Taylor Swift entered the music industry as a new, wholesome pop star. Now, she is the standard of the genre, and has spent the past few years reckoning with her conventionality. 2019’s Lover, for example, was a bright, bubbly record that came too late to be a forerunner of a new style. In contrast, the heavy electronic production of 2017’s Reputation was a pivotal reason the album was viewed as a comeback for Swift. Yet despite these distinctive palettes, both albums lacked the freshness of Folklore, Swift’s new album.
Swift’s career is a storied, decadelong narrative — one that focuses on her romantic and professional tribulations, and has placed special emphasis on the album as a format, with calculated single releases leading up to landmark records. But this pop career, all summery and successful, isn’t the story Swift wants to tell on Folklore. Instead, she focuses on the fallout from the high of summer, a pop star looking back at the road she’s traversed.
“The Last Great American Dynasty” is a quick nod to this approach, as Swift fantastically paints a scenery and story over a Postal Service-style drum machine. Swift tells the story of the mansion she owns, aware of the wealthy lifestyle she displays and revealing the emptiness within it. The guitars slide around as Swift’s voice matches the tone of the song, complementing the instrumentals.
This tone-matching doesn’t always happen — on “The 1,” Swift is more pop than anywhere else on the album, but the piano rejects the clarity and brightness in her voice. But on the next song, “Cardigan,” Swift’s voice is breathy and forlorn over the soft drumbeats and bouncing piano. It is low and thoughtful as background vocals swell and echo with caution and reverence.
Reverence also describes songs such as “Peace,” in which the instrumentation is stripped back, centered around a pleasant and simple guitar lick. Here, Swift has room to sing with a freer flow, sometimes rushing through words, sometimes letting them linger, but always treating her lyrics with a delicate adoration, proving that it is her music that truly matters to her.
This delicate approach reverberates through the album and serves a natural and authentic sound. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver features on “Exile” without the vocal manipulation he’s known for, and his voice and Swift’s grow together over the course of the song before overlapping. The two sing a story of abandonment and loneliness as they barrel toward the inevitable, swelling conclusion, speaking over each other, fighting for a relationship that will never work.
“Illicit Affairs” is another relationship drama, and Swift presents the story with maturity. She wants to be angry, but all she can be is crestfallen as she reflects on the infidelity she was party to. On “August,” Swift leaves behind a summer relationship, losing herself in memory as she sings about love slipping away. The plucking and droning in the song’s instrumental break add to its desolation, and the saxophone, understated and low, adds to the song’s restrained yet explosive ending.
The biggest problem Folklore faces is one of excess. Some of the songs, such as “Hoax” and “Invisible String,” simply don’t justify their own existences. In an album so precise and frequently beautiful, it is a shame that some songs end up being boring or unnecessary. The themes expressed in such songs could have been artfully woven into other tracks. But, while there are some missteps on the album, they are forgiven because of “This Is Me Trying.”
Take the song at face value. This is Taylor Swift, singing to the audience, trying and working to improve herself. In a changing pop landscape, Swift needs to know where she still fits in, if she still fits in at all. Here, and on Folklore as a whole, she addresses the audience — she is capable of adaptation, self-reflection and growth, even after more than a decade of making music. She is remorseful, singing about regret and wasted potential, but she is never angry with herself. She is earnest and sincere, and wants to grow. Even if Folklore isn’t a stunningly new revelation for pop as a whole, it’s a revelation for Swift — and for her, for now, that’s what matters.