At the end of every year, I go through online lists of top albums of the year, searching for good music that I might have missed. I’m a big fan of independent music, so I’m generally looking for something challenging or unusual that may have slipped under my radar. But one of the oddest things about 2020’s “best of” lists was that I kept seeing pop diva Taylor Swift’s latest album at the top of almost every critic’s selections.
Miss Swift is one of the biggest celebrities in the world, but I don’t really know anything about her, apart from the fact that her name comes up a lot in entertainment news headlines, usually involving some kind of feud with Kanye West or one of the Kardashians. So every time her new album “Folklore” popped up in my searches, I would skip past it. But there it was, again and again: #2 in NME’s list, #5 in Stereogum, #1 in the LA Times.
I had always assumed that Taylor Swift was the worst kind of bubblegum pop: lightweight and corporate product, manufactured around her persona as a beautiful celebrity, rather than based on any coherent musical vision.
But what if I was wrong? What if I was missing out on enjoying one of the best albums of the year, just because of my preconceived notions of what it might sound like. It was a simple enough problem to solve; all I had to do was open Spotify and check it out. But just as I was about to cue it up, I had an idea.
What if I reviewed the record before actually listening to it?
Regular reviews are boring and kind of useless. Usually, they just consist of some know-it-all critic expending a lot of energy trying to show you how much more they know about an “artist” than you do. They’ll place an “artist’s” release in the historical context of their work, or talk about that “artist’s” journey. Mostly they’re just showing off, and they don’t even get around to telling you whether the darn thing is any good or not.
Wouldn’t it be more useful to read a review from someone who admitted they knew absolutely nothing about an “artist”? Or who – knowing very little – told you about their ignorance, prejudices and expectations right up-front?
I’ve come to the conclusion that the only completely honest way to review any piece of art is to do so prior to actually experiencing it:
Pre-listen review of Taylor Swift’s Folklore:
If Aéropostale released an album, it would be exactly this good. ★★
I’ve never shopped at mall stalwart Aéropostale and I’ve never consciously listened to a Taylor Swift song, but I’m convinced that the two experiences would be exactly the same: things that give the appearance of casual individuality and effortless creativity, but which have actually been produced in a corporate boardroom precisely because of their likelihood to be inoffensive and easily mass-consumed.
Taylor Swift’s new album is clearly a departure for her. I’m not precisely sure where she has departed from, but I’m glad she’s at least made an effort to make the trip, because she probably used to reside on an island populated by auto-tune. It’s likely a place where a team of session musicians, trendy record producers and an army of well-paid songwriters all come together to create songs by committee that sound exactly like the other songs being piped into your local Superdry shop’s speaker system.
But everything about this record’s cover tells me that Taylor Swift is “going back to basics.” Wasn’t she country once, or am I thinking about someone else? Well whatever “basic” Miss Swift is going back to, the album Folklore is certainly Taylor at her most stripped-down and honest. This is the real Taylor Swift that she’s been hiding for all these years, behind that oppressive curtain of fabulous wealth and fame.
This is the record that is meant to show that there’s more to Taylor Swift than we ever realized. I don’t follow the gossip news, but I’m confident that probably someone has hurt her in the recent past. And that likely very public broken relationship probably got a lot of press. And all of that coverage was also very hurtful to Miss Swift. There’s just a lot of hurt in there. So much.
For a while, I’d bet dollars to donuts that Miss Swift has channeled some of that pain back into her work. It’s what artists do, right? She probably put out an album in the not-so-recent past that contains all kinds of not-very-veiled references to that past relationship. A bitter album. But one you could still dance to.
But, having got that off her chest, she has now found serenity. And she wants to share that with you.
Folklore: the title is evocative enough to give some clues about her new direction. She’s more confident in herself now, and she wants the songs to take center-stage, not her private life. Every track on this new record probably features acoustic guitars, there’ll be a bit of piano in there too, and of course, there’ll be a (mostly) a capella track, to show the “haters” that Taylor really can sing. And I bet she can, rather nicely when she puts her mind to it. Good for her! I’m also sure that there’s a track on there with a string section – a moving, ethereal work with an abstract, but hopeful name, like Luster or maybe Aspire or something like that. That’s the one track everybody says is their absolute fave. It’ll turn up in a film trailer very soon, if it hasn’t already. An Indie film trailer. Because that’s how Taylor Swift rolls now – very slightly outside of the mainstream. Unpredictable But not really. Sometimes. For now.
