On Thursday, Taylor Swift announced she’d be releasing her new record at midnight. There were no lead-up singles, no videos, no carefully crafted campaign. Within the hour, the news of Swift’s stealth eighth album was everywhere; the sound of no fanfare, deafening.
Swift had put out a press release on social media platforms, with a hazy photo of herself alone in the woods and an explanation that she’d written and recorded her eighth album in “isolation.” There also would be a video for the song Cardigan, filmed in accordance with recommended public-health guidelines. “I even did my own hair, makeup and styling,” Swift wrote, laughing-face emoji added.
The whole thing screams understatement.
Folklore is a sombre piano-based affair. A product of its times is how the record will undoubtedly be framed. No summer bangers, no catchy-pop razzle-dazzle. Swift gives her nation the muted album it needs in these trying times – that’ll be the spin.
The surprise-album gambit is a tired stunt. But, given the low-key conceit of folklore, the no-marketing marketing is perfectly suited.
Marketing can be another word for myth-making, which is what the 30-year-old superstar is up to here. Though she says the album was made in isolation, her collaborators include Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who appears on the duet Exile, which he also co-wrote. For the making of Bon Iver’s 2007 debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon retreated to a remote family cabin in Wisconsin. The backstory was as big a part of Vernon’s rise to fame as the downbeat music.
Taylor wants some of that mystique attached to folklore. In the liner notes, Swift shared her creative process by revealing the images that popped into her mind and piqued her curiosity during the album’s songwriting:
“Stars drawn around scars,” she wrote. “A cardigan that still bears the scent of loss twenty years later. Battleships sinking into the ocean, down down, down….”
Some of folklore’s material departs from Swift’s typical confessional style. The song Epiphany touches on her grandfather’s experience at Guadalcanal in the Second World War: “Keep your helmet, keep your life, son/Just a flesh wound, here’s your rifle.”
Another case in point: The Last Great American Dynasty, a successful exercise in storytelling. Swift sings about a “misfit widow getting gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out,” as she explained in her online note. The lyrics refer to a Rebekah who “rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny – her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis.”
Apparently the song about the middle-class divorcee and her relationship with an heir to an oil-industry fortune is based on the history attached to a Rhode Island mansion Swift herself purchased. It’s been reported that the locals objected to her celebrity intrusion. So, when Swift sings “there goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen,” the lines between Swift and the song’s protagonist are blurred: “I had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
While The Last Great American Dynasty may not be the next great American novel, it does represent a big step up in Swift’s songwriting.
The song was co-written by Aaron Dessner (of the indie rockers The National), who co-wrote or produced 11 of the album’s 16 songs. Also on board is Jack Antonoff, a big part of Swift’s previous record, Lover.
Antonoff co-wrote and co-produced Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! from 2019. You can really hear his soft-focus aesthetic on Cardigan. The song’s sweeping melodrama is stone-cold Del Rey. “You put me on and said I was your favourite,” Swift sings. One imagines Del Rey waking up Friday to find the video to Cardigan online and her favourite sweater missing from her closet.
The track Mad Woman is all Swift, though, albeit with a big helping of Alanis Morissette-style scorn. Swift has been outspoken recently, whether about her anti-Trump politics or her high-stakes feud with her former record label. There’s venom to Mad Woman: “Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?”
The question is rhetorical.
Myth-making and art are not incompatible. Bob Dylan, who fell off a motorcycle in 1966 and landed in the Band’s cellar in the woods of upstate New York, proved that. Swift’s folklore isn’t The Basement Tapes, but it makes for a good story, and, more importantly, superb storytelling.