‘folklore’ is a few easy moves from being great
A Taylor Swift album release is different for different people. For her diehards, of which there are millions, it’s the latest batch of what will certainly be beloved because that’s how we treat our favorite artists.
My experience is more rooting for the biggest star in the world to make the best music possible. I can’t do the “they’re good enough and they’re by Taylor Swift, so they’re classics” thing. That’s not fair to anyone, be it Swift herself or artists whose music might be ignored by people who want Swift and Swift only.
Swift dropped folklore, a surprise album conceived and born while the country was essentially shut down, on Friday. It’s good, though this 16-song album — which was released three months after writing for it began — occasionally sounds like it. Swift, a master of churning out great songs ranging from simple to sophisticated, went for a more folk pop sound, but instead of coming away with great and simple, at times ended up with half-baked works (“august“), sections that sound too much like her previous songs (“cardigan,” “exile”) and arrangements that don’t measure up to the high bar she’s set throughout her career.
This detracts from a project with strong songs like “seven,” “the last great american dynasty,” “epiphany” and “peace.”
This album doesn’t break new ground for Swift just because it isn’t as wild as an album like Reputation. She navigated these waters better years ago as she began transitioning out of country pop. Don’t forget that a younger Swift, who almost exclusively co-writes these days, wrote Speak Now’s “Mean” — a superior song to most, if not all, songs on this album — by herself.
So if just taking more time and refining the songs wasn’t an option, my only issue with it — other than perhaps caving to focus groups and stylizing all her song titles in lower case — is the length, because you bet your bippy there’s a very good album in there. It’s just crowded by filler from someone not known for making anything of the sort.
So a tip of the cap to the loyal Swift fans who will play and love the album beginning to end. I don’t love all the songs — and I don’t think these tunes are going to played for generations as much as her previous work — but I don’t nearly think the project is a waste.
Here’s the track list of the album and how I think it could be better organized into a stronger album. (Two things: I didn’t re-sequence it so it’s easier to tell what got left off, and I for sure capitalized the song titles for the stronger version.)
SOME OF THE KEEPERS
the last great american dynasty: A thoroughly lovable track for anyone not from Rhode Island. Easy, but thoroughly well written. In addition to the story and lyrics, she’s managed to make a song that’s mostly sung low in her range feel like it’s constantly throwing different moods at you. The execution is simple: The verses have minor chords (I-ii-IV and I-ii-vi-IV) and the choruses don’t (V-I-IV-I). When people say Swift — co-writers or not — is a great songwriter, this is what they mean.
mirrorball: It’s vibey and cool, something very frequently lacking in the early going of the album. It’s not the strongest song on the album, but boy is it important to the project.
seven: The best song on the album. It’s beautiful and vulnerable. The chorus sounds like a challenge for Swift vocally, so I appreciate that they chose not to edit out the frequent breaths. It makes it sound like a more genuine performance rather than a “track,” and this song deserves the former.
this is me trying: I love this song, and not just because I would believe it if you told me Josh Tillman wrote it.
betty: Vintage Swift and should be a fan favorite. It sounds like something that could be on Speak Now.
SOME OF THE BONUS TRACKS
the 1: Especially from 1989 on, Swift wasn’t afraid of shock value, because her die-hards always came around to tunes like “Shake it Off” and “Look What You Made Me Do.” I wonder if a song like “the 1” is Swift saving her fans the trouble. If so, it’s unfortunate, because while this song is a departure from the chaos, it’s ultimately a cheap, breezy song that doesn’t really move the needle dynamically.
And I don’t think “the 1” is just substandard for Swift; I don’t know which popular artist could put it on an album and have it be one of its better songs. It would be underwhelming coming from John Legend the way it is coming from Swift.
cardigan, august: These ones break my heart the most, because they’re a good chorus away from being awesome songs. When do we ever say that about Taylor Swift? We all know every word to all of her choruses — sure, because they’re played all the time — but mainly because they’re good! “cardigan” wastes a fantastic verse and post chorus because it enters the chorus dancing perilously close to 1989’s “Wildest Dreams.” “august,” meanwhile, is a reminder that while the best of the best can keep the same chord progression throughout the verse and chorus (“We Are Never G etting Back Together”), if done wrong, it’s just kind of… there. And in the case of “august,” there was so many easy fixes to that in the chorus. For example, instead of repeating I-IV-ii-V, the slight change to something like I-ii-iii-ii-I twice while keeping the root from the I chord in the bass would give it a wispy quality to match its breathy vocal. It’s refreshing when new chords are finally introduced in the second chorus, but by then the song has just meandered for too long.
exile: I like Bon Ever and I like Taylor Swift. I don’t like “Out of the Woods,” so I’d love it if they stopped using that bridge. Shout out Justin Vernon’s harmonies after the first chorus, though. That’s just always going to work.