There’s a scene in Miss Americana, the recent Taylor Swift documentary on Netflix, where Swift is talking about whether she wants to have children. “I kind of don’t have the luxury of figuring that stuff out,” Swift tells producer Joel Little. “My life is planned two years ahead of time.”
(This was in the same conversation where she famously revealed that she didn’t eat her first burrito until she was 26.)
Swift was talking about the obligations of the global pop star — the discipline required to release an album every two years starting when you’re 16, followed by ever more ginormous concert tours. Global domination doesn’t allow for down time, or room for surprises.
On Thursday, Swift caught her millions of fans unaware by announcing that she would be releasing her eighth album, Folklore (Republic / UMG *** 1/2), at the stroke of midnight.
“Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening,” Swift wrote in announcing the album. “But there is something that I hadn’t planned on that DID happen … an entire brand new album of songs I’ve poured all my whims, dreams, fears and musings into.”
The 16-song collection — which includes a bonus track, “The Lakes,” on deluxe editions — was written and recorded entirely during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown that started in March. And Swift made the most of her quarantine, stretching out musically and working remotely with new collaborators. Folklore is mellow, contemplative, and utterly captivating.
The biggest new name in Swift’s universe of collaborators is Justin Vernon of Bon Iver who sings a duet with her on “Exile,” an album highlight.
But the most important assistance comes from Aaron Dessner, multi-instrumentalist member of the moody indie rock band The National, who cowrote or produced 11 of the songs. (His brother Bryce contributed string arrangements.)
Swift also teams up with other “musical heroes,” as called in her Twitter announcement, including her frequent producer Jack Antonoff.
Two songs credit “William Bowery” as a cowriter.
That name has turned speculative Swifties into internet detectives, wondering who it could be. Perhaps her brother, Austin Swift? Or her boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn? Or more tantalizingly, one of her legitimate heroes: Joni Mitchell? It’s an unsolved mystery.
As is the question of whether Swift intentionally chose to surprise-release her impressively executed album on the same day rival Kanye West had announced he would be issuing his own Donda: With Child. The rapper-producer-presidential candidate’s new music did not materialize at midnight Thursday.
Swift said it was the tumult of 2020 that guided her. “Before this year, I would probably have overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed.”
Folklore’s title and its rustic album cover — a thoughtful singer-songwriter captured in black and white, on a solo walk in the woods — led to speculation that Folklore might mark a return to Swift’s country roots, or perhaps be an austere effort after the manner of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.
It is neither.
Folklore merges Swift’s unerring pop songcraft with an indie-rock ethos that values satisfying sonic detail. The aggressive gloss of recent pop extravaganzas like Lover’s “You Need To Calm Down” and “Me!” is nowhere to be found.
But Folklore songs like “My Tears Ricochet” — with the Swiftian zinger, “And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?” — and “Betty” (about making amends for teenage transgressions) don’t make a show of stripping down. They’re decorously adorned with strings, harmonica, and vintage synthesizers that aid them in hitting their sweet spots.
Folklore is Swift’s least obviously autobiographical album, and is mostly not preoccupied with settling scores with haters. The exception is “Mad Woman,” which is tempting to read in the context of her bitter battle to regain ownership of the masters to her pre-Lover albums. “What did you think I’d say to that? Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?”
She stretches out on three songs that depict a teenage love triangle, Rashomon-like, from varied perspectives. And she demonstrates storytelling skills in songs like “The Last Great American Dynasty,” inspired by the late Rebekah Harkness, a previous resident of Swift’s humble seaside home in Watch Hill, R.I.
But Folklore still feels personal, created by compulsion in isolation as a means to connect with an audience the singer has been cut off from.
The swoony first single, “Cardigan,” arrives with a Swift-directed video whose socially distanced shoot, she tells us, “was overseen by a medical inspector, everyone wore masks, stayed away from each other and I even did my own hair and styling.”
In the clip, Swift lowers herself into her piano bench like Alice falling down a rabbit hole. She’s transported to a watery world where she finds herself lost at sea, destined to drown until she catches sight of the piano floating like a rescue raft.
In her time of need, music saves her life.