★★★★½ of 5
For someone who never was a fan of Swift’s predilection for over-contemplation in her lyrics, I have to admit Folklore caught me off-guard. Here, the artist gets the complex balance to a tee: Largely written in the wake of COVID-19, this is an album that examines themes of retrospection and introspection, reflection and resolve, urge for control and resignation.
It’s cynical to readily dismiss Folklore’s quality to her collaboration with The National’s Aaron Dessner (who co-wrote more than half of the album’s songs), and with Bon Iver (who sang on and co-wrote “Exile”). And it’s a valid point, especially when the atmosphere permeating throughout sounds like anything The National or Bon Iver would record themselves.
But that doesn’t paint the whole picture, because Folklore is purely Swift inside and out. For instance, lyrics like “When you are young they assume you know nothing,” (“Cardigan”) and “I think I’ve seen this film before — and I didn’t like the ending” (“Exile”) are staples of the Swift School of Songwriting.
But here’s what changed: You have to listen to the brooding calm of the way the singer expresses the frustration, anger, and eventual acquiescence. It’s something Swift teased in her previous album, Lover, and employed full-time here. And to say that it’s wonderful is a massive understatement.
Despite the album title, there’s nothing inherently folk in Folklore, or at least not purely folk. Much like Lover, Swift reuses elements of synth and electronic pop here. Even the songs — with themes detailing the artist’s whims, fears, and dreams in between melancholic dirges — pack the same punches.
What’s different, however, is that Folklore seems to be written by an artist freed from the shackles of constraints. All 16 songs weave through a common retrospective narrative; as though Swift recovered a dusty shoebox in her attic containing photographs and relics of her childhood. Whether with songs evoking Natalie Imbruglia (“August”), Paula Cole (“Seven”), Tori Amos (“Hoax”), or the late Dolores O’Riordan (“Mirrorball”); Folklore sounds and feels like Swift’s most personal album, an exercise in nostalgia no one asked for but definitely needed.
But most importantly, this is Swift at her most peaceful, so much so that one can almost taste her resignation to accept things she couldn’t control in the first place. Make no mistake, the songs aren’t any happier; but they are more matured, pointed, and exasperated (language!). Simply put, this is Swift’s best album.
Such a sentiment I never imagined I’d blurt out, but in this case it’s all worth it: Folklore is the Taylor Swift that I love — or more accurately, the Taylor Swift that I thought after Red would never return.
Thus far, we now have one of the best albums of the year.