Faced with some unexpected free time due to a lockdown inspired by a global pandemic, Taylor Swift turned inward. The result of her introspection was folklore, an album whose hushed atmosphere belies the speed of its composition and recording. Once she started the project, Swift turned to her longtime colleague Jack Antonoff for some input, but she also contacted an unexpected new collaborator: Aaron Dessner, the driving force behind the acclaimed indie rock band the National. Dessner's presence is a signal that folklore represents a shift for Taylor Swift, moving her away from the glittering pop mainstream and into gloomier territory. All of this is true, if perhaps a bit overstated. The 16 songs on folklore are recognizably her work, bearing telltale melodic phrases and a reliance on finely honed narratives that turn on exquisitely rendered lyrical details. Still, the vibe of the album is notably different. Sweetness has ripened into bittersweet beauty, regret has mellowed into a wistful sigh, the melodies don't clamor for attention but seep their way into the subconscious. None of these are precisely new tricks for Swift but her writing from the explicit vantage of other characters, as on the epic story-song "the last great american dynasty," is. Combined, the moodier, contemplative tone and the emphasis on songs that can't be parsed as autobiography make folklore feel not like a momentary diversion inspired by isolation but rather the first chapter of Swift's mature second act.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine