An American Singer

 

I’m not supposed to like the music of Taylor Swift, but who says so? I’m not going to name names but I definitely don’t think my enthusiasm for her records would meet with the approval of the amorphous voice out there in society that demands that you can only like certain things, based on a little bit of information it has about about a few other things you like, because by stepping outside of that you make the world less easy to arrange. I am also aware that there could be some other version of me – not me, but somebody who has some similar interests – out there who might baulk at the very notion of Taylor Swift calling her new album ‘Folklore’ and ignore it on principle. “Folklore? What does a mindbogglingly well-off stockbroker’s daughter, living in a slick A-list World, know about folklore? She probably can’t tell a selkie from a selfie. Has she ever even met a bogle or Black Shuck?” Then there’s the person who might put down my love of Taylor’s new album to the fact that it’s her first “mature” album, the one where she collaborates with Bon Iver and the guy from The National instead of Ed Sheehan and Zayn, and that that would obviously work better for me because I’m older than her average fan and probably like downbeat guitar music, because that’s what blokes of a certain age with beards like, isn’t it. But it isn’t as simple as that, either. I’ve had a soft spot for Taylor since around a decade ago when I first heard ‘Love Story’ which, for all its cheesiness and naïveté, hints at a narrative talent and greater things to come. The defiant chuckle after she sings about being accused of going on “too many dates” in ‘Shake it Off’. The tempo change when she rhymes “boys only want love if it’s torture” with “don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t, warn ya”in ‘Blank Space’, and the “oOOOh Nooooo” a bit before that in the same song, which, at the right time, is no less exciting than hearing Arthur Lee go “awlrigggiiht now!” in Love’s ‘A House Is Not A Motel’. Actually, fuck it, let’s just say EVERY SECOND of ‘Blank Space’, which might just be the most perfect pop song recorded this century. All of this I adore. But ‘Folklore’ is, I think, Swift’s first lengthy, involving work of art: the one where the clever wordplay of her best early songs, her flare for storytelling, grows an extra layer. She also sounds far more in her element here than she has on anything since 2014’s ‘1989’ album. It feels like an intimate and immersive experience not dissimilar to the way Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’, Judee Sill’s ‘Heart Food’ or the first couple of Jackson Browne LPs do.

What hooked me in? It took the whole 21 seconds that were required to reach the third line in the opening song, ‘The One’: “I thought I saw you at the bus stop, I didn’t though.” Even when the words in ‘Folklore’ are at their most basic, they create strong imagery – pictures of people, often in the aftermath of relationships, shaking the dust off and processing where they’ve landed. “And when I felt like I was an old cardigan, under someone’s bed, you put me on and said I was your favourite” from the second track ‘Cardigan’ is already becoming the most-quoted lyric here but there’s an endless amount of this stuff: a whole, very long, album full of words, layers and layers of them which deepen the more you listen. Now, I hear a double-meaning in that “you put me on” in ‘Cardigan’ that I didn’t on my first seven or eight listens. You also begin to notice that characters and themes return. In ‘Betty’ – which sounds at times like a lost, golden Lemonheads outtake from the peak of Evan Dando’s songwriting days – someone in a cardigan is apologising on a doorstep, while in ‘August’ someone pulls up in a car, which seems familiar. “Oh!” you realise after a while. “It’s the car from ‘Betty’ again!” Swift is not just two but three sides of the same story. “Stood on the cliffside screaming ‘give me a reason’” she sings in ‘Hoax’ and you remember the crescendo in ‘Last Great American Dynasty’ where the socially shunned “middle-class divorcee” is seen “pacing the rocks staring out at the midnight sea” and it seems you’re getting an insight into the quieter, sadder side to the character you met earlier. The latter song could be the best bit of music here, and is almost certainly the best piece of storytelling: Swift doing her own retelling of the life of the former owner of her own Rhode Island beach house, the mischievous Rebecca Harkness, once married to Standard Oil heir Bill Harkness, who, following her husband’s early death, was known to fill her pool with champagne at parties while blowing her inheritance. Rebecca also went by the nickname “Betty”. The plot thickens. I will say, though, that when I sought out a photo of the house’s surroundings online I was a tad disappointed. I had a much more dramatic mental picture of it. But that’s to Taylor’s credit: she gives you great pictures, but gives your imagination plenty of room to work too.

