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September 27, 2020

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Icon music review: Taylor Swift's Folklore

While unlikely to go down as the artist’s best album, there is more than enough creativity, artistry, and variety to keep the Swifties happy

Folklore-Taylor Swift
Reviewed by Craig Hoffman

Country and pop-crossover megastar Taylor Swift dropped Folklore her eighth studio album in July. The indie-folk style record was written and recorded by Swift while in quarantine. The artist did her best to stay productive in 2020 despite chaos in the world.

“Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening, but there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen…” Swift wrote. “And that thing is my 8th studio album, folklore [sic]. Surprise.”  

Folklore broke download records on Spotify and Apple Music. In the US, Folklore sold more than 500,000 copies in its first week. This makes it the biggest album debut thus far in 2020. It also checked in at number eight in Japan. 

The 16 tracks (plus one more on the physical album), in general, will please most fans of the singer-songwriter. The album features one duet, “Exile,” with American band Bon Iver. The indie group was founded in Wisconsin in 2006. 

“Exile,” while good, doesn’t particularly showcase the talents of Swift or featured vocalist, Justin Vernon. The contrast in timbre between the duo simply does not deliver any real musical magic. Despite that moment of disappointment, other songs fare much better.

“Invisible String” is one of a number of Easter eggs from Swift on the album. The song, according to reports, includes a shout out to former beau Joe Jonas’ baby with his new wife. “For the boys who broke my heart, now I send their babies presents,” Swift sings on the track. The singer has neither confirmed nor denied this rumor, but it appears the once bad blood between the star-crossed lovers is over.  

“I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or wish I hadn’t,” Swift wrote on Twitter.  

The status of that prior relationship aside, “Invisible String” is an excellent example of the megastar’s enormous lyric and music writing talents. Another standout future single (August 2020), is “Betty.” It’s a deep and diary-esque recounting of a past (mostly fictional) broken relationship. 

The composition is Taylor Swift wrapped in a saccharine sweet, yet sardonic package. A formula that continues to allow her to sell millions of records. Much has been made of Swift’s departure from her mainstream roots in country and pop music on this current project. Certainly, the attempt to reach out in a new artistic direction was successful. 

The album sets out to be an indie style laidback tome of love, loss, and emotion, but there is a caveat. The new direction, at times exploits a career-long weakness of the musician: Taylor Swift is not a particularly amazing vocalist. That seems harsh, and, to a degree, it is, but it makes the statement no less true. While the lyrics, music, and even Swift’s persona carry a lot of weight, her voice often does not. 

“This Is Me Trying,” requires little of her singing abilities. There’s minimal melodic range and, at times, and it’s an emotional vacuum as a few big moments fall flat in other tunes. Too, it’s clear in the music, the parts that Swift wrote and what she didn’t. One would hope for a better synergy of the various musicians and producers involved on this project. Still, the album is solid, if not great.

Final Take: Swift’s new direction is a good one for this album. Folklore is a commercial and critical success. While unlikely to go down as the artist’s best album, there is more than enough creativity, artistry, and variety to keep the Swifties happy.  4.5/5 stars.

Craig Hoffman is a music graduate of Ohio Northern University and The University of Akron School of Music. He also serves as the Icon’s Japan correspondent.