Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest albums of the year has been released by Taylor Swift. What is a little different this time is the style of her music, and the image she’s attempting to sell.
Already a mega-superstar with millions of dollars stuffed in her pockets, Swift has apparently tired of the celebrity life, wishing she was an indie darling with a string of universally revered albums behind her. I can almost see her salivating over Bon Iver and his critically-acclaimed emo-folk, quickly dialing his number to enlist him on her new record — practically ensuring her the very clout she’s looking for.
At least that’s what her new album “folklore” seems to be saying. In an unabashed “Bon Iver” turn towards softer, acoustic sounds and folksy moods, she seems to be making another power move into a genre of music she’s not had much presence in before.
I can’t blame her for wanting to be a part of a scene that is both emotionally alive and naturalistic in its scope and delivery. You can see it in her black-and-white album cover, which seems to position her as another of those folksy hipsters who find their music somewhere between the woods and the recording studio.
Yet the music doesn’t deliver on this image.
The first problem on this album is the sound itself. On this album, Swift can’t seem to shake the vapid pop style she’s become known for, like on the song “the 1”, where she still can’t shake the affected, breathy delivery that seems to be popular these days. The vocals don’t fit with the instrumentals, creating a dissonance of sound that is, at its worst, sickening.
If I had been producing this album, I would have told Swift to get rid of the syrupy vocal effects, which only serve to dilute the authenticity of the songs and remind the listener that Swift is still, in the end, a pop singer.
And that’s being nice. At its worst, the album is sort of a slap in the face to the indie world. It’s a pop star saying that the music elite can mimic, or mock, everything that they do. She’s even enlisted the people at the center of indie cool — Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner — to open the golden doors to that sound.
Unfortunately, no amount of soft piano chords and ambient textures are going to make the songs on “Folklore” good. Most of them are electro-pop centered melodies that just happen to find themselves layered on top of pseudo-woodsy folk music.
“Look!” Swift seems to be saying. “I can be just as cool and folksy as you! All it takes is throwing money at the coolest people in indie today!”
It’s sort of embarrassing that Dessner would associate himself with this project, but perhaps even more shameful that Vernon would sing on one of these songs. To be fair, his song on the album, “Exile,” is actually pretty good until Swift starts singing. At the instant she appears, the track devolves into church band-sounding mega-chorus hell, and I can’t help but feel bad for Vernon. Guess the man needs to be paid, too.
Pitchfork described “Folklore” as a mainstream indie homage, and I guess that’s one way of seeing it. I would call it a sharp kick in the shins to the indie world. In a music industry where mildly well-known musicians struggle to make ends meet, it seems like stealing their aesthetic might actually be a little cruel. Swift, after all, is worth a reported $360 million, while the average indie musician makes $12,860 a year.
This contrast seems to have gone unnoticed to Pitchfork, which has fallen far from its roots as it a painfully honest and scathing music critique platform. Instead, it has become a place where writers delightfully prod at artists they like, while also ignoring musicians who deserve a platform like Pitchfork to promote their music.
Not to make this review all about Pitchfork, but it seems like the much-lauded indie music mag has now met Taylor Swift halfway — halfway between the interesting, experimental music they used to love and the candy-coated pop that Swift has made her name with.
Pitchfork and Swift are now on the same level of artistic integrity, which may be why they rated her album an 8 out of 10 while giving another great album by My Morning Jacket a 7.2.
Thematically, “Folklore” plays around with indie’s spectral, foggy imagery of dashed hopes and star-crossed lovers. Echoing Bon Iver songs like Calgary, she paints a picture of a love just on the horizon, or just out of reach, even if every song comes off as somewhat trite and overplayed, even on its first listen.
This part of the album is at least somewhat interesting until she throws out an annoying catchphrase or two, betraying the pop mentality cash-grab behind these songs. It’s particularly bad on “my tears ricochet”, in which she repeats the word “ricochet” like the beat was about to drop on the other side of the chorus. Although the beat never drops, the song is still ruined.
And not to beat this dead rabbit, but the vocals sound horrible on “my tears ricochet.” It’s like Swift is afraid of actually putting out a song with just her natural, effect-free voice to carry the songs. The pop star only has one foot in the water here, too scared to commit to the aesthetic fully out of fear that it won’t sell.
All of this comes together to make Swift’s worst album to date. It’s not horrible because the songs are low-quality, but because it so badly wants to be something it’s not. It’s like Jeff Bezos putting up a what looks like a “mom and pop” retail store in your local community — All the right elements are there but the soul of it all is missing.
Nothing is more tragic than having a grand vision of making “art” and then failing miserably at it. The album shortchanges on almost every characteristic of the genre she’s going for — atmospheric folk-rock — and feels feeble even when she’s trying to craft the perfect rainy-day emotional ballad around her saccharine vocal delivery.
The lyrics to one of her big pop songs of years past speaks to this: “You would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” She says to a former boyfriend who she’s apparently never taking back.
With “Folklore” it looks like she’s trying to make just the kind of record he’s looking for, if only subconsciously. And maybe he was right in the end, because almost every indie record ever made is cooler than this one.