I remember the first time I heard “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” I was in my Hyundai Sonata, rolling through the H.E.B. parking lot, in 2012, back before I wrote things about music and before I even made music. The song came on the radio; I said, “this is a good song! I’m going to Shazam it.” When the app displayed the artist, my jaw hit the floor. “Wait … this is Taylor Swift?”
“We Are Never Getting Back Together” forced me — and, candidly, much of the world — to reevaluate Ms Swift. She was no longer a pop-country prodigy, but a bonafide superstar.
Red, the album on which “We Are Never Getting Back Together” — as well as the spectacular “22” and other punchy, catchy tunes—appears, spawned seven hit singles, thrust her nearly alongside Beyonce and Rihanna as a pop force, and even convinced curmudgeonly music snobs like me to “make fun of our exes” before diving back into Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and Channel Orange.
To follow it up, Swift moved from Nashville to New York and radically evolved her sound — incorporating EDM, R&B, minimalist post-modernism and adult contemporary into her pop leanings, and scrapping country and Americana altogether.
The hallmark album of that period, 1989, worked like gangbusters. 1989, produced largely by perpetual hit machines Max Martin and Shellback, netted her third-straight million-selling opening week, won the GRAMMY for “Album of the Year” (her second, after Fearless), and built the foundation for her record-grossing and widely acclaimed worldwide tour.
Taylor Swift had arrived: full-fledged woman and cold-blooded chart assassin in total artistic command. Then, she went … elsewhere, despite never really leaving.
On Lover, Last August
After her twin tent-poles of Red and 1989, she released a fistful of songs ranging from breezily listenable to abysmal, with “Look What You Made Me Do” being the shit-soaked cherry that ultimately drags the post-1989 catalog down from “decent yet forgettable” to “borderline skippable.”
Lover, Taylor Swift’s shimmery bubblegum record, though, sits pretty comfortably in her canon. It was not good, nor a disaster, with one preposterously catchy home-run, the skyscraper-sized “Paper Planes”-cribbing “You Need to Calm Down,” elevating the work as a whole into the realm of, “okay, I’ll give this a cursory spin.”
If I were to sum up Swift’s output in the past decade, I could do so in one sentence: Taylor Swift is better than I thought she was, yet not as good as I wished she could be.
In situations where she had someone like Max Martin or Butch Walker to reign in her songwriting’s occasional overthinking mixed with her impassioned impulsivity — and how you could do both, simultaneously, is a deliciously suis generis mystery — she shined.
Taylor Swift is a good, but not great, vocalist. She plays passable rhythm guitar. Here’s the rub: She was, at times, a fantastic songwriter. (See: “22,” “You Belong With Me,” “Blank Space.”) This was what made her smattering of “bleh” songs so frustrating.
Serious songwriters and music connoisseurs knew Swift was capable of better — whatever “better” would look like — and whether she chose not to be or simply couldn’t help herself, she seemed like a poster child for prodigious talent not fulfilling its potential … for reasons that remain singular in their impenetrability.
It’s impossible to talk about Taylor Swift without talking about her detours into the back-pages, yet I’m going to try, because ultimately, while she draws upon her life experience as fodder for her lyrics, her musicality exists apart from her feuds, trysts, heartaches and rivalries.
In the past half-decade, Swift had devolved into becoming an artist who was more fun to think about than she was to listen to — not because her music is super heady or postmodern, but because her brand and her tabloid-baiting was so strong and, for the most part, more interesting than the art itself.
Woman of the Woods
The “super-serious” minimalist indie record was, in the late-oughts, a rite of passage for white American songwriters, and the “locked in a cabin with sparse instrumentation and a head full of demons” aesthetic became a songbook trope. Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and The Antlers’ Hospice are widely regarded as masterpieces in this vein.
Two years ago, Justin Timberlake pitched tent in the forest with Man of the Woods, a mostly forgettable genre exercise that aped less from isolation and more from the birth of his son, Silas (the name meaning, literally, “man of the forest”), and paying lip-service to his stomping grounds of Memphis, Tennessee.
Make no mistake, Taylor Swift had this effort in her. Buried beneath the pop-sheen, the dance-beats, or her earlier Nashville-centric efforts, Swift’s songwriting remained anchored in melody and vulnerability, and her wildly careening pastiche is part and parcel of the pop-machine roller-coaster.
You’d be forgiven if you’d given up on Swift. She was a little too reluctant to denounce the alt-right’s infatuation with her as an exalted Aryan race uber-queen. Much of her adult work left fans of both pop and country nonplussed. We were left with little to suggest she was ever-ever-ever going back to the drawing board.
