Sick burn. Delivered with an eye roll — literally, in the song’s video — it announced that Swift understood the power and cool of her own music (which was not, at that point, widely conceded). And it tautly encapsulated the way that mopey interiority has often been perceived as — make that mistaken for — depth. That’s about men, of course, but certainly about songs, too. It’s a trap that whole genres are built on.
Now, eight years later, Swift has made, well, one of those records herself, or at least something like it. “Folklore” (Republic), her alternately soothing and soppy, pensive and suffocating eighth album, is a definitive jolt away from the last near-decade of Swift’s high-gloss, style-fluid, emotionally astute big-tent pop.
Made from scratch in the quarantine era, “Folklore” was recorded at her home in Los Angeles, and written and produced in remote collaboration largely with Aaron Dessner (from the National) and her go-to emotional extractor, Jack Antonoff.
Choosing this approach may be purely a function of circumstance, but Swift has been due for a rebaptism for some time now. “Folklore” marks a conclusion (temporary or not, it’s unclear) to her long march into the teeth of contemporary megapop, which over the course of four albums — “Red,” “1989,” “Reputation” and “Lover” — has paid decreasing dividends, musical and social. Becoming a true centrist pop star is a battle Swift never quite won, and is a battle no longer worth waging.
“Folklore” is the first attempt at a post-pop Swift, and it is many things that Swift albums generally are not: rough-edged, downtrodden, spacey. It is a completely canny pop album smothered in places by Dessner, whose production can be like wet clothing tugging at Swift, slowing her down, sapping her vim. Swift isn’t an especially powerful singer, though she achieves a lot with a naturally jumpy tone and enthusiasm. But both of those signatures wilt here as often as not. The tart edge that she specializes in — the one that’s viciously effective when taunting, or pining — is coated with layers of gauzy strings (there is plenty of cello), austere piano, throbbing Mellotron, smeared saxophone, atmospherics that thicken the air.
As Swift has long demonstrated, contemplation and exuberance aren’t mutually exclusive; nor are brightness and reflection. And so “Folklore” songs fall into roughly two camps: excellent Swift-penned songs that are sturdy enough to bear the production, and others that end up obscured by murk.
Some of the album’s best songs are mildly restrained versions of familiar Swift modes. On “Betty,” she delivers teenage romantic regret with the icy, knowing vocal shiver she deploys in her most felt moments, with faint echoes of the wistful “Tim McGraw,” her 2006 debut single. The airy, earthy “Invisible String,” about trusting fate, is the only truly hopeful-sounding song on the album (and the only one about a happy, fulfilled relationship), and it features some of Swift’s most vivid lyrics: “Cold was the steel of my ax to grind/For the boys who broke my heart/Now I send their babies presents.”
More intriguing are the tracks where the experimentation with tonal approach succeeds. “Seven” opens with an ethereally lustrous vocal, with Swift sighing her lyrics, landing the rhymes in unexpected places. On “Illicit Affairs,” she whispers her words like long-resented secrets — “Tell your friends you’re out for a run/You’ll be flushed when you return” — sprinkled with sunburst syllables designed to freeze perpetrators in their tracks.
And then there’s “Exile,” the most atypical song on the album. A lovely, anguished duet with Justin Vernon (credited as Bon Iver), it’s a stark and unsettling back and forth of recriminations. Swift telegraphs distance and skepticism: “I can see you staring, honey/Like he’s just your understudy/Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me.” But it’s the end of the song, when Swift and a husky-voiced Vernon go line for line in some combination of hard-whiskey country, desperate R&B and black-box-theater dialogue, that you feel the full emotional corrosion. All around them, pianos toll like grandfather clocks, stern and fatalistic.
Given its overall dourness, the album is a retreat from conventional pop language, which is to say, it may well be a retreat from radio. Not that that much matters for Swift, who has spent more than a decade earning her fans, and may well be approaching the Beyoncé stage of her career, where cultural authority isn’t dependent on steady hitmaking. That’s the new nature of pop superstardom anyhow: mass-scale cult figures superserving their most ardent followers by the millions.
Seen that way, perhaps the sonic experimentation on “Folklore” isn’t really about embracing a new genre so much as abandoning any sense of duty to the ones she’s been built upon. Country, pop, ’80s rock, hip-hop: they’ve merely been vessels, weapons she knows how to trigger to advance the central tenets of Swiftiness.
The desolate, stubborn, overcomposed indie rock of “Folklore,” though, is a tough thicket to tame. Sometimes she triumphs, wrestling it until it’s slack. But when it stifles her, it deserves all the eye rolls it gets.