With a little help from the National's Aaron Dessner, Taylor Swift may have just released the best album of 2020
Rating: 5 Stars
Taylor Swift has had high profile disputes with several of her peers — and her beef with Kanye West goes back years. The troubled rapper — an unlikely candidate for the US Presidency — was rumoured to release a new album this weekend. It hasn’t arrived. Was stealing West’s thunder what prompted Swift to release this surprise eighth album now?
Admitting to overthinking when the optimum time to release music is, she says the pandemic inspired her to be more spontaneous. Whatever the reason, Folklore is a remarkable statement of intent – a sprawling, 16-track collection that makes a good case for itself as the best Taylor Swift album to date.
It was apparently written and recorded during lockdown and it finds the Pennsylvania native collaborating with a host of America’s left-field and indie talents. Aaron Dessner, guitarist with The National — a band beloved among Irish audiences — has co-written several of the songs and is credited as co-producer. He’s an inspired choice, as anyone who has heard his production work on Lisa Hannigan’s most recent album will attest to.
She also retains the services of Jack Antonoff as writer and producer. He’s someone who has helped her straddle the line between global superstar with mass appeal and a damn good singer-songwriter keen to salvage her identity from the altar of pop homogeneity, not least on her last album, Lover, which came out less than a year ago.
The first syllable of Folklore hints at Swift’s new direction. At turns meditative, whimsical and pastoral, these songs are worlds away from the glittering pop that has marked her narrative since her 2012 album Red. These are folk songs with a light pop dusting and a mature suite to compliment her 2015 masterpiece, 1989, which was given a track-by-track alt-country reinterpretation by Ryan Adams that same year.
There’s very little of the bombastic arrangements that have characterised her oeuvre in recent times. Instead, the music is pared back – much of it built around piano and subtly textured electronica. Her voice, always a gloriously expressive instrument, is given room to shine and it does so from the start.
The opening four songs represent the best 15 minutes or so of any album released in 2020. There’s the beautiful, stately ‘The 1’ which looks back on an old relationship and seeks to celebrate what made it special rather than what drove the lovers apart.
On the piano-led ‘Cardigan’, she sounds uncannily like Lana Del Rey – no bad thing. ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ is one of several songs that finds her in storytelling mode, imagining the lives of others — on this occasion, the trials and tribulations of an heiress called Rebekah West Harkness, whose old Rhode Island mansion Swift purchased some years ago.
The fourth track, Exile, is among the best songs of her career — a gorgeous duet with Wisconsin troubadour Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver. Vernon, incidentally, has previously collaborated with Kanye West, but this is a union that yields better results.
Throughout Folklore Swift relies on the songwriting smarts of herself and her collaborators, rather than studio pyrotechnics. And yet, the album is sumptuously recorded — listen to the sonic perfection of the tracks ‘Mirrorball’ and ‘Seven’ which demonstrate that even during a time of social distancing, technology is such that remote collaboration does not have to mean diminished quality.
Swift has the standing and means to call on whomever she chooses, but the guests here are picked for their musical talents rather than their name. Besides Dessner, Antonoff and Vernon, The National’s Bryce Dessner (Aaron’s brother) and Bryan Devendorf appear, as does Thomas Bartlett, the prolific pianist and one-fifth of Irish trad supergroup the Gloaming.
Such august company help to ensure the high standards, but Swift is front and centre of everything. Perhaps it’s time for those who have dismissed her as just another production-line singer to realise what many already know: she’s not just one of the greatest pop stars of her generation, she’s one of the finest tunesmiths too.
At 30, and with a substantial body of work already behind her, Folklore is Swift telling the world in no uncertain terms that she will be around for a long time to come. And good on her.