Yet, with Folklore, Swift has pulled off the singular party trick of forcing a full reevaluation of her artistic merit, a reordering of the canon, a reckoning with her past and pathway forward, even as we sit in a suspended, uncertain, unmarked amount of time during the US COVID-19 pandemic.
The National Treasure
The National is the exemplar American mood-band of the 21st Century. Their highly-regarded albums Alligator, Boxer, High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me, Sleep Well Beast and I Am Easy to Find all burn slowly with a warm detachment.
It’s music for those who wonder why Arcade Fire needs to be so extra. It’s an endlessly unfurling yarn of single-malt bangers for middle-aged white American Xennial dads who wondered where their dreams went and why they chased so fast after them.
Select tracks from Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and The Antlers’ Hospice would find their way onto Spotify playlists incorporating their canon. I know this … I made those playlists.
The National sound like a chamber-orchestra with not enough strings, a garage-rock outfit with muffled amps on a morphine drip. Aaron Dessner, one half of two sets of brothers that form the band (plus bourbon-soaked singer Matt Berninger), co-writes and produces most of their tunes.
When a friend of mine texted me last night, “T-Swizz with Antinoff, [Bon] Iver and Dessner, wow should be amazing,” I replied, succinctly:
This Is the Album She Needed to Make
With zero fanfare (but occasional washes of tasteful brass), Folklore is a perfect piece of adult pop. It is the proper debut of Taylor Swift, the singer-songwriter, the disarming talent buried beneath layers upon layers of gloss, pastiche, detours, branding and tabloid fodder. She’s already tasted stratospheric superstardom. Here, she gives up the game and gets down to making music to soundtrack the treks between tree-lines.
Folklore is a return to innocence lost. It’s a complete reboot of the machine in exactly the way that this pandemic’s forced so many to reckon with the weight of everything. Yes, COVID-19 turned us into isolated cabin-dwellers, recording our bedroom masterpieces if only because we have no other masterpieces left to record.
I’m reminded of Michelle Branch’s 2017 beamed-in-from-an-alternate-timeline comeback Hopeless Romantic. She’d gone 14 years between proper records, and when she returned, she was a whiskey-swilling grown-ass woman making soft, shaded adult pop-rock for people who might also like The National, Bon Iver or The Antlers. (Indeed, the record was produced by Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, who later became her husband.)
While Branch’s effort was surprising for how unsurprising it was — again, her songwriting talents were self-evident, albeit buried by pop, before being buried by dust and silence — Swift’s effort is surprising because Taylor Swift never left. It’s hard to return from the woods when you’ve been in the heart of our downtown forever. Yet, in an era when our downtowns are ghost-towns, and our condos are cabins, Taylor Swift releasing a hushed whisper of a record is somewhat revolutionary.
… And It’s Really, Really Good.
Folklore is the Ray Allen corner-3 of pop albums. The album is a breathtakingly crisp masterstroke that very clearly took a lot of work to get just right. It’s artful, breezy, and all you hear is the familiar swish and subsequent cheers, over and over again. The melodies duck in and out of the shafts Kacey Musgraves and Sara Bareilles have been taking turns mining.
In the 63 minutes of runtime, Taylor Swift’s created the first Taylor Swift album. It exists apart, yet feels endemic to everywhere. It hazily resembles the 2020 quarantine efforts of Norah Jones and Fiona Apple, winsomely tugs at the prime years of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, calls back to the Michelle Branch comeback, returns from the same wilderness as Bon Iver, and wraps itself in the persistent precious precision of The National.
There are no bad songs on this album. There aren’t even filler tracks. This is a uniform, works-as-a-whole block of art. Lyrically, Swift’s never been more direct nor poetic. Musically, she’s never been more tasteful or refined. The hooks don’t slam into you so much as they seep into you. The choruses are singable, around a campfire or in your bedroom. This is the music you play to yourself to remind yourself there’s yet still art and beauty left in this world, in being alive, in being human.
Taylor Swift’s first masterpiece is surprising because she hid out in the open, and came out in an era when we are all hiding out in the open. When you’re a weary world-traveler who’s seen it all and done it all, the most subversive place that’s left for you to go is home. In a way, it’s the only place left for us all to go now.
This is Taylor Swift. Can you be a surprise guest of honor at a party you never left? Can you be alone with everybody? Can make a grand entrance when there’s nowhere left to go? Can you be fashionably late to something that never happened? Such questions can’t be answered quantitatively. Such responses belong to the realm of Folklore.
We may never, ever be getting back together [for now], but we have deliriously lovely music we can be alone to. Taylor Swift made it, and right on time.