I’d also bet that this record also features some other well-known artists in supporting roles. Because even stripped-down Taylor Swift still needs her peeps. Not having listened to Folklore yet, I don’t know who any of those people might be, but I’m sure they all contribute very important, tasteful, but rather minor additions. This is, after all, Taylor’s record. But maybe there are some famous names doing like some backing vocals, here and there? It’s got to be Selena Gomez. Or maybe Ariana Grande? Or are those also people Taylor has feuded with? It’s so hard to keep track of all the tabloid-driven squabbles that real artists engage in these days…
But overall, I’ve got to say, I expect Taylor Swift’s Folklore to be an okay record. Nice. Not so bad. I’m sure I’ll like it a little before entirely forgetting about it. It’s got to be the kind of record that critics love to grade on a curve: a C that turns into a B-, because little Taylor never really tried so hard before. This is a big accomplishment for her. See, you can do it!
It’s like when Stephen King or JK Rowling puts out a novel but uses a pseudonym to see how popular their writing would be without their big famous name on it. But Taylor Swift hasn’t been quite so bold with her punt as a for-real singer-songwriter. There’s no missing the fact that this is a Taylor Swift record. The departure from her day-job as an over-produced pop diva is part of the appeal. So the name stays – which is very good for the bottom line. Because otherwise Abercrombie and Fitch might not even know this was a Taylor Swift record at all, and then could wind up with a Taylor Swift-sized hole in their store playlists. And that hole could be filled with Selena Gomez tunes. And that would be tragic, because, as every Swifty knows, she is a total bitch. Or she was. They’re friends again. I think.
No matter – I’m sure I’ll very enjoy Folklore, but in a very modest way. It’s one thing to tune down the auto-tune, but this isn’t going to be Springsteen’s Nebraska, part deux. No, it will be an okay record I’m sure, with a couple of nice tracks, that would be a good starting point for young people who have grown up not knowing what an acoustic guitar sounds like. In the realm of lowered expectations, it’s a nice little record and a welcome slight change of pace from pop music’s relentless and highly profitable grind. Well done.
Now I’m going to try actually listening to it and then updating this review.
Post-listen review of Taylor Swift’s Folklore:
It makes me like Taylor Swift a little more, and The National a lot less ★★ ½
I’m pleased to say that mostly, my pre-review got it right. Having finally listened to the entirety of Folklore (over the strenuous objections of my wife and daughter, who it would be fair to say are not fans), this is an album that is trying very hard to sound stripped-down and authentic, while still benefitting from top-tier production values (and a budget) that would put an Avengers movie to shame. It’s a record that has a lovely sound, but is without particularly memorable songs. It works as background music and – as predicted – several tracks would be perfect for the closing credits of a major-studio-backed independent film. Overall, I liked Folklore a bit more than I expected to. It’s a nice little listen.
What I very much got wrong was: this is not a folksy record. Not really – except in the most modern senses of the word. There’s very little acoustic guitar – and loads of layering and sonic texturing. Listening to the first couple of tracks, I kept thinking that Taylor Swift was channeling The National more than Simon and Garfunkel. Then I checked the credits and saw that The National’s Aaron Dessner co-wrote and produced many of the tracks. Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande are nowhere to be found, but Bon Iver also guest stars.
The National and Bon Iver are big names in the indie music community and their musical presence here does lift Miss Swift up a little, but it also serves to bring them down. It smells of a cash-in. This is dull, unchallenging music, which has sparkling production that makes it lovely to listen to, provided that you don’t mind your music being dull and unchallenging.
In one of the tracks, Miss Swift lets loose a plaintive and tuneful howl: “At least I’m trying.” She gets a couple of points for that in my book. But she needs to keep at it.