The new Taylor Swift album is good. If this were a different moment, I might have resisted such an unequivocal public declaration. Like so many other people who are too addicted to social media and pop culture squabbles, Swift always represented a type of too-polished rich, white pop artist: beautiful, undeniably talented, but a little too hung up on old grudges and the mean things random people say about her ("Shake It Off," "Look What You Made Me Do," "You Need to Calm Down") to see how good she really has it.
But dismissing Swift because it was sort of cool to do so was, of course, always a waste of time — and it’s an even bigger waste right now. Everything is horrifying, and we should all enjoy beauty where we can find it.
Swift’s eighth album, "folklore," was produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who also co-wrote 11 of the 16 songs, and his influence is clear on every track’s pianos, strings and guitars. Unlike dance-pop albums that have come out in 2020 from artists like Charli XCX, "folklore" isn’t defiant toward the circumstances of its creation. And unlike Fiona Apple’s "Fetch the Bolt Cutters," this record was produced during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, so the emotions on display can be connected directly to this year’s specific type of toxic garbage fire.
It’s even possible to pretend this is an album by a talented newcomer from Duluth, Minnesota, rather than one of the most famous pop stars in the world. That immediately makes it more interesting than if "folklore" had been rolled out with months of fanfare, prereleased singles and carefully tested media appearances and prewritten narratives for every song. What else is there to do right now but fill in the blanks ourselves?
Swift is known for meticulous image management, so it at least sounds like a departure to say on Instagram that she’s embracing imperfection with "folklore" — but this is still a record with multiple deluxe editions and of-the-moment visual aesthetic. The black-and-white photos of Swift staring into the distance in fields and forests have already inspired the internet to churn out jokes about “cottagecore” and "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" memes. (And “exile” is a duet with Bon Iver, the artist who took his own sad times in a cabin and built a small artistic empire in the upper Midwest.)
But contemplative woodsiness has been a cornerstone of sad-indie-dude music for more than a decade, and Swift’s decision to try it fits nicely (one could even say like a cozy "cardigan," which is also the title of the first single). Most tracks sound like they’d slot easily into an episode of "Friday Night Lights," which is the sort of statement that would have sounded outlandish if someone said it while the show was actually on the air. But we live in strange times, so let’s embrace it.
"Folklore" lacks some of the explicit defensiveness that has come in some past Swift albums (like the aforementioned “Shake It Off,” which remains a monument to bruised white woman feelings), though there is some score-settling in the song “mad woman.” But unlike previous entries in this oeuvre, such as 2012's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," a vengeful lyric hits differently when wrapped in Dessner’s production and months of relative quiet from the star.
"What did you think I'd say to that? Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?" Swift sings — and it could be about her fight to regain control of the masters for her first six albums; or her successful court battle with David Mueller, a radio DJ who groped her during a photo-op in 2013; or even some part of her personal life we don't even know about.
It wouldn’t be a Taylor Swift album without a few moments of earnest cheesiness. “My tears ricochet” is a beautiful song with lovely lyrics (“I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace/ 'Cause when I’d fight you used to tell me I was brave,”), but the title is impossible to say without cringing. Does that matter right now, though? Even the luckiest people in America have endured months of pandemic lockdown, economic precariousness and a torrent of ugliness from politicians, police and neighbors, with no end in sight. Who has time or energy to whip up a contrarian screed about an album of beautiful songs?
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, many more artists are going to create in isolation and collaborate remotely, and there is no way to tell what other musicians, writers and filmmakers are going to make during this terrifying moment or how it will enter the world. There is no template for anyone to follow right now, and there is absolutely no certainty that things will get less stressful or scary soon.
Swift ended her post announcing "folklore" with a message that is relevant to creative pursuits, as well as the mundane daily tasks of parenting or being a good citizen.
“Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed,” she wrote. “My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world. That’s the side of uncertainty I can get on board with.” It’s good advice.