Taylor Swift, Folklore

She certainly surprised us all with this one, that's for sure. Unannounced and unheralded, somewhere in the depths of lockdown (though as if anyone over a certain income level actually obeys), she still managed to lay down 16 tracks and almost 64 minutes of music and of a very different sort than what she's wrought recently, too. Stylistically there's a little less grit and a little more earth, largely callbacks to her earlier country works ("Betty" particularly), and to her credit her voice is the star more than any of the arrangements are, even the well-placed contrast of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon's vocal guest turn in "Exile." But the production (largely by Aaron Dessner of The National), while technically superior, is languid and often disappointingly insubstantial, leaving too many same sounding songs stuck in neutral. The singles off the album ("The 1," "Cardigan" and later this month "Betty") do have an appealing style and are even vaguely headbobbers, though I thought "Mirrorball" was stronger, but they're probably the singles because frankly they're the exceptions. Similarly, the writing has problems of its own: I give her props for some solid topicality — "Epiphany"'s COVID-19 overtones by far, the song most deserving of the "quarantine album" sobriquet — but a lot of the wordplay is simple (the rhymes verge on childish sometimes) and her timing sometimes gets caught by the meter ("Peace"). Beyond that, however, what I found to be this album's greatest fault was how hard it is to personally identify with. Now, verily, I am not a 30-something girl from Pennsylvania richer than Croesus with a record contract, so perhaps I'm judging this a little harshly. But while I get the sadness for "The 1" who got away, Scott Borchetta is clearly a pig ("Mad Woman") and I certainly intuit what it's like to say goodbye separated by plastic, I was also young but I wasn't that dumb ("Cardigan"), I don't particularly care about the "Invisible String" of love between her and Lord Masham, and I've never had so many relationships apparently go so wrong nor wish to dwell on them so deeply ("August" and "This is Me Trying," among others). If the songs at least had some unique musical hook or stylistic flourish that would be something, but they haven't, so we don't. Take "The Last Great American Dynasty" as the best and worst example: this is, at least for the first two-thirds or so, a remarkable historical meditation on Rebekah Harkness and the strange tragedies of her life, an Al Stewart-like outing with some of the best writing on the album, and then it turns out it was only relevant to Swift because she bought her house ($17 mil). Now it comes off like another rich girl trying to make us care about her purchase, but unless you're in her tax bracket we end up caring less about Rebekah Harkness because of that revelation which is now, for better or worse, the lasting impression of the song. It took some effort to finish this album amidst so many heartrent pieces that for all their pathos felt ultimately so meaningless, and for music that aspires to be as universal as the title implies, I came away with the distinct impression these songs meant far more to her than they do to me. In these days of plague that may make them great catharsis and possibly even enjoyable in small bites, but they are not enough for what they are, and after listening to sixteen of them together I must gently question their basis for an album. Physical releases add a seventeenth track; although I certainly admire her industriousness, I'm not sure I'd call "The Lakes" worth the additional price for most of the same reasons. (Content: S- and F-bombs, some adult themes.)