With only about fifteen hours notice, Taylor Swift has released her eighth studio album.
For the better part of ten years I’ve considered myself a Taylor Swift fan. Do I like all of her songs? Of course not. But I always saw the potential of her songwriting abilities buried within various records filled with catchy pop songs and cheesy ballads. There have been numerous gems — “All Too Well” may still remain the best song she’s ever penned, meanwhile the glossy-yet-retro pop sound from 1989 also contained much to write home about.
And yet, she still has to play the game. She’s still signed to a major label, she still has to fill in the seats of massive arenas and she still needs to get herself on the radio — that’s what someone in her position has to do to stay relevant, to keep a cashflow and to fulfill the contracts that you’ve already signed.
And then a pandemic happened.
And instead of just cozying up to Netflix and pondering about the awful-ness that existed outside her front door, Taylor used this opportunity to step out of her comfort zone and do something totally different. There aren’t any concert venues to fill, there isn’t mainstream media breathing down her neck so it seems like, for the first time, Taylor was presented with a chance to make the music she’s been wanting to make for some time now. Rather than working with her typical pop-Gods such as Max Martin and Shellback, Taylor paired this time of solace with a couple unfamiliar names and another that she has worked with previously and has understood the sound she has been working toward since the aforementioned 1989.
Aaron Dessner is a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer best known for his work in his band, The National, who are known for their slower, brooding ballads and minimalist approach to songwriting. And I recall sometime after Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album, Reputation, was released that she had stated that she wanted to create more songs like “New Years Day”, the closer for that record — a laid back piano song that presents her at her most vulnerable and showcases her natural ability and not necessarily her layered harmonies. So the fact that Taylor and Dessner found each other and had instant chemistry working on her latest release, folklore, makes perfect sense.
Aaron co-wrote and produced 11 of the 16 tracks on this album alongside his brother who worked on some of the orchestration. The other five being split up between Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who also lends his voice on the fourth track, “exile”, and longtime collaborator, Jack Antonoff.
Speaking on Vernon, though — It’s wild to think that we live in a world where the same guy that crooned all over For Emma, Forever Ago is now on a ballad with one of the biggest pop stars in the world. But I’m so glad it happened — because Vernon, Dessner, Antonoff — they were the missing pieces in Taylor’s puzzle. This pandemic allowed her to co-write with artists who’s main focus was never to be the biggest name they could possibly be — artists who like to tell stories, write words that mean something and produce tracks that aren’t glossed up and perfect — but instead, songs that do just enough — where the simplistic, intimate nature of them allow the words to mean more, hold more weight and the end result is and album that leaves Taylor acting, sounding and being more mature than she’s ever been.
This is the reason I have been a fan of hers for so long despite the fact that her style of music doesn't necessarily mesh with the other artists in my "recently added" category on Apple Music. I knew that she was capable of exactly this — I just thought we weren’t going to be able to hear it until she was independent sometime in like, fuck, I don’t know, 2040?
The fact that five tracks on this album have an “explicit” tag on them is reason enough to see that this isn’t the same woman and this isn’t the same kind of an album that is written for those that fell for the feel-good “ME!” that was launched just last year prior and I respect her so much for that shit. It’s a risky move, but one that she has needed to make for quite some time and one that I think will pay off for her immensely when the music industry glances back at her career for the rest of time.
I mean, she straight up uses the term “mouth fuck” in one of these songs and I still can’t wrap my head around that.
I’d have to say my only complaint with this record after my initial listen is simply in it’s length — which if you know me at all, that may immediately sound hypocritical because of how much I adore the latest album from The 1975, which sits at 22 tracks in comparison to folklore’s 16. But the difference here lies within the type of albums that they are — The 1975’s record is bombastic -- it jumps from genre to genre, is filled with interludes, instrumentals, shorter tracks — it’s broad in it’s scope, much more messy and less cohesive. And I love that about it.
Where here, what we have is an extremely focused record — one that stays within it’s rights and rarely branches out from what it’s attempting to be — which I also love. However, at over an hour, the last third begins to drag and the songs slowly start to blend in together. That’s not to say that any of them are bad at all — I think I need to state right now that I absolutely think this is undoubtedly the best record she has ever made — but had she kept it at 13 tracks, I think it would have a slightly better flow overall.
With that being said, this is a minor complaint — maybe I’m nitpicking. And I’m sure it’s length will grow on me as well. Because on the opposite end, I can’t praise this record enough. She did it. She actually did it.
Not only will this be one of my favorite albums that will come out this year, but it may end up on that “favorite of all time” document on my phone that I keep coming back to on a daily basis.
I gotta give give a few more listens though — for now, take that as hyperbole.