A record I have been reminded of of a few times while listening to this one is ‘North Hills’, the unforgettable 2008 debut album by the then precociously young and talented band Dawes, not so much because they too wrote accessible, deeply tender songs with a hint of country and before-their-time wisdom, but because of its strong sense of movement: of a life, or lives, relocating to new places, geographically and psychologically. But whenever I listen to ‘North Hills’, and compare it to the inferior records Dawes have made since, I wish, slightly cruelly, that the Taylor at the helm of that record – Goldsmith, the Dawes frontman – might again experience the kind of wrenching heartbreak that you assume caused him to write so brilliantly and sing with such ragged beauty. The significant difference with ‘Folklore’ is that it appears to have been written by a happy person, or at least a person in the midst of some romantic contentment which – though not perfect – has made her reflect more philosophically on the events which have led her to it. “Hell was the journey but it brought me heaven,” she sings in ‘Invisible String’, an examination of romantic fate so gossamer and glowing with love that you forgive it for some of its thinner claims of coincidence. It’s a mark of the quality of the writing here that, even though I fundamentally have no interest in Swift’s own romantic life away from the record, I find myself analysing the story behind the line “bold was the waitress on our three-year trip to the Lakes, she said I looked like an American singer” and what kind of incident it really describes in her adventures with her current partner Joe Alwyn. Unbidden, my brain came up with the following shortlist:

  1. The waitress said Taylor Swift looked like Taylor Swift and Taylor Swift thought that was a bold thing to say.
  2. The waitress said Taylor Swift looked like Taylor Swift but was bold in some other way, not relating to that.
  3. The waitress just said Taylor Swift looked like an American singer but couldn’t remember which one and Taylor Swift though it was bold of the waitresses to admit her uncertainty.
  4. The waitress said Taylor Swift looked like Katy Perry.

I think – and this might change, because I’ve found that it does, often – ‘Invisible String’ is my favourite song on ‘Folklore’, jointly with ‘Seven’, a track so liberally sprinkled with childhood magic dust it feels like finding an old photo album in a box you thought you’d lost. These are the songs where I most powerfully feel the love the record is drenched in. After listening to them, and all the other wonderful ones here, I have found myself reversing slowly through her back catalogue, interested to some level in almost every moment, more and more fascinated by how she got here, emotionally and stylistically. You hear tiny roots of the wordsmithery, the spinning of perspectives, even in her most daft and naggingly catchy hit, 2012’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’.

In that daft – but totally brilliant – song, Swift refers to the lover who would “hide away and find” his “peace of mind with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”. I don’t know what that indie record was, but I can make a few guesses, and I’m pretty sure it’s the kind that would bore me into a small coma. One mistake not to make about ‘Folklore’ is believing some reports that it’s Taylor’s “indie album”. Such reports are bullshit. It’s just the sound of someone sitting down and quietly putting more imagination and passion into their songwriting than ever. We don’t have much to thank the pandemic for, but we might thank it for ‘Folklore’, which probably wouldn’t have been quite the record it is, were it not made without fanfare, in semi-isolation. Maybe the extra time that a high profile performer got, away from the normal pressures of her life, as a result of lockdown, can account for the extra depth, the extra thought, the extra intimacy, here?

‘Folklore’ has also been called “lo-fi”, but actually the stylistic mood isn’t the most coherent thing about the record: ‘Exile’, her duet with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (another example of her examining seeing two perspectives to one story, here in the space of just one song), is several worlds away from the Cocteau Twins dreaminess of ‘August’ or ‘Epiphany’ which sound at least another six worlds away from the laid back country twang of ‘Betty’. What is coherent is a recurring feeling of being talked to, softly, by a gentle and reconciled mind: a mind you fall a bit in love with, but more in the way that you fall in love with the mind that wrote an excellent intertwined autobiographical short story collection than one who writes music. There’s startlingly little distance between performer and listener on this record, a unique feeling of confidentiality, and people will probably feel they know its creator far better than they did before they heard it – perhaps incorrectly in several ways, but that’s the way it has to be, with great art, because people are always going to bring their own paraphernalia to it. At a time when very little is positive, it feels like a friend telling you something reassuring. Hell is the journey but it might bring you heaven. If you never bleed, you’re never going to grow. The bad times are going to feel worthwhile. They’re actually an intrinsic, vital part of the tale of everything. And when, in the recent history of our planet, have we needed to hear sentiments like that, sung to us in an authentic, open voice, more?

