- 24 Jul 20
Swift retreats to her backwoods cabin and goes indie to stunning effect.
An artist with a track record in devastating break-up balladry but who has lately journeyed in directions that have amazed yet occasionally alienated veteran fans…. Yes, how fantastic to see Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon abandoning the Auto-Tune and returning to heart-on-sleeve first principles as he duets with Taylor Swift on her surprise new album, Folklore.
‘Exile’ – a 16-wheel rumination on heartache, betrayal, and roads not taken – is one of many sublime and esoteric moments on a record that sees Swift embracing the plaid-shirted indie rocker within. Alongside Vernon she has recruited the National’s Aaron Dessner, whose tip-toeing piano lines recall the majestic understatement of his band’s 2019 record, I Am Easy To Find.
It’s an indication of how topsy-turvy the world has gone that the idea of Swift working with the The National and Bon Iver doesn’t feel especially outrageous. A case can even be made that her Nashville background makes her and the Dessner natural collaborators (it’s often forgotten that The National started as an alt.country group). Whatever the provenance, the formula throws up sparks – though it feels safe to assume that some of the more overt pop flourishes are courtesy of Jack Antonoff, the Lorde/St Vincent producer who has worked with Swift since 1989.
A major pop star “going indie” always has the potential to be cute and grating. Folklore avoids such pitfalls. Swift wrote the record in isolation and it stands as evidence that when it comes to melancholic longing the lockdown is an equal opportunities threat to our emotional health.
She has also admitted that, in more conventional times, she might have tinkered to a fault with the material rather than simply putting them out into the world. “Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time,” she said on Instagram. “But the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed.”
Vulnerability and self-doubt are recurring themes. “Vintage tee, brand new phone/ high heels on cobblestones,” she croons on ‘Cardigan’. “When you are young , they assume you know nothing.” It’s extraordinarily raw, especially when combined with Swift’s often uncanny ability to make a downbeat song feel like one of the most uplifting things you’ve heard.
A track fans have already seized upon as a future classic is ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’, a Gatsby-esque saga of star-crossed lovers unfolding against a backdrop of wealth, internecine feuds and destructive entitlement. It is dewy-eyed and epic – a stand-out on what is surely the first great album of the lockdown era.