If a renowned pop singer’s moment of “surprise album, co-produced by a member of The National, with a guest spot from Bon Iver” doesn’t say “I’m here to reinvent myself,” what really can? Particularly when you’re working at the stature of Taylor Swift, arguably still at the top of the Pop Singer mountain, and you don’t really need to reinvent yourself, or put out a surprise album—or do much of anything, really. Taylor Swift has never been content to stay completely still (sometimes forced into it by the on-stage antics of other, attention-starved tastemakers) creatively, but she does have her hallmarks: here are some break-up songs; here are some songs of triumph over break-up; here are some dance bangers that are also about the topics above. Her songwriting material is similar, but not stagnant, on her new release, Folklore.
Folklore is Swift’s least-bombastic album, which is not to say it isn’t bombastic, just that it lacks the pop sturm-und-drang of your average Taylor Swift album. The replacement of her musical repertoire with moody guitars and occasional, but very effective glitch bits. Aaron Dessner, the aforementioned member of The National, a Conservatory-taught musician with a litany of talents, makes a very clear mark on Swift’s work; the glitches, the unconventional time signatures hiding behind the smooth T-Swift trademarks, the moody string interludes and piano stings all call The National’s most recent album, I Am Easy To Find (and, to a slighter extend, its predecessor, Sleep Well Beast) to mind.
This was the perfect move for Swift to make. If one approaches this album as a naysayer, they’ll be silenced in a hurry. It maintains a certain pleasantness, but enters a Fiona Apple or Norah Jones, or most recently, Jess Williamson territory. Folklore is a little more moody than any single Taylor Swift song that precedes it, and a lot more witchy than anything that came before. On “Epiphany,” with rising strings and piano behind her, she talks about things “med school didn’t cover” and watching someone breathe in and out; it strikes a big difference (albeit late in the album) between this and 1989. This is not so much a Lana Del Rey 2019 Renaissance moment as it is a Taylor Swift 2020 Reinvention moment. The song “Betty,” which directly follows, features her most traditionally Swiftian lyrics, but breaks itself away with an honest-to-God, you’re not hallucinating, it’s really there, harmonica.
Folklore, particularly on tracks like “Exile” (yes, the one with the Bon Iver guest spot) and “August,” evokes a rare sort of “folk epic” feeling. There are elements of traditional Americana that have always been present in Swift’s songwriting, but seem turned up to 11 here. “The Last Great American Dynasty” has an epic enough name to fit the fact that it might be the best song Swift has ever written; it makes its case for a spot at the campfire populated by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and John Cougar Mellencamp right from the head-on instrumental work to the piercing, and, following Petty and Mellencamp and even herself, lyrics dripping with Americana. It is quintessentially that, and perfectly and irreplaceably Taylor Swift.
There’s a track by The National called “You’ve Done It Again, Virginia” that contains the lyric “they say, in this place, you can reinvent yourself.” In recruiting one of the band’s frontmost creators, and calling in many other members of the band for their work (read the full credits! It might as well be Taylor Swift and The National present: Folklore—which is, in no way, an insult), she has made her boldest statement yet. The best part of this? It’s impossible to say now, but there’s a solid case to be made that she didn’t need them, that the heart of this album would have found Taylor Swift, no matter what.