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RUMMAGING AROUND
IN TAY'S FOLKLORE

Every woman who’s done any living has one. That drawer, filled with matchbooks, ribbons, postcards, photographs, room keys, ticket stubs, torn-out articles, perhaps a button or forgotten journal, cards from people they’ve loved, a knife with a broken tip. To the casual observer, random junk; to the owner, an intimate jigsaw puzzle of their life.

And so we have folklore, the decidedly low-impact song cycle from Taylor Swift. Falling like a classic singer/songwriter record, waves of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly, Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, Carly Simon’s No Secrets or even Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope brush the 16 tracks steeped with confession, desire, tiny moments, betrayals and echoes of what was lost.

With The National’s Aaron Dessner as the major collaborator, as well as Jack Antonoff, deemed “family” and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, folklore is, above all, atmospheric. Soundscapes, often minimalist, though sometimes tempered with strings, set the tone for a reflective project that considers old loves, “Illicit Affairs,” short term dalliances in “August,” her own missteps and even an attempted apology (in “This Is Me Trying”).

Hardly the twee teen angst the above might suggest. Neither a bottomless pit of self-pity or the rage of a victim rising in revenge, the time in quarantine has given the 10-time Grammy-winner the space to exhale and think about who she is, how she got there and what she wants to be.

A few simple piano chords get picked up by a happy beat to open folklore’s conversational “The 1” suggesting a sunny invitation to come along. Balancing how her life is now, the wild thrill of their pairing and the amission “In my defense, I have none,” the young woman looks over her shoulder and smiles at the former lover. Life’s moved on, but she loved what it was.

What it was. The yearning “Cardigan,” another fistful of moments of one of those relationships, offers a truism—”When you are young, they assume you know nothing”—greater than failed love. Watery, lush, the song moves like a slow walk in the rain, the taste of his kiss still on her mouth all these years later, but the greatest comfort is how this lover “put her on,” made her feel worn like that beloved cardigan you can’t part with.

Even the Springsteen-esque “Betty,” where Swift offers the narrative of a chastened 17-yearold boy on the girl’s doorstep, takes a love that’s fallen apart and wrings out the details in the circling ways only an unsure boy would. She first cites “Inez,” who “You can’t believe a word she says most times/ But this time it was true.” Then she declares, “The worst thing that I ever did was what I did to you...” Harmonica /sculpting the track, “Betty” comes clean in hopes of what could happen. The narrator is humbled, hungry to right the wrong. And it feels so good. Redemption. Forgiveness. Seeking that happy ending in a real world where those things rarely happen. For folklore, with its Edwardian nightgowns and body-draping plaid topcoats, there’s a sifting of life without grand pronouncements, kneading reality until it takes form.

With the silvery sliver and powdery whisper of a voice, these songs suit Swift in a way some of her more bombastic pop doesn’t. Here she can stay in a range and velocity that allows her nuance, beckons and creates an intimacy with the listener--indeed, at times, offers a come-hither sensuality—in a most fetching way.

Even when the firepower is up—“Exile” with Bon Iver captures a man cuckolded, the woman feeling he didn’t try—the vocals register passion more than shouting. The tangle of the maplewood Iver and the fluttering Swift also offers a more complex reading of trouble between lovers than America’s Sweetheart usually delivers.

Perhaps having the momentum chill shifted how Swift comes to her music. Written remotely, recorded (as well photographed and videoed) “safely,” the distance illustrated the value of having room to breathe. “Mirrorball” takes on a heavenly Brian Wilson feel, while the good fun of “The Last Great American Dynasty” traces the history of her Delaware home from the Midwestern divorcee who drained the Standard Oil fortune (filling pools with champagne and making bets with Dali) to her own wild-child reputation.

Here Swift knows her foibles and weaknesses. On full display here, unapologetic about who she is, she’s sorry for whatever chaos she may’ve caused. To the plucked classical guitar of “Invisible Strings,” she runs through the green of the grass in Centennial Park, the teal-shirted teen working in the yogurt shop, but also acknowledges “cold was the steel of my axe to grind for all the boys who broke my heart.” Ultimately she confesses,  “now I send their babies presents.”

“Invisible Strings” offers the before of a fait accompli love song, suggesting all the bad, all the mad was just time killed before the inevitable. Plucked cello, winding strings that grow on the arrangement like ivy, she creates the picture of all that happened before love truly arrived.

Not that Tay Tay’s gone soft. She’s kissing on street corners, dropping F-bombs, tangled in sheets, furtive in parking lots; but just as determinedly the winsome “Mad Woman,” which is exhaled and spooky, presses into the notion that when pushed, she’ll sting. “When you say I seem angry, I get more angry,” she simmers.  “No one likes a mad woman, but you made her like that.”

She’s not naming names, but she’s dropping clues. Ironically, beyond the he-said, she-said, who-said thrill of chasing the lyrics, folklore may be more satisfying without plugging into the actual characters.

“Epiphany” is her “woke” moment. Recognition that no matter who you are, what your intentions, some things are larger than each of us. Floating, Swift makes peace with her helplessness and stands with those who need her. Most likely inspired by her mother’s cancer battle, she takes impotence and finds hope. “Peace” and “Hoax,” the last two tracks, serve as invitation and capitulation for that great love we all seek. She warns of what comes with loving her over a warm, watery track; she offers an undying pledge of everything she has, all that she is, in return.

This is not the Taylor of 1989, Red or even Reputation. It is introspective in ways that light the way, doubts when to do otherwise would be arrogant and offers her hand to those who want to venture into the woods with her.

Ironically, getting small opens a larger portal to Swift’s gifts. Reflection becomes her songwriting, allows her to winnow the melodies and images to their barest essence. From there, they can be strewn with a bit of guitar, a piano part most people can play—and the cracked emotions allow listeners to sort through their own memory drawers marveling at what their own disappointments, failure and triumphs have given them.

For the girl who likes big production, earworm anacondas, shiny, gleaming instruments and the over-the-top approach, what she did with her summer vacation is counterintuitive. Yet somehow ,listening to the entire song cycle, it feels like she’s made her way home and taken us with her.

 

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