Taylor Swift: Folklore Review- ‘If I remove my brain and just listen, I like it’

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“Standing on my tallest tiptoes, trying to get you to look at me”. Taylor Swift is back with her newest album Folklore; the world looking on trying to make up its mind about the latest offering from the voice of the decade. Back with the familiar defensiveness and female-empowerment associated with her previous work, the rhetorical viciousness of  ‘mad woman’  leads the charge.

Image courtesy of Olivia Kenny

Though this album is far from an isolation-induced rerun of ‘We are never ever, ever getting back together, it channels a more sophisticated ‘Shake It Off’ vibe. Swift is one of many artists exploiting the current lack of commercial pressure and producer demands to adopt some creative freedom and start experimenting. This certainly shows in Folklore

Deep, mournful baselines, pained, could-melt-butter vocals, and steady drum beats (a novelty for producer Aron Dessner). Where’s my electro-pop beat and annoyingly catchy chorus?

This is different. This album is for her. The cynical part of me wants to say this is another pop girl icon pretending to break away from the vices of her producers and make her “own” music – an unsurprising decision considering her ongoing battle with Big Machine Records over music rights.  Throwing some sombre piano melodies in place of feel-good, racing guitar riffs and synthesizer beats to sound “different” is an interesting change of pace for the songstress and dare it to be said, a step back to her first and second albums.  Her collaboration with Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver, is simply Taylor Swift trying to appear a “serious” artist, well-versed beyond the pop-music scene.  Well, I tell myself, it appears like this because she is.

She is undeniably one of the most versatile pop-artists of the 21st century and has repeatedly shown her ability to jump between styles by not only dipping her toes into new waters but plunging her heart head-first into the waves of unexplored territory, both personally and artistically. From the fairy tale-esque, country-girl-meets-pop, ‘Love Story’ that her career has been well known to orbit around, to the jarringly intense bitterness of ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, to the pain-filled reflections on failed relationships that prove to be a constant broken bone being plucked in her long 14-year catalogue. Reflections in which she is not afraid to admit her role in other people’s heartache and further, recognises her growth. Nowhere is this more clearly put than in betty and, more humorously, invisible string –  “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart. Now I send their babies presents.”

If I remove my brain for a second and just listen, if I forget her pop-sensation reputation and take it for what it is, I like it. It’s raw, honest. It’s good.  A veneer of pop over pain? Maybe that is what makes Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift. Maybe that’s why I can forgive the occasional sameness of the tunes, the cringe-worthy titles like ‘my tears ricochet’, and what is simply a poor excuse for bad grammar, ‘the 1’.  Instead of appreciating the unique messages; flip-flopping between typical break-up resentment and a newfound self-awareness and humility.

Though “chasing shadows in the grocery line” is a lyric I’ll never quite capture the meaning of, it will always remind me of the non-pareil ambiguity and cryptic imagery associated with The National. Producer, Aaron Dessner’s influence clearly extends far beyond the delicate strings, piano and uncharacteristically rhythmic drum beats. I urge readers to listen to pretty much any of The National’s work and you’ll see what I mean.

Casting aside my earlier cynicism, Bon Iver is an unexpected, yet more than welcome pairing, in the bitter-sweet track ‘exile’. An aptly named title for a Bon Iver collaboration, considering Justin Vernon’s decision to isolate himself in Wisconsin in 2006, spurring his musical creativity. Vernon’s gruff, synthesised vocals are a pleasant contrast to Swift’s soft and sultry voice, making it sound as though Vernon has been taking singing lessons off the Slow Show’s Rob Goodwin…again, give it a listen and you’ll know that I mean. There’s no doubt that Folklore has even those dismissing Swift because it was “sort of cool to do so”, as Meredith Clark puts it in her review, seeing her in a new light. Such an attitude is an “even bigger waste [of time] right now. Everything is horrifying, and we should all enjoy beauty where we can find it.” This album has it.

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