Out of the Woods
Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album, Folklore (24 July, 2020; Republic), came as something of a surprise, in a year that has been full of them. Swift had been due to headline Glastonbury this summer to promote her latest record Lover, but then the pandemic arrived and, like many, she retreated into her home. Unlike most, however, she used the time to change the direction of her career by producing an album that is much less glossy and more contemplative than her previous. A further surprise was that the usual heavily-planned publicity teasers were discarded, as Swift chose to drop the album without any fanfare at all.
And then came an even bigger surprise, as Swift dropped Evermore on 11 December. On social media, Swift referred to the album as ‘Folklore's sister record’: "To put it plainly, we just couldn't stop writing songs," she wrote. Consequently, Guitars Exchange has decided to do one ‘super-review’, taking each album in turn.
Firstly, Folklore feels different to Swift’s previous releases because this time she has decided to largely eschew the traditional pop formulas and instead refreshingly embrace folk, alt-rock and indie. There is guitar, possibly her Gibson J-180, but a lot of the songs are piano-driven, supported by cello, saxophone and even the use of a Mellotron, to add more depth and atmosphere to the tunes.
Then there is her support team, which this time includes long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff, along with new producer Aaron Dessner (guitarist for The National), who co-wrote 11 of the 16 songs. Another key element in the mix was a certain ‘William Bowery’ who, after much mirror and smoke, was revealed to be none other than her long-time boyfriend and actor, Joe Alwyn.
Dessner’s influence is immediately apparent on the first track, The 1, which is a moody instrumental, driven by piano. This is followed by the sultry Cardigan, but the first really substantive song arrives with The Last Great American Dynasty, which tells the story of the sparky maverik Rebekah Harkness, who married into money, and who apparently once resided in Swift’s Rhode Island mansion. This song showcases Swift at her best as she focuses in on spicy historical details and spins what is perhaps a very personal tale about how society treats strong women.“There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen, She had a marvellous time ruining everything,” Swift intones about her apparent soulmate; although ‘ruining everything’ is hardly something one thinks about when considering the American’s career.
The album then throws a curveball with the fatalistic Exile, which features Justin Vernon (credited as Bon Iver). This country and R&B-tinged song starts slow but builds into a crescendo of strings and dark emotion as Swift sings: “I can see you staring, honey, Like he’s just your understudy, Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me.”
Next up is My Tears Ricochet, which again picks over the bones of another relationship gone wrong. Swift of course is a master at producing trenchant and memorable one-liners such as “And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?” and “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace[...] you’re the hero flying around, saving face.” More wonderfully pithy lyrics are featured on Invisible String - “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind, For the boys who broke my heart, Now I send their babies presents,” - although this time they are delivered in the context of a woman who is currently in a happy relationship.
Lana Del Rey-type tragedy returns with Mad Woman; but more interesting is the war-themed hymn, Epiphany, which relates the story of Swift’s grandfather Dean landing on the beaches of Guadalcanal in 1942. Swift returns to more familiar territory with Betty, which tells the story of teenage James, who is seeking to win back his girlfriend after an illicit fling. The song is not only familiar in terms of the lyric, but also the music, which sees Swift returning to her country roots.
On the process of the creative transition from Folklore to Evermore, on the other hand, Swift said: “It felt like we were standing on the edge of the folklorian woods and had a choice: to turn and go back or to travel further into the forest of this music… We chose to wander deeper in.” And that is exactly what she does, looking further inward on the same kinds of themes, which become more intimate as a result. On Evermore, Swift somehow masterfully combines highly relatable everyday stories with dramatic events, such as murder and the actions of confidence tricksters, which thankfully most of us ordinarily don’t have to deal with.
The continuous thread between the two albums has been her ongoing working relationship with The National’s Aaron Dessner (who collaborated on all but one song on Evermore), Jack Antonoff, Justin Vernon and Joe Alwyn (who was involved in three of the songs). ‘New spice’, however, was added in the form of Mumford & Sons' Marcus Mumford (who contributes backing vocals on the country-tinged Cowboy like me) and a track featuring Swift’s friends from HAIM, Este and Danielle, (on No body, no crime, about suspected infidelity).
The standout track, however, is the acoustic guitar-driven opener Willow, which is accompanied by a video directed by Swift herself and extends the fantastical journey from Cardigan. “One scene represents how I feel about fame,” she has said, presumably referring to the moment when she tries to make contact with a ‘person of interest’ in a crowd, before finding that there is a glass barrier between them. Champagne problems, co-written with Joe Alwyn, on the other hand, is another catchy number with lyrics that range from the romantic - “Sometimes you just don’t know the answer, Til someone’s on their knees and asks you” – to the ribald - “She would’ve made such a lovely bride, what a shame she’s fucked in the head.”
'Tis the damn season sees Swift returning to her hometown and rekindling an old flame, while Happiness refers to the bitter end of a long term relationship: “I hope she’ll be a beautiful fool, Who takes my spot next to you.” By contrast, Marjorie pays touching tribute to her maternal grandmother Marjorie Finlay, who died in 2003 and who was herself a singer.
Swift returns to folk, guitar, and the theme of infidelity, on Ivy, which was co-written with Aaron Dessner and Antonoff; while the album closes with the beautiful piano-driven ballad Evermore. This final track sees Swift again in reflective mood and trying to put her pain behind her when a ‘frantic dialogue’ suddenly ensues with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon; before the song returns to a solo reflection once more.
The cover of Folklore features Swift emerging from a misty wood and apparently contemplating the grandeur of the world around her, which might be taken as a metaphor for what she, and many of us, experienced in 2020. Swift, however, appears to have grown stronger from the experience and has left us with not just one but two collections of songs that seem certain to endure. Frankly, it is staggering that she has managed to produce these two outstanding albums in between re-recording her first six albums. The American’s legend continues to grow apace.