Bob Dylan went electric, The Beatles discovered psychedelia, and now Taylor Swift seems to be transitioning into indie rock goddess….ok, these are all ludicrous comparisons and exaggerations, but the pop icon’s sudden shift into uncharted territory could well be the start of a new, exciting chapter in her already 15 year career.
In actuality, Swift’s career has always been about gradual growth and change, as she transitioned from country sensation to mainstream pop goddess, all the while keeping the core tenets of her artistry intact; her introspective, often biting and clever takes on her personal relationships along with more nuanced statements on her autonomy and independence.
The indie folk genre that has been pioneered by Bon Iver, The National and numerous other acts over the last 20 years is in reality a perfect nesting ground for Swift’s brand of soul probing story-songs, and thanks to genre mainstays Jack Antanoff producing and The National’s Adam Dressen co-writing 11 of the album’s 16 songs, she sounds completely comfortable and authentic in these previously uncharted waters.
Those looking for the next “Shake It Off” or “You Need to Calm Down” can stick with the mega-selling albums they came from; the slick beats and catchy hooks are replaced with stripped down arrangements, crisp piano and guitar, the occasional dreary organ, and Swift’s sultry, often ethereal vocals. Her voice barely rises above a whisper on many tracks, giving them an intimate, haunting presence that recalls Lana Del Rey and even Joni Mitchell.
Each one of folklore’s 16 tracks ranges from very good to absolutely excellent, with some of the best songs in her career in the second half of the album; it’s tough to narrow it down to a few highlights, but the dreamy “mirrorball,” the poignant and haunting “this is me trying,” the mournful “illicit affairs” and the closing “hoax” stand among Swift’s very best material ever. Other standouts include the bouncy, wistful “the last great american dynasty” and “my tears ricochet,” the latter maybe Swift’s darkest song to date and largely interpreted as a veiled kiss-off to her former record label, Big Machine.
In a year that has seen incredible new music by everyone from Bob Dylan to Phish to Dua Lipa to Fiona Apple to Lady Gaga, folklore holds its own as a bold and powerful artistic statement with the quality to match its ambitions. With this record, Swift’s next move just became that much more exciting and unpredictable.