Rating – 4/5
‘Folklore’ is the latest offering from Taylor Swift, which as you can imagine from the name, borrows heavily from the folk tradition. It’s a collection of stories, self reflection and assorted musings set to a backdrop of downbeat, alternative folk and dream pop.
Aaron Dessner and Jack Antanoff are credited as co-writers on every track and their influence really brings out the best in Taylor’s songwriting. Their status as indie heavyweights and their responsibility for, what I assume would be, the vast majority of the instrumentation and production on the record give it appeal beyond Taylor’s ordinary remit.
Expect plenty of piano ballads, low-fi indie production and of course the mournful cry of a softly muted trumpet floating through like the world’s saddest, alternative seagull. This haunting, melancholic feel permeates the record throughout but there’s enough of a pop veneer to keep things from getting too gloomy.
Taylor has always been regarded as a modern day pop icon with that distinctly country background that’s propelled her to popularity amongst a large section of the population; but this effort is stripped back, honest and less bombastic than the usual pop brat offerings. This transition into exploring more mature material is extremely refreshing; what’s even better is that it doesn’t feel phoned in or manufactured. There’s a real sincerity and honesty in her expression.
Despite the fact that this record is very much a sepia tinted exercise in self reflection, it still manages to be rich and uplifting in places. This is partly thanks to Taylor’s vocal ability, switching between dour folk singer and peppy pop icon pretty seamlessly. She can sustain the low soft vocals, whilst still being able to throw in the occasional cheeky pop yowl that she’s best known for.
The album comes in at just over an hour long, but is composed of sixteen tracks giving it a bit more depth and requiring slightly more attention to get through. There are no two minute bangers, rather the record is probably best consumed as a whole. The only downside to this being that the echo-y production can become slightly stale; with some of the middle tracks drifting by without too much consequence compared to the stronger material on the album.
Taylor draws parallels between herself and Rebekah Harkness as the enfant terribles of their respective generations on ‘the last great american dynasty’. It’s tracks like this that blend a style of folk storytelling with the upbeat pop melodies that give the record a broad appeal.
Bon Iver appears on ‘exile’ which is a stormy ballad between an arguing couple. This track favours a call and response between the vocal parts, yet they still harmonise nicely in the chorus. It’s quite easy in a duet style song to simply sing the low/high harmonies but the arrangement of the vocals in this track sets it apart from a standard boy/girl breakup ballad.
The twangy nylon motif on ‘invisible string’ sits nicely on top of a sparsely populated backing; this and Taylor’s vocals cut through the mix really strongly giving the track a really strong identity of its own. The instruments fade away for the hook in the chorus with a super catchy descending vocal run that is really satisfying.
Without going on a track by track basis, these particular songs give a really good flavour of the album’s overall thematic and musical offerings. The record gives a hint that Taylor may be moving into her Lana Del Rey-esque phase of songwriting; certainly the choices on this album reflect a desire to explore her more pensive side. It’s a contemplative exercise in blending folk and pop and one that’s highly polished and eminently listenable.
Review by Theo Wildgoose