Perfect Sound Forever


Beauty Alone
by T.K. McNeil
(December 2020)

Most people like to have a plan. A set idea of how things are going to be. It is part of what makes surprises fun. Though it is also often the case that some of our favourite things come out of nowhere. This is particularly true with music. We all have our own way of finding new music. Though this doesn't dampen the thrill of finding something that is truly great. Particularly if it is something you never expected.

My newly found way of doing things, is to scroll through iTunes, looking for anything that seems interesting and listening to some of the samples. Recently, I broke this second rule. I know we're not supposed to judge things by their cover but that was exactly what I did. Taking the album presented to me as being from the Black Metal genre. I couldn't be more wrong. The album was Folklore and the artist was... Taylor Swift.

I was, of course, familiar with Swift from her ubiquitous presence in the musical and cultural landscape for the past 14 or so years. I never paid much attention, both new country and pop being genres I never particularly liked with rare exceptions. Yet, if I'm honest, I can't really think of a song of hers I didn't like to some degree.

The degree cranked to 11 on Folklore. The genre is, quite accurately, labelled as "Alternative" even if this is a bit nebulous. The first three tracks, "The 1," "Cardigan" and "The Last Great American Dynasty," still have a lot to appeal to her core fan base. They aren't nearly as catchy, or empty, as a "Shake It Off" but they have a good groove and Taylor sounding most like her usual self. Even though, as they progress, there is a noticeable change. The piano-driven pep of "The 1," leading into the much more somber "Cardigan." Still a love song in the pop music tradition, but with a good deal more depth, not least in terms of the metaphors used. Meanwhile, the peppy-to-the-point-of-dancable "The Last Great American Dynasty" has a dark core- the lyrics tell the story of a 'middle-class divorcee' who marries into a powerful, new money oil family, only to be blamed when the husband dies. The title is what his snobby society friends say after his death.

Then the floor drops out. Aching in its pain and brutal in its perspective, "exile" sees the one-time pop princess venture out into Hozier territory. The instrumentation is exquisite and perfectly fits the mood. The lyrics, shared between Swift and Bon Iver, reach the level of poetry. The refrain is a brilliant example: "I think I've seen this film before and I didn't like the ending/You're not my homeland anymore, so what am I defending?"

This is followed by the metaphorical gut-punch of "My Tears Ricochet." A truly affecting tale of a relationship gone very, very bad. The organ and strings elements serving almost as a requiem, which go very well with the lyrics, including: "Even on my worst day, did I deserve babe, all the hell you gave me?" and "I didn't have in myself to go with grace/And you're the hero flyin' around savin' face/If I'm dead to you, why are you at the wake?/Cursin' my name, wishin' I stayed, look how my teas ricochet."

"Mirrorball" is considerably lighter, both in terms of instrumentation and vocals like Tuesday Night Music Club era Sheryl Crow and very much getting back to Swift's New Country roots. Which can also be said for the next two tracks, "Seven" and "August."

Just when you might be getting a sense of security, "This Is Me Trying" hits, an honestly tear-jerking ballad about wasted potential. Likely putting older guys like me in mind of Midnight Oil's "Forgotten Years" and perhaps even "Diamonds and Rust." No doubt a reaction to the mistakes of the past, such as signing a record deal when she was only 16. The real blow comes in the second stanza: "They told me all my cages were mental/So I got wasted like all my potential/And my words shoot to kill when I'm bad/Have a lot of regrets about that." It draws a clear line between the girl she was and the woman she is, with Swift having turned 30 this year. This makes it possible to draw a line between "Shake It Off," "Look What You Make Me Do" and "This Is Me Trying." It also makes an arc reflecting different levels of maturity. From the spunky 24 year old who doesn't care, to the clever 28 year old getting a handle on irony to the mature 30 year old who really understands what happened and is trying to do better. It's a theme carried on in the orchestra heavy "Illicit Affairs," perhaps Swift's most mature take on love and its consequences yet.

Counter-pointing this is "Invisible String," a chill, folksy number with some elements of calypso. Also about love, no surprise there, but again, focusing more on the positive aspects as in "Mirrorball." Likely encompassed when Swift sings: "Cold was the steel of my ax to grind for the boys who broke my heart/Now I send their babies presents."

Of all the surprising songs on this surprise album, released with no promotion and recorded while Swift was in self-isolation, giving her the time and space to do her best work, is the bonus track "The Lakes." A brilliant, gorgeous tribute to the Romantic poets and creativity in general. Chock full of wonderful and hilarious wordplay and metaphors, it is difficult to narrow down. Perhaps the best example is the first verse: "Is it romantic how all my elegies eulogize me?/I'm not cut-out for these cynical clones, these hunters with cell-phones." But then, of course there is the chorus: "Take me to the lakes where all the poets went to die/I don't belong and my beloved neither do you/Those Windermere peaks look a perfect place to cry, I'm setting off!/Though not without my muse."

It is not unusual for artists to try new things. Jewel's attempted jump from the indie folk that made her famous, to EDM, one of the most stark and unsuccessful examples. With Folklore, Swift has made not one, not two, but three major changes in genre, all of them marked by both commercial and critical success. Indicating that rather than being the usual manufactured pop tart, or gambler who got thrice lucky, Swift is, in fact, a fundamentally talented person who can excel at anything she turns her hand to. Only getting better with age and perspective.

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