‘I felt like I was an old cardigan/under someone’s bed” Taylor Swift sings in “Cardigan,” and that she allowed this dull and listless song, built around a dull and listless simile, to be selected as the lead single from her new album indicates how the slim the pickings are on that album — the dull and listless folklore.
Less than a year ago, Swift delivered one of the most brilliant pop albums of the century, last summer’s Lover, a bouncy return to form almost as toothsome as her career-defining triumph 1989 (2014). The surprise follow-up release, written and recorded mostly during the pandemic, is a dismal, hookless hunk of plaintive memories and noxious feelings. In keeping with its title, folklore is all lower-case song titles, lower-case producing, lower-case tones. It would have been witty to have entitled the album lowercase, or maybe just lowerserotonin or lowerenergy. Given that the last one was called Lover, the obvious move would have been to just call this one lower. The next one could then be called loner, then loser, until Swift has succeeded in driving away so many fans she could play her concerts in bowling alleys. The album cover and a new video, directed by Swift herself, show her wandering alone in a forest. We were all feeling plenty isolated already. What the world needs now is Taylor belting along to supremely contagious pop hooks, preferably in a rhinestone-fembot getup.
Swift appears to be in good physical health, possibly even pregnant (the loose-fitting clothing in the new video is uncharacteristic, and she mentions giving her boyfriend a child). As for her psychological health, well, she seems to have come down with a bad case of Lana del Rey-itis. All 16 tracks are quiet, restrained, low-key, hookless efforts that drift along gently then subside into the quicksand. folklore is the kind of aggressively against-type experiment made to be lapped up by critics, who as a class are so serotonin-challenged that they tend to make bizarre errors like dubbing Nebraska Bruce Springsteen’s finest hour. Wallow in dismay and despair, and the critics will invariably reply, “Brilliant, that’s exactly how I feel!” Play any one of these songs in Foxborough Stadium, though, and you’ll be doing a huge favor to the concessions stands. If Swift should ever perform four or five of these songs in a row at a concert, she risks putting her audience to sleep. Several of them might sound fine if they appeared as a change-of-pace ballad on an album that was otherwise fizzy and bright, but they’re all so tonally similar that together they form a monotonous lump.
Swift salts her songs with profanity (“F*** you forever”) as del Rey does and on several tracks mimics del Rey’s patented ethereal-scary-sexy bitch-ghost register, often writing about unidentified ex-lovers at whom she directs a mix of restrained anger (“Mad Woman”) and regretful well-wishing (“The 1”). Lacking the lip-gloss shine of her two greatest albums, folklore has a lean indie sound, but it wouldn’t be right to call it stripped-down. It’s surprisingly heavily produced given the constraints imposed by the lockdown, with layers of instrumentation (viola, violin, mellotron, etc.) piling up in most tracks as they go on. “Cardigan,” for instance, wispy as it is, nonetheless features cello, violin, viola, trombone, synthesizer, mellotron, a drum machine, etc. Working with Aaron Dessner (the guitarist for The National) for the first time as her producer, Swift paints a canvas with lots of hues, but they’re delicate, unassuming watercolors. And watery is the word for this album.
On Lover, Swift pulled off something few artists this side of Paul McCartney have been able to do: write brilliantly about a happy relationship (with the English actor Joe Alwyn), notably in the adorable “Paper Rings.” Low gray clouds have rumbled in over the sunny skies of that album; her (apparent) allusions to Alwyn are fond and respectful but tinged with hints of doom: “I’d give you my sunshine, give you my best/But the rain is always gonna come if you’re standin’ with me,” she sings in “peace.” Yikes. In “hoax,” she sings, “Don’t want no other shade of blue but you/No other sadness in the world would do.” Bit of a mixed signal on that one. “Hoax” is not the noun for which one ordinarily reaches when describing contentment. She sings about infidelity in “illicit affairs,” about Covid death in “epiphany,” about being an open wound in “this is me trying,” about being cut open in “invisible string” and about being pulled apart in “hoax.” Let’s hope this is all an act, evidence merely that Swift longs to be as cool as del Rey. Swift isn’t cool. She is, however, a pop genius, and it could work as well for her as it did for McCartney, if she allowed it.