REVIEW: Taylor Swift finally grows up with ‘Folklore’



This cover image released by Republic Records shows “Folklore,” the eighth record by Taylor Swift. Swift says the standard edition, available Friday, will include 16 tracks and the album will feature Bon Iver, Aaron Dessner of The National and frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff. (Republic Records via AP)

I spend a lot of time thinking about Taylor Swift.

For all her faults — her history of butting heads with other massive personalities, her downright lack of skill at picking good lead singles and a recent tendency to overstuff albums with filler tracks — there is no denying that Swift is one of the best, most important artists of the 21st century. 

When she announced Thursday she would drop her eighth studio album, “Folklore,” I was hoping for the best.

Swift’s last two albums, “Reputation” and “Lover,” while successful and generally well-received, failed to capture the cultural dominance she had achieved at the beginning of the 2010s; I did not want to see her fail.

There are no radio-friendly hooks on “Folklore.” There’s no mention of haters or bad reputations or comparing real-life romantic fixtures to James Dean or Romeo. And it is a breath of fresh air.

Rather than put the narrative focus on various relationships, heartbreaks and other phenomena from a first-person perspective, “Folklore” employs the folk-music tradition of using songs to tell the stories of others.

Swift, who for so many years, has felt the need to mine her public perception and various feuds into increasingly grating pop songs, is stepping away from her old devices and is allowing her best skill — storytelling via songwriting — to take the lead.

One of the strongest uses of this on the album is Swift crafting a fictional love triangle on the tracks “cardigan,” “august” and “betty,” supposedly each from the perspective of a different person in the situation. 

The songs are reminiscent of the high-school love ballads found on Swift’s earliest albums, but with a more nuanced, complete telling of what could easily be a simple breakup song.

the last great american dynasty,” a Lana Del Rey-esque narrative of a widow despised by her East Coast community pulls the listener in with its strong characters, made all the more fascinating when one learns it is based on a real, authentically outrageous woman.

Swift, who dabbled in somber self-aware ballads with 2019’s “The Archer” again takes an authentic look inward on the penultimate track “peace.”

The stripped-back accompaniment and personal lyrics take a look at Swift’s often-turbulent personal life as she laments her inability to provide a more calm experience to her longtime boyfriend Joe Alwyn.

Swift continues to ask “Would it be enough if I never gave you peace?” a simple and deeply effective method of lamenting her own messiness. While in the past, Swift has turned her personal drama into a spectacle — including an entire studio album on the topic — she lays her emotions bare, making the song feel more meaningful and true.

All 16 tracks are detailed and fully realized, requiring multiple listens to fully understand the web being weaved.

This is not to say that Swift’s music before “Folklore” was of a lower quality or that she only now deserves to be taken seriously after stepping away from the conventions of pop music. She has always been capable of making mature, thoughtful music with a strong sense of story, even when abiding by a more traditional pop structure

The issue with Swift, however, was that despite writing a number of songs that showcase her songwriting prowess and skill to adapt across genres, there were just as many that reflected a less mature, watered-down version of her talents. 

While these songs were fixtures of pop radio and the most extreme of earworms, they were not indicative of Swift’s full potential. 

“Folklore” is not just Swift’s best album in years, it is perhaps the first album where she lets go of trying to play the pop music game and allows herself to just be.