Taylor Swift is undoubtedly one of music's biggest superstars. BIGGEST. So less than 24 hours ago with little fanfare, little press, she had announced a new album was on its way to hit today (July 24, 2020). For one of the once again biggest superstars in the world to pull it off is stunning...amazing and in these times, very much needed. It was only less than a year that her last release Lover was out everywhere and to see this 16 track effort get written, tracked, recorded and produced (mostly by The National's Aaron Dessner with some help from her go-to Jack Antonoff) is a feat upon itself.
But in the coronavirus quarantine era, ANYTHING and EVERYTHING is possible.
opens with the piano-driven "1," which also dawns a new era, Taylor Swift swearing, which on a first listen is as jarring as the number of R-rated expletives that were uttered on the first season of Star Trek: Picard
. But after a second and third listen, you realize that despite the seemingly stripped and peaceful delivery, "1" feels like an autobiography about a life that could have been with the one. And again, delivered in a way that would have been at home with the bombastic production from past albums; but "1" still delivers the gut punch without sounding like one. Superb.
"Cardigan" follows the same motif and comes with a music video that showcases Swift going through an Alice In Wonderland-like landscape and jumping right into her piano for safety during a storm. Now comes the real tour de force moment for Swift...
"the last american dynasty" might well be the career-defining song for the superstar. Building upon some of the storytelling elements from Lover, "the last american dynasty" embraces that element completely as the song essentially serves as sub-4 minute biography of 20th centruy American socialite Rebekah (Betty) Harkness. In this song, Swift aims for higher songwriting ground and makes the likes of McCartney/Lennon, Dylan and Loretta Lynn proud.
Bon Iver's Justin Vernon provided the opening vocals for the next track "exile," and you know what? He's the perfect duet partner for this song, a juxtaposition to Swift's memorable lyrical line: “I think I've seen this film before/And I didn't like the ending." Today's songs are clocked under 4 minutes and anything over 4 gets repetitive, but the 4:46 runtime of "exile" is so well done, well-written and well-sung that it is worth EVERY single second it's on.
The next few tracks continue the understated, yet deeply personal and nuanced journey and then there's "mad woman." This is probably as stinging as she will get in the entire album; also the second time she drops an unprintable word. And she has every reason to, the peaceful piano and strings is an odd but wonderful opposite to her biting cut to "yacht partiers" and sings about what they have taken away from her. It's veiled but obvious reference to Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun, who purchased Big Machine and subsequently Swift's masters and back catalog.
"epiphany" is a well placed song, given the biting nature of the previous "mad woman." This is a song that is also well-timed as the refrain and second stanza can easily serve as paying respects to the human toll of the coronavirus pandemic:
With you, I serve
With you, I fall down
Watch you breathin'
Watch you breathin' out
Something med school
Did not cover
Holds your hand through plastic now
Doc, I think she's crashin' out
And some things you just can't speak about
"betty" is the closest Swift has gotten to going back to her country roots, both lyrically and sonically. There's the banjo-plucking, the harmonica runs. Also "betty" almost feels like a grown-up call back to her very first two hits, "Teardrops on My Guitar" and "Tim McGraw." In "betty," Swift spins a tale of a high school romance that sounds sweet, saccharine...and again, still very grown-up with more of that unprintable word.
After "Peace" comes the closer that people are talking about, "hoax." The song builds off quite literally from the opening track "1" and goes into lyrical territory of past songs that made references to her past relationship, without the slick production behind it, just the strumming of the piano and the subtle string arrangement behind her vocals. There is literally a discussion thread on Reddit behind the meaning of the entire song, punctuated by one of the closing lines "My only one/My kingdom come undone/My broken drum/You have beaten my heart" right now. That aside, "hoax" is one of the times where you can call it a perfect closer to an album that should be, will be, has to be a career-defining moment for Swift.
As said before, folklore
could be, should be, has to be, will be a career defining moment for Taylor Swift. And the wonder of it all was how it was all crafted without a single hint of media coverage trying to spoil it well before hand, no announcements made before other than just over twenty four hours ago and done remotely in several locations. The album and all of its material is proof that you don't need some big machine, no pun intended to carry on the weight of writing it, recording it, producing it, making it, selling it. On top of it, it showcases truly the best that Swift has to offer, essentially showing off a master class in modern songwriting. To some of today's listeners, folklore
might drag on too long for them and that's really too bad...folklore
's runtime and song material is WELL worth EVERY. SINGLE. SECOND. Of your time. Bravo Taylor. Bravo.