Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon steps in on Exile, a rich, textured track that blends two unlikely voices together in glorious harmony. The liberal use of autotune throws back to Vernon’s own Bon Iver, Bon Iver record from 2011 – it’s a strange mirror, as the first Bon Iver album was conceived in the woods after a breakup, and quarantine conditions give this record a similar isolated mythology. The effect is mesmerising, a whole world built in under five minutes. These moments build to climaxes and then die down again, creating a spectrum of sound and emotion across the album as Swift carefully catalogues her pains.
These sidesteps into indie-folk territory don’t stop Folklore from being a pop album and a good one at that – Mirrorball and August slot perfectly into the dream-pop genre, employing shimmering vocal reverb over a comforting aural blanket and Swift’s knack for catchy melodies and perfectly-timed key changes persevere.
Swift has been a master of reinvention across her career, and this album brings together all the threads, as well as adding new ones – Illicit Affairs, with its fingerpicked acoustics and soft horns, the banjo-driven Invisible String and the country-tinged Betty, harmonica and all, hark back to the days when it was just a girl and her guitar. In many ways, the record feels as though Swift is returning to her roots – there’s little trace of the mean-girl energy of 2017’s Reputation, or the sickly bubblegum cringe of Lover’s lead single ME!
There’s a feeling of expectations falling away, too – on Mad Woman, Swift drops the first-ever “f-bomb” in her decade-plus career, suggesting that despite the softness of this album, she’s developing her own steel. As the first album of her 30s, it feels fitting that Swift is putting boundaries firmly in place, both for herself and her audience – she’s more mature and measured than ever.
There’s something beautiful about the fact that this album was germinated, written and produced during a global standstill, and it does feel as though it could only have been made during this slow, reflective time. Swift’s currency has always been emotional honesty, but now it feels less like showmanship and more like a personal reckoning. Folklore is a clear-eyed, subdued affair that reveals a little more magic with each listen.