 

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18 thoughts on “An American Singer

  1. Yeah I’m pretty much knocked out on the floor after reading this and agreeing so much. Taylor always writes without a veil of pretense, and this album is no different, but I agree that it was also written by a happy person. A person happy with herself, in a simple and confident way, and that has allowed her to tell stories with meaning but without layers of fluff and pomp and circumstance. I believe that with this one, more so than any of her albums, if had fell flat and sold 2 copies, she would have just shrugged and watched a movie with her cats, and that it HAS been a massive success probably hasn’t changed her reaction. I hope she finds your review, Tom!

  2. I absolutely adored this piece, Tom. You captured it so beautifully and…to know you love some good ole Tay Tay is very pleasing indeed.

    P.S.: not being able to tell a selkie from a selfie had me in stitches.

    P.P.S.: gotta go and listen to the album for the umpteenth time with a glass of Merlot now.

    1. Why can’t we just love Taylor’s version without it having to be validated by a supposedly more credible artist? Taylor is credible enough, and way ‘cooler’ than Adams.

  3. I spent many happy summers in ‘The Lakes’ growing up, and this summer traveled there while listening to this album. It was bliss 🙂 Glad I’m not the only one it has captured.

  4. Brilliant piece of writing. It’s an outstanding album and you’ve described the various elements that make it so, perfectly.

  5. Wonderful writing as always, now I have to listen to it and hope that I am similarly bewitched. I’ve never fitted any box either. One semi-pissed bloke in a working class corner pub in the Midlands, where I grew up and where I ran a folk club, once paid me this sardonic compliment, “You don’t get many of you to the pound, love.” I never forgot it.

  6. I, too, have enjoyed TS as a guilty/not guilty pleasure. Did not know about the new album. Great read here. Off I go to listen. Thanks!

  7. This is a lovely piece – though I’m not surprised having been following your writing for many years now.
    This is the first album of Taylor Swift’s I’ve taken much notice of, I don’t dislike her earlier stuff but I’ve never felt the draw of it, but this album is unlike anything I’ve heard in a while. The imagery and sound draws you in, and makes it very easy to get lost in the music.
    I think Exile is my favourite.

    1. oh you should definitely try out her album Speak Now!!! it is, in my opinion, one of her best albums in terms of storytelling – try not to cry to Dear John and Last Kiss, or Long Live, an ode to her fans. Speak Now, like folklore is also an album written entirely by Taylor alone (folklore has other artists in credits but they have said they either had a very minor role or only wrote the music, not the lyrics) and it really shows what a great writer she is

  8. Add in the layer of Taylor being rumoured to be closeted (or at least well aware of the Kaylor/Swiftgron rumours), and the sheer brilliance of her abilities as a songwriter becomes mind blowing. There’s definitely a deliberate double consciousness at play, and it’s impressive that she can write such touchingly romantic songs that both gay and straight people can claim as their own. She’s a mirrorball indeed.

    1. Never heard those rumours but just Googled it and looks like it is mainly coming from Tumblr with fans speculating from social media posts and their body languages (apparently everyone can analyse body languages these days).

      She also said this in the US Vogue September 2019 issue: “I didn’t realize until recently that I could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of. It’s hard to know how to do that without being so fearful of making a mistake that you just freeze.” (Source: https://www.vogue.com/article/taylor-swift-cover-september-2019) so as a casual fan, I’ll take her words.

      Agree with how her body of works can be related to both gay and straight people. I think that’s what makes her still consistently successful. She’s the epitome of too big too fail. Excited to see what’s next for her 🙂

  9. Great piece and thoughts. Thanks for your honest dharing. One note – think you mixed up the two songs here:

    The tempo change in ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ when she rhymes “boys only want love if it’s torture” with “don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t, warn ya”. The “oOOOh Nooooo” in ‘Blank Space’, …”

    1. Thank you. I didn’t mix them up (both bits are in Blank Space), I just forgot to chop out part of a previous observation when I did my edit. Thank you for spotting it!

  10. I’m a big fan of drag/queer culture, so I first heard Swift’s music in the numerous parodies made by the likes of Willam Belli. I was already aware of her in the way middle-aged people who no longer listen to the Top 40 can’t help being aware of super-successful pop stars, but I didn’t hear an actual Taylor Swift song until ‘Shake it off’ was played on the overnight bus from Belgrade to Ljubljana. I loved it – catchy tune and defiant lyrics. Unfortunately, we reached the Croatian border before the song finished.
    You can imagine my joy when I first saw the video for ‘You need to calm down’. I can’t pick a highlight, although Katy Perry as a sad burger deserves a mention.
    Swift is an amazing storyteller, and I look forward to enjoying her new offerings.

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