It’s no secret I’m a huge Taylor Swift fan. I have reviewed every Taylor Swift release in my short time with this column, going so far as to write a film review and publishing it here simply because of Tay Tay. That said, I resist being called a “Swiftie.” She has become such an iconic figure in our culture, opinions on her tend to be binary, not only the Twitter world that never has a duality to its opinions, but also a lot of music critics who give her a certain deference that is scarce these days. So, for my grand return to Feedback after my hiatus, I wanted to share my critical yet positive thoughts on Swift’s last release, Folklore.
Widely speaking, Folklore is a great album bogged down by many of the problems that musicians as a whole face in the modern streaming era, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of songwriting, it is a stunning feat. It is a synthesis of each major stage of Swift’s career (except Reputation which we will say no more about). Every style she has mastered, the acoustic sounds of Speak Now and RED, the 80s throwback of 1989, the power pop anthems of Lover, and an element of the modern singer-songwriters like Adele and Lana Del Rey on Norman fucking Rockwell are brought together on this album in a way that clicks.
It is a lyrical evolution as well, with the glamour of her more pop oriented work melding with the melancholy found on much of Fearless in a way that I wouldn’t have expected her to do so well. This juxtaposition of glitz and glamour yet emotional turmoil is perhaps most clear on “Last Great American Dynasty,” although the early Standard Oil reference did make it hard to focus on the lyrics instead of imagining a Taylor Swift rendition of Standard Oil’s great enemy Huey Long’s campaign song “Every Man A King,” but that’s a very me specific problem. There are no individual lyrics that pop in the way some of her previous work has — the bonus track off 1989 “New Romantics” was basically one brilliant turn of phrase after another — but thematic coherence is more important on this album than a single stand out phrase that could achieve iconography alone. She’s got enough lyrics we’ll always remember already anyway.
That said the cohesion of the album musically is itself it’s downfall. While in terms of the songwriting each track is solid, with there being plenty of tracks that could be stand outs, the consistency in melody and production style makes it hard to recognize that. The shifts in song structure and some of the chord changes that should stand out are mitigated by the monotony of the melodies and the production/arrangement muting the variety that should be clear on this album. The sheer number of songs exacerbates this monotony. If physical constraints of LPs were still a driving force in music and Swift was forced to cut down to 45 minutes, the fact that the monotony becomes almost a drone in your ears would be less of an issue. She doesn’t stand alone in struggling with figuring out how to make an album in the Spotify era, there are countless Grade A musicians who will put out excessively long albums simply to make sure they got two or three singles, which have become a culturally powerful medium in a way they hadn’t been since the mid 1960s when albums started to be used as a medium beyond a collection of songs. I also recognize I am the last of a dying breed of album listeners. Millennials have largely abandoned listening to whole albums as they did when they were younger and most of Generation Z has no real understanding of it at all. While I am disappointed that albums–which I find so much more powerful than a stand alone song can be–are fading, I also recognize why artists do that and just hope consumers change listening habits some day.
It is perhaps remarkable that despite all these roadblocks, there are still two stand out tracks, both in the context of the album and Swift’s discography as a whole. “Betty” and “August” are among her best work in her career, standing alongside classics like “Long Live” and “Everything Has Changed” even more so than any song on Lover, which worked better as a whole album, and the absolutely bizarre sounds on “Peace” that inject herself with a dose of 1960s soul is a strange pivot made stranger by how well it works. My respect for Taylor Swift remains strong even as the shifting music industry makes her shift priorities in a way I dislike.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.