Taylor Swift “folklore”

This past Saturday night around 10:30 I was scrolling on Facebook, and a post by Clarice Jensen came up. She mentioned playing on the new Taylor Swift album.

I did a double take.

Jensen linked to an Instagram post by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who mentioned some other guest players, including his brother, Bryce.

I fired up Tidal and streamed the album. I listened to it twice, on headphones. I liked it. It’s a fairly easy-on-the-ears release. The songs are catchy.

A couple minor things did bug me during the initial listens:

    * The lowercase album title and song titles. Again, minor, but an affectation.

    * That track with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. As soon as the insufferable baritone drone made an appearance, I hit “skip.” I mean, we do need to draw the line somewhere.

The next night, I played the album loud on the living room hi-fi.

I began to notice other things.

This is a wordy album. The sounds are seductive, but the lyrics are foremost.

(there’s a lyric I want you to remember. It’s from the second song on folklore, and maybe the catchiest track, “cardigan”. The line is this):

When you are young they assume you know nothing

I think Taylor liked St. Vincent’s Masseduction — has it really been three years since it was released? — especially “Happy Birthday Johnny” and “New York”. Why shouldn’t she? They’re among the best songs on the album.

In “the last great american dynasty,” Taylor inserts herself into some history (and its attendant mansion). After the first verse, my partner, Kate, ran into the room and said “this is SO Imogen Heap!” Neither of us knew that Heap has written for/with Swift in the past.

After listening to the rest of the song, I played St Vincent’s “New York” for Kate. When the line so much for a home run with some blue bloods came up, I blurted “THAT’s how you write lyrics.”

I hear a lot of other things on folklore.

Pastiche predominates.

Such a variety of pastiche! And I keep coming back to the lyrics. Not FOR the lyrics. To the lyrics.

“betty” makes me think of the self-absorbed bedroom pop of Her Space Holiday. A couple of the songs come across like the deeper, more restrained tracks on Madonna’s Like A Prayer (listen to the final verses of “my tears ricochet” and tell me it doesn’t resemble a fuck-you-Sean outtake). Lines like “if I’m dead to you why are you at the wake?” sounds like something Mark Eitzel crumpled up and threw in the trash while writing the final American Music Club album.

And while we’re discussing song titles like “my tears ricochet” (heavy on the lowercase, there, brah) I have to address the on-the-nose quality of most of the lyrics.

“illicit affairs” reads like a one-woman call-and-response to Fiona Apple’s “I Know”. Listen to the Fiona track. Then check out Swift’s sledgehammer imagery on illicit.

The majority of folklore is delivered with a breezy, seemingly-effortless vibe, but the lyrics often come across as labored. Nuance, and subtle, impressionistic suggestion aren’t Taylor’s songwriting strong points. And when she drops in coy fucks and shits and so forth and whatnot, the cussing just feels forced.

“the 1”, “peace”, and ‘hoax,” among others, string together passels of clichés. In the latter, she rhymes “my best laid plan” and “your sleight of hand”. In “peace,” she chants “swing with you for the fences, sit with you in in the trenches,” tells us “the devil’s in the details” and coos about “the courage of [her] convictions.”

Swift neglects turning clichés against themselves; instead, she falls back on them as lazy emotional shorthand. And song titles like “this is me trying” aren’t helped by lines like “I got wasted like all my potential.”

“mirrorball” and “august” are video-ready dream-pop fluff, the lightest, easiest (and weakest) tracks, lyrically and musically. “august” is almost bailed out by Bryce Dessner’s deft orchestral swells towards the close, but ends up dumbed-down by rote typewriter rhythms.

So what’s to like about Taylor Swift’s folklore? What attracted me to it in the first place, that night I sat up in bed listening to it on headphones past midnight?

The melodies are engaging, and memorable. Swift’s voice and singing style are self-assured and compelling. The arrangements, production, and instrumentation are usually (and, sometimes, unusually) effective and skilled. The synth collage and SFX gremlins at the close of cardigan, for instance, are wonderful.

folklore will be a big success. The nearly-unanimous opinion among music critics is that it’s a masterpiece. It will attract new, adult fans — not just listeners who grew up with Swift, but grown-ups. Moms. Forty-somethings. Those new fans will include people who might’ve thought that Swift was overexposed, whiny, and predictable. Perhaps some (let’s call them hipsters) who like the album will do so for all the wrong, ironic reasons.

Followers who’ve been with her since the early days will find enough familiar “you didn’t love me and didn’t deserve me but you deserve this bile” material here.

There was a little game we oldsters would play when a new Joni Mitchell album was released, called “who’s this song about?” I wager Taylor Swift would like us all to do the same with her tunes.

Thing is: Joni Mitchell had a poetic soul, could turn a phrase, and paint a vivid, memorable portrait with her music.

folklore‘s wordage isn’t engaging or colorful enough to compel me wonder about the subject matter.

And oh — that lyric?

When you are young they assume you know nothing

Perhaps, however inadvertently, it turns out this line might not be just a pandering wink to her (previous) fanbase. Perhaps Taylor Swift’s next album will bring maturation: fewer clichés and overextended metaphors, and more artistic ambiguity and originality.

folklore, taken on its immediate sonic merits, is a good — not great — album. It works well on headphones. It sounds good in the car. Tap your foot, do the indie-folk sway, hum along.

Just don’t expect timeless lyrics.

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