The pop megastar has shifted to sweet folk and it suits her, says Will Hodgkinson
Who would have suggested that a pop megastar such as Taylor Swift would embrace the check shirt-wearing, a craft-beer-swilling world of FOLKLORE Myth the clue is in the name sits in the kind of earthy genre enjoyed by people with liberal arts degrees and an interest in wood carving.
It is a long way from Shake It Off. Swift wrote and recorded much of Folklore in isolation, although at first, she intended to put it out later in the year. “Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed,” she says. And the leading lights of the US alternative scene have come on board.
Aaron Dessner, who contributes to11 of the 16 songs, is the guitarist in the National, widely known as the American Radiohead. Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, became the original rural hipster after disappearing into a Wisconsin log cabin to make 2007 album For Emma, Forever Ago. And while she hasn’t gone the whole hog and taken up morris dancing, Swift’s folk conversion is a convincing one.
It begins with The 1, a nicely underplayed love song about the one that got away before Cardigan evokes the nostalgic allure of Lana Del Rey, with references to Levi’s, vintage T-shirts, and dive bars. It brings out the innocent quality of Taylor’s voice, as do Seven, August and Betty: acoustic guitar-led tunes about young love. Then there is the Bon Iver duet Exile, a sad tale of a couple splitting up.
“There is no amount of crying I can do for you,” Vernon sings in his bruised way, while Swift tells her male counterpart that he failed to see the writing was on the wall. On Hoax she sings, “Darling, this was just as hard as when they pulled me apart,” comparing a lover’s rejection to the pain of public opprobrium.
The strange thing is that, as far as we know, Swift is happily settled down with a nice English lad called Joe Alwyn. Her previous album, Lover, even includes a song about him called London Boy, on which she looked forward to chatting about uni with his mates. Yet pretty much every track here is a tearjerker.
It’s not all thwarted love. Mirrorball is a dreamy indie rocker in which Swift compares herself to the object of the title, and The Last Great American Dynasty tells of a divorcée marrying a scion of oil wealth in Rhode Island. “The wedding was charming if a little gauche; there’s only so far new money goes,” sings Swift, sounding as though she knows of what she speaks.
What started out in beautiful rooms ends with meetings in parking lots,” she posits on Illicit Affairs, making them sound as glamorous as a Saturday morning at B&Q. At an hour-long, without any big pop moments, this is an uncommercial album for Swift. Yet the downbeat style suits her. “I’ve never been a natural. All I do is try, try, try,” she sings at one point, and it’s true; she’s a striver, not a skiver. But strivers get the job done, and Swift’s immersion into this world proves a pleasant surprise.