By Sam Orazem EBS Contributor
Taylor Swift’s seemingly endless stay at the top of the music industry has won her countless adoring fans. It has also garnered a sizeable group of critics who feel her continued success is a result of trend-chasing and the backing of an army of label executives.
Yet, Swift’s critics seem to forget that artists who chase trends often fade away after a couple of years. Swift, on the other hand, has been on top of the industry for nearly 15 years. There’s one key difference between her and one hit wonders: Taylor Swift is profoundly good at telling stories.
The 30-year-old singer-songwriter’s new album “folklore” is a radical departure from any of her previous work, and it puts that storytelling ability on full display. The title and its tracks are all stylized in lowercase letters, providing a visual indicator that Swift is trying something new. This record is an experiment in the indie and folk genres that avoids both the volume and infectious energy of her previous efforts. The energy in “folklore” is still present, but it’s better suited for a night in quarantine than karaoke at a college bar.
Swift and her collaborators place her voice at the forefront and back it with mellow pianos, soft guitars and a smattering of subtle drumming. The second track of the album, “cardigan,” is a folk-rock ballad exploring the perils of young love as Swift compares herself to “an old cardigan, under someone’s bed.” The track makes it clear that while the genre may have switched, the relatable and enjoyably cliched lyrics about falling in love and heartbreak will still be present on “folklore.”
Swift also makes an effort to tackle fresher topics. “the last great american dynasty” is a history lesson about the previous owners of her mansion in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and upper-class, American culture. Even rabid Swift fans will likely find it refreshing that not every song on this intimate album is a love story.
The album’s standout track, “exile,” sees Swift collaborating with Bon Iver. They sing the duet over pianos and somber strings continuously swell over the song’s runtime. Iver and Swift take on roles of two lovers, contrasting their individual spoken and unspoken experiences as a flawed, suffocating relationship breathes its final, beleaguered breaths.
The major problem with “folklore” is that the instrumentals feel relatively uninspired. The album is slightly weighed down by its unremarkable backing tracks and this becomes especially notable if you prefer listening to an album in its entirety. A full listen also reveals that Swift is not practiced at crafting an overarching narrative to an album. However, it is excusable given this record was clearly an attempt to expand her artistic abilities.
Despite these flaws, “folklore” is a wonderful album that solidifies Swift’s position as one of the industry’s premier narrative songwriters. Her ability to involve the listener overcomes the formulaic instrumentals and gives each track a “bedtime story” quality: You may know the plot structure and feel like you have heard it before, but you can’t help but enjoy it.
Samuel Orazem is a political science student at UCLA with a passion for music, its contributions to cultural development, and its potential for empowering social and political mobilization.