Review Summary: Taylor Swift once again changes her skin, only this time it's drained of color and spirit.
As monochromatic as its eight versions of album art, Taylor Swift’s folklore
is yet another of the singer’s dalliances with a sound that will go unrefined and unexplored when she decides to start her next era. Her best work remains Speak Now
because it was a synthesis of the preceding albums. Since then, she has mostly released mishmash records that lack identity. With folklore
, Swift goes too far in remedying that problem by packing the album with 16 songs that are almost all made up of the same musical and songwriting elements. Aaron Dessner’s piano is the album’s anchor, but by the fifth or sixth song bolstered by similarly resonant piano chords played at the same tempo, the listener is faced with the realization that the album isn’t even half finished.
Once the novelty of listening to a surprise Taylor Swift album wears off, the cracks start to show. The storytelling of “the last great american dynasty” is klutzy, full of lyrics that don’t quite fit the song’s rhythm, and the shift in perspective at the end doesn’t work. The focus on an acoustic guitar instead of Dessner’s piano in “illicit affairs” (courtesy of Jack Antonoff) is encouraging, but on an album rife with songs that drone interminably on, it ends suddenly after a scant three minutes. “invisible string” shows, yet again, her tired obsession with using colors as lyrical crutches, and some of the lines border on nonsense (“Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart”). Speaking of, “I want you to know I’m a mirrorball” may be the worst lyric of her career.
There is promise here, but it will inevitably go unrealized when she decides to abandon this foundation next time around. “the 1”, advantaged by its place in the tracklist and Swift’s “I’m on some new shi
t” confidence, sets the tone but loses a little luster once its songwriting elements pop up in almost every other song, including “cardigan”, the song that immediately follows. The presence of Justin Vernon on “exile”, the record’s best song, is a considerable step up from Gary Lightbody or Ed Sheeran, two of her previous duet partners. His baritone in the verses is a little nondescript, but when the signature Bon Iver belting comes in halfway through, the wait is justified. “peace”, with its sliding, repetitive guitar backing, also has Vernon’s influence all over it, though he is only credited for the pulse that backgrounds the track.
As with Lover
wears out its welcome by containing too many tracks. A tighter song list would have done a world of good, but the album’s lack of rollout should not belie Swift’s slavish devotion to moneymaking practices (as if the aforementioned eight album covers didn’t already reveal it). Once again, listeners must dig through a veritable mountain of songs to find the gold nuggets that are always present on her albums. But they are becoming fewer and farther between.