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Asking others to do the dreaming is new for the 30-year-old Swift, one of the 21st century’s canniest exhibitionists. By unpacking her teenage diary with a country twang and then litigating celebrity romances over synth-pop, her first seven albums fed a public hungry for stars to let the world into their living room. But one of the delights of Folklore, an audacious and almost-too-rich feast of an album, is that Swift moves away from a solid sense of the first person. There are fictional stories, there are historical stories, there are personal stories—and there are all three in the space of single songs. “In isolation,” she explained on Instagram, “my imagination has run wild.” The outward-looking approach has made her a better writer, and it might just create better listeners.
With its woodsy black-and-white art, not to mention its title, Folklore advertises itself as an expected pop-star maneuver: the “back to basics” or “stripped down” revelation. But the album’s more complex than that, and does not conjure the image of Swift slumped over a guitar for an acoustic set. With the producers Aaron Dessner (of the indie band The National) and Jack Antonoff (the rock singer turned pop-star whisperer), she swims through intricate classical and folk instrumentation largely organized by the gridded logic of electronic music. Melancholy singers of ’90s rock radio such as Natalie Merchant and Sarah McLachlan seem to guide Swift’s choices, as do contemporaries such as Lana Del Rey and Lorde. The overall effect is eerie, gutting, and nostalgic. If Folklore is not apt for summer fun, it is apt for a year in which rambunctious cheer and mass sing-alongs have few venues in which to thrive.
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The transition from last year’s ultra-fluorescent Lover takes some getting used to, though. Dessner’s ominous chords, delicate rhythms, and smudgy instrumental loops have in the past complemented singers such as The National’s Matt Berninger, whose surreal poetry documents inarticulable feelings. But Swift is an artist defined by clarity; when she attempts ambiguity, it’s by planting solvable riddles. Even so, Dessner’s sound often suits her like a finely knitted cape, as with the grooving plucked strings of “Invisible String.” But sometimes the songs’ solemnity seems forced, especially during the shaky first third of the album. The conversational opener, “The 1,” has a suspicious whiff of Ed Sheeran. The lead single, “Cardigan,” is swamped by sepia. The Bon Iver duet, “Exile,” plods in the manner of bad musical theater.
Yet across arrangements both luminous and leaden, Swift’s writing is excellent—the stuff of which obsessive listening is built. Her melodies, while singsong and sturdy as always, convey depth with jagged cadences and curly, questioning inflections. She thrills in small, surprising word choices, like when she writes of early love that “expires” rather than dies, or when she accuses a jealous lover of eyeing a rival “just like he’s your understudy.” “The Last Great American Dynasty,” a portrait of the mid-century widow who lived in the Rhode Island mansion that Swift now owns, is economical and vivid, welding brief anecdotes to big feminist themes. Late in the album, amid the rambling harmonicas and guitar strumming of “Betty,” she commits an act of storytelling so suspenseful, it made me stand up and put my hands on my head while waiting for it to end.