Personally, the work of artists like Taylor Swift goes largely unnoticed. I do not typically enjoy Pop music, and my writing (as a rule) tends to focus on heavier music. Metal, to be precise, which makes writing about a Pop album way out of my wheelhouse. But there are a few things to take into consideration here:
- The Turning Gem exists to find light where it was previously difficult for me to see through several drapes of darkness.
2. My daughter absolutely loves Taylor Swift, and “Folklore” is an album that has helped her immensely.
3. If I can connect more closely with my little girl, while also providing a positive outsider’s outlook on the likes of Taylor Swift… I call that a win!
The first thing I’d like to mention about this record is the cover art. In Metal circles, the artwork got some negative attention for looking a bit too similar to Black Metal legend Ihsahn’s single for the song “Striding.” People weren’t exactly wrong to point out the commonalities, but the truth is… if anybody takes a black and white photo in the woods, it’s going to look like both “Striding” and “Folklore.” It’s a silly argument, and misses the point entirely.
The cover art for “Folklore” sets a completely different tone than anything Taylor Swift has previously released. Before hearing a note, we’re getting a part of the story she’s trying to tell. Taylor Swift may have spent quite a bit of time lost in the woods, unable to see the color bursting all around her, but she’s not looking down anymore. She appears determined to find her way out, or at least enjoy the scenery while she’s there. On an even deeper level, consider what was happening in the world when the album was released.
The Summer of 2020 saw the entire world in various stages of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone on planet Earth had something in common. Isolation. With that came struggle, certainly, but also self-reflection and ultimately a better understanding of the world around us. Pandemic living forced us all to look at things in ways we never thought necessary… or even possible. Many thousands of people lost their jobs. Or started new hobbies. Or binge watched Tiger King on Netflix. Taylor Swift, like many musicians, decided to record new material. Material partially inspired by her personal experience throughout the lockdown. It seems to me she received some criticism for simply being herself, which I suppose is nothing terribly new in the world of celebrity culture. What was it John Lennon said?
Being honest might not get you a lot of friends, but it’ll always get you the right ones.
The most exciting thing about “Folklore,” for me as a listener, is the collaboration between Swift and Aaron Dessner of The National. I’ve been a huge fan of The National since 2010’s “High Violet,” and the band hasn’t recorded a stinker since. No doubt a huge part of this success has been the vocal stylings of Matt Beringer, but Dessner’s fingerprints cannot be denied. The two of them together are an Indie Rock treasure. With that in mind, I can’t say I was terribly surprised by the highly effective and oddly mature song structures on “Folklore.” RIght out of the gate, in fact, with “The 1,” “Cardigan,” and “The Last Great American Dynasty,” Swift and Dessner’s songwriting chemistry is both evident and addictive. It’s got “guilty pleasure” written all over it, though not quite as brightly as that of Billie Eilish, but certainly at a level I didn’t expect.
There are some moments lyrically that are a bit uncomfortable. Something about Taylor Swift saying “cool shit,” for example, sort of comes off forced… or like she’s trying to be edgy. Ooo! She said a swear! But that’s a nit-pick. It’s the same kind of thing as complaining about the cover art, or scoffing at the possibility that Taylor Swift might enjoy Metal music. What? Is she not allowed to? Is this thirty-year-old woman who’s been through all sorts of emotional crap not allowed to say “shit,” for some reason? Clearly, that’s part of her overly-produced and manufactured image that helped her get lost in the woods to begin with. “When you are young, they assume you know nothing,” she sings, and we all know exactly how true that is.
Still, there’s something oddly girlish about a line like “I felt like an old cardigan – under someone’s bed – you put me on and said I was your favorite,” which contrasts quite brilliantly with some of the more “grown up” subject matter. She knows a big part of her demographic is still young women, with societal pressures to grow up faster than biology intended, and she does not abandon them here. I think that’s wonderful.
A song like “My Tears Ricochet,” for example, is a perfect illustration of a mindset a young woman could really cling to and be inspired by:
I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace
And you’re the hero flying around, saving face
And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?
Cursing my name, wishing I stayed
Look at how my tears ricochet
The song “Mad Woman” is another:
What a shame she went mad
No one likes a mad woman
You made her like that
And you’ll poke the bear till her claws come out.
But what really sets “Folklore” apart is that Taylor Swift isn’t just singing about her experiences, or whining about boys that treated her poorly, she’s telling stories. Extremely deep and personal stories, almost as if the time she spent in isolation helped her realize the beautiful nature of appreciating the rest of the world’s population, all just as vulnerable and occasionally messed up as everyone else. “Epiphany,” and “Peace” both have a universality to them, thematically. As do “Betty,” and “This Is Me Trying.” It seems like Swift is talking as much about others as she is herself, which is a challenge for any writer, let alone one known so well for generally autobiographical material.
Hands down, my favorite song on this record is “Exile,” with “August” being a close second. First of all, Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) could sing the phone book and turn it into a thing of beauty. His voice helps make “Exile” positively heart wrenching.
I think I’ve seen this film before
And I didn’t like the ending
You’re not my homeland anymore
So, what am I defending now?
You were my town, now I”m in exile, seeing you out…
A jealous man, lamenting how far down the low road his relationship has gone. But he isn’t alone in feeling jaded and perplexed, as the female voice joins in:
So step right out, there is no amount
Of crying I can do for you
All this time
We always walked a very thin line
You didn’t even hear me out
You never gave me a warning sign
All this time
An absolutely beautiful song, and effective duet, that could be sung and understood by damn near anyone.
“August,” on the other hand, is just plain old catchy as hell. There is a pain about it, no doubt, but an understanding that comes just in time to keep any sort of depression at bay. This is an expertly written song, and if I’m being honest the closest thing to sounding like The National on the entire record. “This Is Me Trying” has a similar vibe, as well as “Hoax,” and as long as I’m being honest… if I didn’t already know these were Taylor Swift songs, I would have never guessed.
I don’t love this album, but I do love the journey it takes you on. I also love how much happiness these songs give my daughter, Claire, and I can say without question that I approve of the admiration she has shown to these songs. Taylor Swift’s first album came out the year before Claire was born, and I remember clearly buying “Red” on CD for an uncharacteristically giddy five-year-old. My girl doesn’t know a world without Taylor Swift in it, so in a way Swift’s coming-of-age in “Folklore” makes absolutely perfect sense.
Within the confines of our family dynamic, “Folklore” is a record we’re always going to remember, and because of that I am grateful to Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner. It is full of a rare warmth that fathers and daughters don’t often get to share. At least not for very long. Generally speaking. But I have a feeling the time I’ve spent with this album, in an effort to understand where my daughter is coming from, will have been one of the most worthwhile things I’ve done in a very long time.