Whisper it, Taylor Swift’s new ‘indie’ album is pretty good
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
The opinion of an indie fan, hear me out…folklore is a beautifully constructed The National inspired indie-folk record. It's bound to convert the previously indifferent.
You can listen to folklore on Spotify or on YouTube.
Scrolling through Twitter on Thursday evening, news slowly began to filter through that Taylor Swift's new album was about to drop. Lockdown’s best-kept secret (aside from the cure itself…) was out.
Upon reading, I, and many others, simply shrugged their shoulders and carried on with their lives. Sure, what interest do I have in this American pop star’s music? Nose firmly turned up.
Out of mind, the Twitter scrolling continued. 30 seconds later and I had landed on a new tweet by my favourite band, The National. As a big fan of the Ohio indie-rock band over the last decade, I instantly paid attention. It's what fanboys do.
Shock horror, The National were promoting Taylor Swift’s new album, a record I had so quickly dismissed seconds earlier. Confusion ensued; how have these two worlds collided?
The reason suddenly became clear. Taylor's new album was a collaboration with two members of the band, brothers Aaron (in the main) and Bryce Dressner. The post had my curiosity, the content now had my attention. Folklore was to be released the following morning. Hmmm, maybe old Swifty's music wasn't too bad after all...
A quick study of the album art - an autumn season forest with a girl in the distance, in black and white - revealed artwork that couldn’t be anymore indie-folk if it tried. Firmly judging this book by its picture, the signs were positive.
Aaron and Bryce Dressner bear a large responsibility for the unique sound The National have mastered over the past two decades. Surprised excitement was now the overwhelming emotion.
Upon waking up on Friday morning, I actively sought out the new Taylor Swift album. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I'd type!
What’s the verdict, then?
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressive from the first track, ‘The 1’, and this is, in large, down to the background sound. Aaron Dressner is responsible for the production of 11 of the 16 songs on folklore, adding spare pianos, orchestrations and acoustic guitars throughout.
Unsurprisingly, it sounds a lot like The National (bar Matt Berninger’s baritone trademark vocals). And that’s not a bad thing at all.
There’s an understated indie-folk sound to most of the tracks, and it’s no surprise that Taylor Swift sought Dressner out to provide an appropriate backdrop. The other main contributor is Jack Antonoff, a 36-year-old producer from New Jersey, who worked on Taylor’s 1989 and has previous efforts with Lorde, St. Vincent and Lana Del Rey. His name has gone under the radar so far, but it’s worth giving him some credit.
The Lana Del Rey comparison is an appropriate one too. The new songs have a melancholic, grand and nostalgic sound to them, a style Lana mastered on last year’s Normal F**king Rockwell. Another ‘guilty’ pleasure.
Several listens into the album and a clear favourite emerged, that of the fourth track ’exile’. It’s a duet with Bon Iver singer Justin Vernon and a story of two ex-lovers seeing each other again following a breakup. The rough and embittered vocals of Vernon reveal a man confused at why a relationship has come to an end.
Over a pensive and beautiful piano, a heartbroken Vernon opens the song, painting a picture of a jealous former companion spying on his failed romance.
I can see you standing honey/
With his arms around your body/
Laughing but the joke’s not funny at all
The singer then concedes the situation he's in.
You’re not my homeland anymore/
So what am I defending now?/
You were my town, now I’m in exile seein' you out/
I think I've seen this film before
Taylor quickly responds to the accusations, ‘I can see you standing, honey/ like he’s just your understudy/ like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me/ second, third and hundredth chances/ balancing on breaking branches’ before admitting that ‘I’m leaving out the side door’. It's a classic tale of a relationship gone sour, with only one party willing to move on.
The third verse provides a powerful vocal performance from Justin Vernon and you really feel the emotions of the song coming through. Reading the lyrics and listening to the song at the same time, it’s one that pulls at the heartstrings.
The smooth-sounding Taylor, compared with the husky Justin Vernon, creates a brilliant contrast of differing opinions and two opposing viewpoints around a failed romance. An instant favourite of mine from first listen. Bon Iver just makes everything better, doesn't he?
Many of the songs are melancholic in subject matter, from the prom-like sound of ‘Mirrorball’, to ‘seven’, a song about an unhappy childhood friend which features an infectious chorus hook.
Sweet tea in the summer/
Cross your heart, won’t tell no other/
And though I can't recall your face/
I still got love for you
Perhaps the highlight of the album is the teenage love triangle trilogy running through three tracks; ‘cardigan’, ‘august’ and ‘betty’. I’ll admit that, on first listen, it wasn’t too obvious that the three songs were connected, but once you get it, it’s a really cool concept and story.
The story begins with ‘cardigan’ and opening lines straight out of a Lana Del Rey guidebook, ‘vintage tee, brand new phone/high heels on cobblestones/ when you are young, they assume you know nothing’. The character Betty describes the good and bad times with a boy who doesn’t quite know whether he’s coming or going, comparing herself to a neglected old cardigan.
Next up is ‘august’, a folk-pop song which describes a doomed summer romance from the perspective of another girl with the same boy. The chorus painfully admits, ‘I can see us lost in the memory/ August slipped away in a moment of time/cause it was never mine’. Summertime sadness strikes again. The boy's heart is somewhere else.
The story completes itself with 'betty', told from the perspective of 17-year-old James. This time the protagonist guiltily admits and regrets his cheating ways as documented in the last song, praying Betty will take him back.
‘epiphany’ is rooted in a dreamy and airy atmospheric backdrop. Taylor compares her grandfather’s experience of war (‘keep your helmet, keep your life , son/just a fleshwound, here’s your rifle’) to the ongoing battle being faced in hospitals against COVID-19. I’ve seen comparisons to Enya and Sigur Ros and both feel appropriate.
It’s a sound that makes you want to weep and smile at the same time. I always like songs like this, ones that make you feel warm and fuzzy in the inside, but are contrasted to a very different lyrical theme. Bravo again to Aaron Dressner for the production on this one.
A surprise worth investing in
So often on this album, I felt like I was listening to a new record by The National and that’s possibly the highest praise I can afford. Did I mention how much of a fan I am of The National?
Aaron Dressner and Jack Antonoff both do a great job in providing an ‘autumn’ indie-folk mood to folklore. With streaming records broken on Friday on both Spotify and Apple Music and 1.3 million albums sold in 24 hours, the novelty of this record certainly hasn't been lost on the masses.
It’s an album Pitchfork has described as a ‘sweater-weather record filled with cinematic love songs and rich fictional details’. And those words are hard to argue with. I’m not a Taylor Swift convert just yet, but it’s a good start.
I remember years ago, pre-1989 era Taylor and her song ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ (a song I despised…and still do) sarcastically berating an ex-boyfriend for his love of indie and music snobbery.
And you, would hide away and find your peace of mind/
With some indie record that's much cooler than mine
Well, eight years later and Taylor has created 'some indie record', and yes, it is cooler than what we're used to. Fair play to her for showing versatility, it's nice to see at least one person has had a constructive lockdown!