21st century folklore
27 July 2020-
On July 24th, Country/Pop/Folk superstar Taylor Swift released a new album, less than a day before announcing it. This album, her 8th, comes less than a year after the previous one. Is that a sign that she's rushing it, or just eager to share her new work with the world?
Let’s not play the suspense card here: it is clearly the latter. Taylor Swift has emerged from these weird past few months a different, some might definitely say more complete, artist. Indeed, after 3+ months of forced confinement, superstar Swift, accustomed to traveling the world, putting on massive shows, giving interviews, taking part in all sorts of artistic, philanthropic and/or social projects… was left stranded at home with what seems to have been a wonderfully inspiring piano. One more example of what the ongoing — and otherwise tragic — pandemic brought to music is this new album, Folklore, and the refreshing evolution it meant for Swift as a creative mastermind.
First off, the overall feel of the album is way more minimalistic and intimate that any of Swift’s previous work. Granted, she went through various different phases in her already impressive career, going from Country to Pop to increasingly more electronic-sounding tracks, and among those phases some songs clearly felt personal and/or bare, but this is different. We are not witnessing the burgeoning artistic personality of an upcoming performer here, but instead seeing the affirmation of a personal voice and style in a manner that is rather reminiscent of another superstar performer, Madonna, did with 2003’s American Life. In both cases, the star surprised its audience with a musical turn that included more sophisticated writing and production styles, if also more subdued. In both cases, the artistry somewhat prevailed over sheer commercial appeal.
While Madonna’s stylistic choice was brought about by strictly personal and creative reasons, Swift had to contend with this new reality of ours that you cannot necessarily freely go to the studio, hire musicians and/or otherwise physically collaborate with anyone you wish to anymore. You can, however, use that time to harness a more introspective attitude into deeper-sounding compositions, who tend to show that the focus was not on the work’s reception, but rather on the work itself. Whether or not the stories depicted in those songs actually are autobiographical — upon first listen, this album will perhaps trigger even more fan theories than before, if that is possible — the way they are structured, produced and sung feels significantly more self-assured and, dare we say, mature than in previous albums.
In a testament to the cohesiveness and overall quality of Folklore, its first single, “Cardigan”, does not particularly stand out. That’s right: it could virtually have been any other song on the album, and the result would have more or less been the same. Perhaps “The last great American dynasty” is even catchier, perhaps the Jewel-esque gem that is “Betty” will have a more everlasting impact, perhaps the Bon Iver duet “Exile” will be more exciting to some… the truth is, all these tracks are highly enjoyable to listen to, and beautifully work together to create a map to navigate the — still — troubled waters ahead.
And, while Madonna’s indisputable masterpiece didn’t have the commercial success of her other work, it seems Folklore is actually even bigger than Swift’s previous record-breaking output: the album broke Spotify’s first-day streaming record for a female artist, as well as claiming the biggest debut of the year so far. It seems like Taylor Swift may succeed, where Madonna struggled, in combining mainstream success and personal artistry. All in a confinement’s work.