Taylor Swift’s National & Bon Iver-featuring album ‘folklore’ is here – a first-impressions review
Yesterday, Taylor Swift made the surprise announcement that she'd be releasing a new album at midnight with no pre-release singles, and that it was largely produced by and co-written with The National's Aaron Dessner (and featured tons of his usual collaborators, like Bon Iver's Justin Vernon), titled folklore, and came with black and white album artwork of a photo of Taylor in the woods. Obviously, the internet had questions. Was this Taylor's indie folk album? Was it her Man of the Woods? Did she choose this release date last minute to stop her longtime rival Kanye West (who, shocker, did not actually release his album) from scoring yet another No. 1 album? Did the artwork look kinda black metal?
Well, folklore is here and at least some of these questions are answered. There's some acoustic guitar, but it's not really a folk album, and it's not really a drastic pivot for Taylor either. It's mostly alt-pop ballads in the Lana Del Rey/Lorde realm (track 2, "cardigan," especially sounds like Lana Del Rey), but writing songs that sound like Lana and Lorde is nothing new for Taylor. Nor are somber acoustic guitar songs -- don't forget she released three and a half country albums before turning her attention to glossy synthpop. It's her most overall subdued album by far, and there are plenty of subtle intricacies in the music, as you'd expect from an album that was not just largely co-written and co-produced by Aaron Dessner, but that also was made with several musicians from his musical community, including his National bandmates Bryan Devendorf and Bryce Dessner, as well as Ben Lanz, Thomas Bartlett (Doveman), Rob Moose (yMusic, Bon Iver), Josh Kaufman (Bonny Light Horseman), Clarice Jensen (ACME, yMusic), Jason Treuting (So Percussion), James McAlister, JT Bates, Kyle Resnick (The National, Beirut), and Yuki Numata Resnick. (And for what it's worth, the songs that Taylor made with frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff fit right in with the Dessner productions, and one of the major highlights, "this is me trying," is an Antonoff collab.)
There are brief moments where it sounds like Taylor is assimilating into their world, like on "Peace," which was made with both Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon and kind of sounds like Taylor singing on a Big Red Machine song, but mostly it sounds more like the 37d03d were catering to Taylor's universe. The song where Justin Vernon sings ("exile") isn't Taylor going For Emma; it's Justin bringing that "Beth/Rest" and Bruce Hornsby collaborator energy to a sweeping Taylor Swift ballad. (It speaks to Taylor's vision and direction as an artist that she can create an album with such a drastically different group of musicians and still have it sound exactly like a Taylor Swift album.) Like Man of the Woods, it sounds a lot less rustic than it looks, but there is one very rustic song and it's a standout: "Betty," which finds Josh Kaufman providing some Bob Dylan/Neil Young style harmonica, and features some of Taylor's most immediate hooks and storytelling. (Side note: both "exile" and "betty" were co-written with William Bowery, who the internet thinks is actually a "mysterious" alias for someone famous.)
folklore may not be Taylor's big pivot to indie, but it's enjoyable (if a bit long) and it's really no small feat that Taylor is continuing to progress her sound and take artistic risks eight albums and 14 years into her career. And if she gains The National new fans or helps Aaron Dessner win a major Grammy in the process, kudos to her for that too.
folklore is out now via Republic. You can stream the full thing and watch the video for "cardigan" in the YouTube playlist below...
More new albums out today here.